Making an impact

A drug checking service combined with brief intervention had a positive effect on participants at music festivals, according to a new study

Drug checking services can engage productively with young adults through tailored brief interventions, according to new UK research.

The study, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, collected data from people who attended drug checking services at three English music festivals in 2017.

Nearly 1,500 self-complete questionnaires were completed at sample drop-off, followed by the same number of face-to-face brief interventions with service users.

These interventions were delivered by teams of up to 30 health professionals trained in harm reduction risk communications, including doctors, nurses, pharmacists, psychiatrists, social workers and substance misuse practitioners.

Three months later, a sub-sample of 130 primary service users completed an anonymous online self-report follow-up survey.

More than 77% (n=1146) of the tested samples with linked brief interventions were identified as the expected substance—that is, it was the drug that they thought they had been sold or given.

A further 10.7% (n=159) of samples were substances other than what they thought they had been sold or given.

The remaining 12% had no expectation of sample contents, for example if found on the ground or gifted to them without information on contents.

Of those whose substance was not as expected, more than half reported handing over the substance for destruction or discarding any that remained.

Mis-sold substances included cutting agents such as benzocaine mis-sold as cocaine, New Psychoactive Substances such as N-ethylpentylone mis-sold as MDMA, and non-psychoactive substances such as brown sugar mis-sold as MDMA and salt mis-sold as ketamine.

The identification of N-ethylpentylone, a long-lasting cathinone, being mis-sold as MDMA triggered alerts onsite and via social media at two of the three festivals, resulting in festivalgoers handing in additional substances for police destruction that had been bought onsite.

For those whose substance was as expected, more than one third reported intending to, and recollected having taken, a smaller dose following engaging with the drug checking service.

Nearly two thirds of follow-up respondents reported ongoing changes to their drug-related behaviours in the three months afterwards, which they attributed to the brief intervention.

At follow up, nearly one third reported continuing to be more cautious about polydrug use, over a quarter continued to be less likely to buy drugs off strangers, and one fifth reported continuing to take smaller doses.

RMIT University drug policy expert Dr Monica Barratt said the new research is an important addition to the evidence supporting drug checking.

“Last month, following an inquest into five deaths from unexpected novel substances, the coroner recommended that drug checking services be implemented urgently in Victoria to prevent similar deaths,” said Dr Barratt.

“One of the criticisms of the existing evidence on drug checking is that much of it relies on self-report of intended actions. This paper is the first to follow up service users and demonstrates a strong concordance between intended and actual reported actions.

“The evidence base could still be strengthened by higher follow-up rates, the direct measurement of harms rather than behaviours associated with harms, and comparison with control groups.

“However, such research designs would require better data collection of harms on-site, increased funding and fuller legal amnesty.”

Lead author Professor Fiona Measham, RMIT visiting fellow and University of Liverpool Chair in Criminology, said the study sheds light on the decision-making process for drug users.

“We can see that, by and large, people are considerate and careful. It really challenges some of the biggest stereotypes about drug users and young adults,” she said.

Access the full study here

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