Why are teenagers dying from drug overdoses when they should be having the time of their lives?

Janine Milburn still has nightmares about seeing her unconscious daughter Georgia Jones being put into the back of an ambulance on a stretcher last May.

Just four hours earlier, she’d waved the excited 18-year-old off to Mutiny Festival in Portsmouth with her sister Danielle, 21. Then at around 4.20pm, Janine received a panicked call from Danielle to say Georgia was having a fit.

Frantic, the 41-year-old mum of three from Havant rushed to the festival site to find a wall of party-goers and ambulances.

“I arrived just in time to see Georgia’s feet as the doors closed and instantly felt the anguish of not getting to see her. They had desperately tried to stop my little girl’s body convulsing on the grass for 50 minutes after she’d taken two ecstasy tablets,” Janine says.

“The tubes in her mouth were the only thing keeping her breathing. I comforted Danielle, who was distraught, and tried to stay calm as I jumped into the front of the ambulance to allow paramedics to treat her in the back. I told myself Georgia would spend a week in hospital and get a good telling off when she got home.”

Except Georgia never came home.

She died six hours after taking the class A party drug ecstasy (MDMA), and shortly afterwards, fellow festival-goer 20-year-old father of one Tommy Cowan also died through drug taking. A further 13 people were hospitalised after falling ill with drug-related symptoms onsite.

After becoming aware that a bad batch or dangerous high-strength of drugs was in circulation, the organisers cancelled the second day of the festival as a safety precaution.

However, the Mutiny deaths are far from isolated incidents. Georgia was one of 11 fatalities at British music festivals in the last two years. This coincides with the highest levels of drug-related deaths in the UK since 1993.

The widest demographic of ticket holders for these events is 21-25 years old – the same age bracket in which recreational drug use is most common – and one in five now admits that illicit drug use is part of their festival experience.*

“Young people are more vulnerable when it comes to festival drug use,” says Fiona Measham, professor of criminology at Durham University and co-founder of the UK’s first festival onsite drug checking service, The Loop.

“They are unlikely to have taken drugs many times before and may have a lower body mass index. That’s why a ‘traditional’ dose of two tablets is enough to kill a slight young woman like Georgia.”

The drug caused Georgia’s body to massively overheat, and she was found alone, wearing one shoe and no jacket.

“Georgia was the loudest person in any room – the life and soul,” says Janine. “She wanted to socialise every weekend, going to the cinema, house parties or restaurants, but worked hard during the week waitressing. She told me most things, like the first time she smoked weed around eight months before she died, and that she’d used cocaine a few times,” says Janine.

“It terrified me. I told her not to do anything stupid, but if Georgia wanted to do something, she did.”

By the time Janine arrived at the scene that Saturday evening, paramedics believed that Georgia already had brain damage. Her life support machine in hospital was switched off at 8.20pm.

“It only took a few minutes. Then she was gone,” says Janine. “All I could feel was emptiness.”

Janine spent the next two weeks in a blur of shock and devastation, surrounded by family. Then she decided she had to act, to ensure no other young people lost their lives like Georgia had. In July, she set up her Don’t Go With The Flo campaign in a bid to deter drug use by sharing the hard facts about what it can do to your body.

Janine says: “Education is our best defence. If I couldn’t stop Georgia taking drugs, I wish I’d taught her that there would be no second chances once she’d chosen to take something. At least if she had known what effects to look out for, she could have taken the pills slowly before it was too late to seek help.”

Like Georgia, Louella Fletcher-Michie never came home from a festival. She was found dead in woodland hours before her 25th birthday after having taken class A hallucinogenic drug 2C-P at Bestival in Dorset in September 2017.

Last month, the case hit headlines again, as Louella’s then-boyfriend Ceon Broughton, 30, was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison after being found guilty of manslaughter and gross negligence, having supplied the drug then failed to alert authorities while she lay dying just 400m from life-saving treatment.

Toxicology reports also revealed traces of ketamine and MDMA. At the inquest, Louella’s father, Holby City actor John Michie, said the family began their own life sentence the day she was found dead.

According to Hannah O’Riordan, who helped set → up the Festival Safe campaign last year, there’s no such thing as safe drug taking.

“That’s why our campaign focuses on giving non-judgemental harm reduction advice. Festivals are a community where everyone can play a part in keeping each other safe. We encourage festival-goers to feel confident about reporting incidents to the police or organisers, regardless of whether they’re implicated or inebriated themselves,” she says.

“Drug safety testing is also becoming commonplace, which allows for a more open conversation about the dangers and how to reduce potential harm.”

The Loop piloted at Secret Garden Party in July 2016. Users left their drugs in “baggies” at an amnesty box in the Loop tent, where they were then tested by chemists. Afterwards, users got the drugs back with harm reduction advice.

The service was then tried at Boomtown Fair in Hampshire in 2017, where four fatalities had been reported in six years. But the year The Loop was onsite, there were none. By 2018, it had tested drugs at seven festivals and 8,000 people had used the service, with cocaine and ketamine being the most common drugs samples handed in.

One reason for an escalation in deaths is the drugs are stronger today than they were 10 years ago.

“Right across Europe, we’re seeing the highest-strength drugs we’ve ever had,” Fiona says. “These days, an ecstasy tablet might be four times as strong as it was in 2010.”

But this isn’t the only concern. One in 10 of The Loop’s service users discovered that they had been ripped off with “dud drugs” that contained contaminants or chemical substitutes known as “adulterants”, which can compromise the safety or effectiveness.

“We’ve found dealers onsite are twice as likely to rip people off as local suppliers who have some accountability,” says Fiona.

Last August, Leeds Festival reported a record year for the confiscation of illegal substances including MDMA, cocaine and ketamine. But despite bag checks, police patrols and sniffer dogs acting as a deterrent, Fiona says on top of those bringing drugs in, a further 48% buy substances within the grounds at festivals.

Jordan Blackburn, now 24, knows only too well how fatal festivals can become. The construction worker from Haverigg in Cumbria went to Kendal Calling in July 2015 with a group of friends. On the first night, they bought ecstasy pills through another friend, Simon Chapman.

Unbeknown to them, the pills contained a substitute called para-methoxyamphetamine (PMA), which made them 75% more toxic than regular ecstasy. It can cause some users to experience a delayed effect, leading them to take more too soon. It can also make the body overheat, leading to seizures.

“We wanted to make it a night to remember,” recalls Jordan. “I’d taken ecstasy once before at a festival, but it’s not something we’d usually do. There was just something more relaxed about dancing to music in a field.”

Jordan, then 19, and his best friend Christian Pay, 18, took two tablets.

“By the time we took the pills at around 6pm, I felt quite drunk on half a litre of Apple Sours and three beers,” he says. “We didn’t get an ‘upper’ straightaway. Instead, the fuzzy, drunk sensation got worse and I couldn’t walk straight.”

Jordan’s next memories are patchy, but he found himself feeling scared and alone, before a steward took him back to his tent, thinking he was drunk. He woke up the next morning, still feeling high, to hear friends ushering medical staff over to Christian’s tent.

“As I poked my head out, I could see a paramedic’s legs sticking out of Chris’ tent,” Jordan says. “When they dragged him out, his face was deep blue. Then I blacked out.”

Jordan was rushed to hospital, where he began fitting. He was put in a medically induced coma so dialysis could begin to drain his kidneys and his temperature could be stabilised. When he woke up three days later, his family were overwhelmed with relief.

Christian’s family, however, were not so fortunate – he had died in hospital. Jordan’s physical trauma subsided in a matter of weeks, but the mental side effects have been harder to recover from.

“I clung on for Chris. He was such an amazing person, who could bring people together and always had time for them. He had the stature of a tadpole but the heart of lion,” Jordan says. “I was lucky to have a second chance at life and he wasn’t. It shouldn’t take an 18 year old dying at a music festival to make people realise that these drugs can ruin lives.”

The tragedy split the friendship group apart. Chapman, who acted as the middle man in the purchase of the drugs, was sentenced to 16 months in prison, while the others struggled with survivors’ guilt and found it too painful to see each other.

Jordan deliberately excluded himself, saying many aspects of nightlife brought back painful memories. He’s looking forward to working again, after a four-year battle with anxiety.

Despite the good intentions of The Loop, there are concerns the introduction of testing services could normalise drug use, even if festivals have a zero-tolerance policy like nightclubs.
But Fiona argues that monitoring the UK drug supply can benefit everyone.

“Each drug-related death costs the UK thousands of pounds, from healthcare costs to police investigations. If festival emergency services are more aware they can give more effective treatment, reducing the burden on hospitals and the cost to our public health services.”

Georgia’s mum Janine has been actively supporting the testing, while Jordan believes his group of friends “wouldn’t have hesitated” to get their drugs checked if the service was around four years ago.

This year, the Home Office issued the first UK licence to a testing service. The Loop opened its doors to over-18s wishing to test their substances at a Weston-Super-Mare clinic, with pharmacists from Hertfordshire University and consultations with mental health charity Addaction.

“To lose a child, especially in such a senseless and avoidable way, changes you forever,” says Janine. “I can’t bear seeing it happen to other parents. I don’t want Georgia to have died for nothing.”

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