In conversation with Fiona Measham of The Loop

The Loop are doing big work for the UK’s club scene. They are a non-profit organisation that executes anonymous drug testing, as well as running drug awareness campaigns. Providing an alternative to the outdated zero-tolerance approach that dominates our education and legislation, The Loop are doing valuable work to change the conversation surrounding drug culture, including their recently launched crowdfunder Time To Test, which aims to provide pop-up drug testing in town centres. We sat down with Fiona Measham, founder and driving force behind The Loop, to discuss her work further.

Tell me about your first club experience and how it influenced your current work.

I first went to a club at 13 and first starting working in one when I was 15, just off Broad St in Birmingham. I was hitchhiking down to the Marquee Club in London every other weekend by the time I was 16. So I guess I fell in love with them from an early age. I loved everything about them; to me nightclubs were the pinnacle of excitement, the anticipation of getting dressed up beforehand, the love of dancing to your favourite music, meeting mates and of course, dates! Sheryl Garratt described it well in her book Adventures in Wonderland about the British rave scene, it’s like going down a rabbit hole and into wonderland when you walk into a club that you love. Even though I’m old enough to know better, I still think that!

What motivated you to start The Loop?

Frustration that not enough was being done to advise, inform and support clubbers, festival goers and party goers to keep them safe. I moved to Manchester in 1992 at the height of the Madchester rave scene when they had a fantastic ‘Safer Dancing’ council policy, free tap water and outreach workers in clubs; they pioneered the whole clubbing harm reduction agenda that was picked up and developed around the world. Then over the years, the UK seemed to be taking one step forwards and two steps backwards. Despite 95% of drug users being ‘recreational’ rather than ‘problematic’ users, hardly any resources go into advising, informing and supporting them. Combined with this, I’ve been doing research on dance drugs and dance clubs back to the early rave research of the early 1990s with Russell Newcombe’s Rave Research Bureau and it felt like my policy recommendations were repeatedly that we needed more harm reduction. So it felt like I’d waited long enough for other people to do it and I should try and do something myself. So myself and my friend Wilf, a DnB DJ and promoter, set up The Loop in 2013 with the help of a bunch of friends. It was never a life plan to set up The Loop, it was more of an accident really.

The Loop logo

With a recent expansion into more UK festivals this past summer and initiatives being set up at Manchester’s Warehouse Project, how would you like to see The Loop expand?

Our Night Lives report was published last week in conjunction with the All Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, Durham University and Volteface, in which we recommend that drug safety testing should expand from festivals to city centres, after two successful summers at a number of UK festivals. In the end we hope a national system of drug safety testing exists across the UK that all drug users can access, as the Dutch government funds in the Netherlands, and has been operating for over 25 years. We hope it will help to address our very high UK drug-related hospital admission and death rates, as well as inform UK and European early warning systems, and of course provide information to emergency services. Also, alongside the drug safety testing services already in operation for decades across continental Europe, there are also services setting up in Denmark, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. So it’s an exciting time and it feels like we have reached tipping point around the world with this. We have the technology to fairly quickly and fairly accurately analyse illegal drugs, so the important question to me is why not test? What evidence is there that not testing drugs is a good idea, bearing in mind that we have facing a global opioid overdose epidemic? Do we think that allowing people to take totally unknown substances in clubs, festivals and parties is a better idea than informing them about what is in these substances they have already bought on the black market and intend to take anyway, especially in the current climate of fentanyl, pentylone and other dangerous substances being missold as street drugs?

As well as running The Loop, you are also a professor of criminology at Durham University and are involved of lots of other projects. How do you find the time to do what you do?

I get asked that a lot. I guess I like to keep busy and time seems to zoom by: life is short and ‘you’re a long time dead’, as they say! But seriously, to me it all makes sense, it all fits together; there’s a synergy between my academic research, my policy work and my charity work with The Loop and elsewhere: I was a Rape Crisis Centre volunteer counsellor for over 10 years. I’m also honoured to have been able to introduce an amazing prison education programme called Inside-Out to the UK which has been operating in the US for 20 years. I was brought up by my Mum on a low income and as well as making me hard working and self reliant, it made me want to appreciate and make the most of any opportunities or experiences that I have. But I guess it’s easy to work six or seven days a week if you love what you’re doing and don’t really see it as work. For me it’s about hoping to make a difference if I can. Keep pushing on doors until you come up against one that’s closed! And of course I couldn’t do any of this without the support and encouragement of my close family and friends.

How do you think grass-roots movements like The Loop can help change attitudes to drugs and, eventually, change government policy?

It’s an interesting question: can a grassroots organisation influence government policy? Is The Loop a movement? The Drug Information Monitoring System (DIMS) in the Netherlands started out as a grassroots organisation and then was taken up and funded by the government, so I think it is possible to introduce bottom-up policy change. However, my experience of nearly ten years as a government drugs advisor sitting on ACMD shows how slowly and sometimes counter intuitively the processes of policy change can be. We all want policy to be evidence-based, so for now, my job is to gather together the evidence from The Loop’s Multi Agency Safety Testing to show how positive a drug safety testing service can be. I would hope that, by introducing drug safety testing to the UK in 2016, the Loop is helping to change attitudes by illustrating how sensibly many drug users do engage with our service. Not only can this help in reducing drug-related harm to individuals, but also it can reduce the impact of drug-related harm on the wider community, and health and criminal justice services. Aside from the individual and family tragedy of a drug-related death at a nightclub, it can cost up to £10,000 to the taxpayer, in police time to investigate it and so forth. We know that we reduced hospital admissions at Secret Garden Party by over 90% and we reduced drug-related medical incidents by 25% at Boomtown. So our service could help to reduce pressure on the NHS too. We want to build up that evidence base further and hopefully one day we will have a national testing service.

What resistance have you encountered when trying to set up tents at festivals and establish yourself in Warehouse Project?

I spend a lot of time in meetings with the whole range of stakeholders – police, public health, local authorities, licensing, academics, policy makers, business representatives and the events industry – and overall they are all overwhelmingly positive. I wouldn’t have started this process if this hadn’t been the case. However, there are some individuals who have been understandably hesitant at first. It is a big step, and in some ways counter intuitive to some people’s understanding.

We launched our ambitious Crowdfunder appeal today! We want buy a lab to travel to a town near you to carry out our harm reducing MAST provision 🙌 Please share to spread the message and help us get closer to reaching our goal! Thank you all for your support and also a big thank you to our dedicated volunteers who make this all possible! We have over 500 ✨awesome✨trained, experienced, qualified healthcare professionals, chemists & researchers. Thank you! 🙏 • • • • • • #TimeToTest #knowledgeispower #theloop #wearetheloop #harmreduction #drug #drugs #volunteers #gratitude #crowdfunding #crowdfundingcampaign #chemistry #chemists #lab #technology #tech #nightlives #nighttime #clubs #clubbing #bars #culture https://crowd.science/campaigns/time-to-test/

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How has UK drug culture changed since you started conducting your research into recreational drug use?

Firstly, the introduction of alcohol, alcohol sponsorship and branding to club cultures didn’t exist when I first started doing research at raves. Even some of the biggest rave venues didn’t have a license and the people going there didn’t want them to get an alcohol license as they thought it would bring in drinkers who would cause trouble and spoil the PLUR (peace, love, unity, respect) rave vibe. Secondly, the commercialisation led to an inevitable watering-down of the early alternative countercultural and subcultural elements as club cultures inevitably were absorbed into the mainstream. I grew up in Birmingham at the height of the Two Tone, ska and mod scene where the music was making an anti-racist and anti-right wing political statement at that time. To me, nightclubs can have a political, alternative or subcultural edge too and I’d be happy if that was a bit more the case. Youth should be a time of fun, experimentation, politicisation and rebellion. Thirdly, unfortunately the introduction of a monetary value to higher education with fees for students and KPIs for academics has pushed higher education towards a narrow neo-liberal individualism where academics pursue their own careers at the expense of collective creativity. One of the exciting developments at The Loop this year is we now have a collective of 50+ graduate social science researchers and academics at all stages of their careers including several Professors all joining the Loop’s research team because we want to pursue our research interests together . This is alongside 50+ PhD chemists who conduct the testing. So we have lots of potential for multi disciplinary as well as multi agency collaborations. Who knows where this will go, it will be fun to see!

If you are interested in the work done by The Loop and want to contribute, check out their recently-launched Time To Test crowdfunder, calling for pop-up drug testing facilities in city centres.

Questions by Jemima Skala

Image courtesy of The Loop

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