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The Extrema Outdoor festival as a stepping stone to a new view on drug use

Opinion piece in De Morgen

10-06-22

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Last weekend the tenth edition of Extrema Outdoor took place, for the first time with a drug test village. The drugs that the police confiscated or that the festival-goers themselves submitted, went straight to a laboratory on the grounds. The control on dosage and quality was not without result.

The organisers discovered three dangerous ecstasy pills and warned festival-goers through various channels, including screens at the festival site. Those who recognised the shape of the "Casa de Papel" mask, Mario Bros or an ace of spades, knew they had to watch out. This approach is a textbook example of a harm reduction strategy.

Harm reduction includes all interventions, programmes and measures that aim to reduce the health, social and economic harms of drug use. Critics describe harm reduction as romanticising or stimulating.

However, this has been refuted by several scientific studies. Nevertheless, in the broader social debate - and within certain social services - abstinence (complete and permanent cessation of drug use) is often put forward as the only acceptable objective.This translated into a repressive approach. Without the desired effect, on the contrary.

Drug use on the rise

In recent years, more and stronger drugs have become more readily accessible. The combination with the increasing normalisation of drug use in nightlife has the potential to cause harm.

Overall levels of drug use are very high and treatment agencies are seeing a rise in the number of referrals. Indications for this are measurements in the wastewater by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. All but one of the substances under investigation appear to be on the increase. This includes a tripling of measured values for 'crystal meth' between 2019 and 2021.

Harm reduction before, during and after use

Therefore, is it not time to start focusing more on harm reduction and less on abstinence and repression? Most users already apply various self-control strategies to reduce the risks.

They do this by paying attention to the combination of substances, leaving enough time between doses, staying hydrated and resting enough.

A step towards reduction and abstinence

These precautions ensure that people who use drugs do not end up in hospital, or worse. Harm reduction can also be a stepping stone to reducing drug use or even abstaining from it. This proves that harm reduction and abstinence are extensions of each other, with abstinence being the 'ultimate' form of harm reduction.

All too often, care workers still wrongly put the two forms against each other. While the best result will probably be achieved by a combined approach: curbing the use and limiting the consequences.

Finally, we can only encourage Belgian festival organisers to follow the progressive example of their Limburg and European colleagues this summer.

Tom Platteau, Eric Florence, Ludwig Apers, Corinne Herrijgers and Lieselot Ooms are connected to the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Antwerp. They developed the health app Budd, which helps people to deal with drug use in a healthier way.

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