In the late 80s the Dutch authorities responded to rampant ecstasy use by introducing 'Safe House', a compromise between the government and local promoters, which included innovative drug purity testing and free water, to ensure that the environment was as safe as it feasibly could be. Over a ten-year period in the 80s and 90s Holland's National Institute for Alcohol and Drugs recorded only two official deaths from ecstasy use.
Today Unity is the main Dutch organization that continues the initiatives started by 'Safe House'. Holland has been cited as the source of a recent surge of alarmingly high dosage pills in the UK, and Unity's purity tests form the basis of an alert system that warns relevant media outlets of dangerous pills in circulation.
Despite the UK government's increasingly draconian approach to drug issues, The Warehouse Project in Manchester has also been particularly progressive in its approach to harm reduction. It's employed the services of drug awareness charity The Loop, which is run by Durham University's professor of criminology Fiona Measham, to offer innovative front-of-house testing stations.
"I think harm reduction advice is only useful if people know what drugs they're buying," noted Measham, whose notification to UK clubbers of the deadly red Superman pills late last year brought about widespread awareness of the dangerous adulterant PMMA. "And the very nature of the illegal drug market makes it very difficult to know, and people are dying because of it."
Association For Electronic Music CEO Mark Lawrence explained to Mixmag that America's simplistic view towards 'Molly' (the US street term for capsules of MDMA) was also a problem, given the drug's tendency to be adulterated with scores of other dangerous substances.
"In many of these festival goers' eyes Molly equals pure, and pure equals safe," he explained. "But what we're finding is that what people think is pure MDMA might actually be cut with bath salts or speed or heroin, or any number of other substances. Education and testing empowers people to make informed decisions."
But while hoping for a nationwide embrace of drug testing facilities might be a tad optimistic in the current climate, some feel that if we don't start taking the first steps towards basic education on these issues immediately our scene could be truly at risk.
"Every time there is a death at a festival, there are calls for 'zero tolerance' towards drugs and calls by politicians to ban the festival," said San Jose-based lawyer Cameron Bowman (aka The Festival Lawyer), who is considered the national authority on the R.A.V.E. Act. "The festival responds with more undercover officers, drug dogs etc. but nothing is done to address the underlying safety issues concerning drugs. To keep following failed prohibition policies will ultimately kill the festival scene."
In North America there are a number of non-profit groups in operation that seek to educate the dance music community in harm reduction. Drugpolicy.org, Zendo Project, Maps.org and several more organizations have all been working tirelessly to highlight the success of alternative measures to ensure the safety of drug users, though the resistance to operating openly has certainly inhibited their chances of tangible success.