An interview with Bianca, Change Grow Live Recovery Coordinator and The Loop volunteer
We spoke to Bianca Alexander, a non-opiate Recovery Coordinator at Change Grow Live Manchester, who in her spare time works as a harm reduction volunteer with The Loop.
Tell me about your work with The Loop?
I got involved with The Loop five years ago, when I volunteered to work in the welfare service at the Park Life weekend music festival. The festival attracts around 77,000 people.
I wasn’t prepared for it – my day job at Change Grow Live Manchester was nothing like the work I did at the festival. I looked after people who had overindulged in alcohol and illicit substances and were feeling unwell.
People were bringing in their friends to the welfare tent one after the other - it was non-stop! But I loved being ‘on the ground’ and helping people.
What happens when someone comes to The Loop’s welfare tent?
First, we triage the person. If they need more intensive 1-2-1 support, they will come through to a bay and a volunteer will be assigned to support and monitor them. The welfare volunteers take observations, such as their temperature and alertness, between 30 and 60 minute intervals. When they are recovered, they are checked over by a senior volunteer like myself who will deem them fit to be discharged.
If a person doesn’t need further medical attention, we talk to them about what we suspect they’ve been using and give them some harm reduction messages. Afterwards, they can go to the chill out space and return to the festival. If people are still with us at the festival we support them to get home safely.
The type of people we see at festivals are the type of people who would never normally engage with a drug service, but they still need harm reduction messages. That’s what’s so valuable about The Loop - they are able to engage with an untapped community of people who use drugs. The main substances people are using are ketamine, powder cocaine, MDMA and alcohol.
Who else do you work with at the festival?
The Loop form part of a joint approach to safeguarding at the festival. We work alongside the police, the event organisers, and Manchester City Council who all agree the scope of our role. Our tent is pitched next door to the medical team and we work really closely with them. We also act as a ‘step down’ service if a person’s medical treatment has finished, but they are still too intoxicated to return to the festival at that time.
Festival goers can walk into our tent themselves, or sometimes friends carry them! A lot of people are referred to welfare by security. We work really well alongside the security teams and we helped them to set up a new policy. Normally a person behaving badly under the influence of drink or drugs would have been ejected from the festival. Now Security guards know to bring them to the welfare tent first. This in itself a huge harm reduction factor.
Tell me about The Loop’s involvement with back of house drug testing
In 2016 The Loop became part of a Multi-Agency Safety Testing (MAST) initiative (also known as front-of-house-drug-testing) at a number of festivals, and city centres, around the UK. This is where individuals can surrender illicit substances to us for the purpose of drug testing.
The Loop do not condemn nor condone drug use, neither do The Loop incite anyone to use drugs. We provide a clear disclaimer and legal information to all those accessing MAST. And to answer a question that I get asked very frequently, no, we do not return any surrendered substances back to individuals! Each festival where the Loop provides MAST, a special ‘amnesty area’ is set up where we have consultation space as well as a fully functioning testing lab with a full team of chemists.
Once our chemist team has tested the surrendered substance, we give the service user an indication of what the drug is and an idea of its strength. We only give verbal feedback and do not verify anything else. The service user then takes part in a 15-20 minute harm reduction session. Around one in five people will then go on to surrender further drugs on their person.
If something dangerous is found during the testing, we alert the organisers who communicate it out to the festival and via social media. We also make local drug projects aware using the drug alert system. We watch out for super strength drugs and fentanyl and we’ve found tablets containing 100% concrete. One year several people were hospitalised after drinking Poppers that had been sold to them as shots of alcohol.
The Loop is now carrying out city centre testing in Bristol once a month and are testing at 13 or 14 festivals this year. It’s getting massive due to the positive feedback we’ve had and the reassurance it gives Public Health England and festival organisers that people are being supported.
What are the benefits of working across two organisations?
I think there has been a big benefit as we can more easily share information about drug warnings. It has also provided volunteering opportunities for Change Grow Live staff, which has helped The Loop source some really knowledgeable workers for the team.
Volunteering with The Loop has given me a different perspective particularly with regard to reducing harm. It has changed my approach to my job massively and made me realise that it’s not just about providing substitute medication to people who are dependent on opiates - it’s about keeping somebody safe.
I currently manage over 300 volunteers across the UK and I think this will increase. To be a welfare volunteer the main criteria is that you need to care about people. However to become a harm reduction volunteer you must to be a doctor, nurse, social worker, probation officer or a drug/alcohol worker with a minimum two years’ experience and a good knowledge of festival drugs.
How do you manage to fit it all in?
I don’t sleep! During the day I work for Change Grow Live. In the evenings I’m on my laptop dealing with the harm reduction volunteer recruitment for The Loop and putting together staff teams for the festivals. As part of the wider Loop team, I also carry out training throughout the UK.
What advice do you have for young people who may be taking drugs at festivals?
If you use drugs or alcohol, don’t rush, take things slowly. Stay with your friends and let them know what you are doing. If you get in trouble don’t be scared to seek help. There will always be a service you can go to and you won’t get into trouble.
Look out for more information so you can be better informed about the risks and what to do if something goes wrong. For example, The Loop has run a harm reduction campaign call ‘Crush, Dab Wait’, which advises users to crush a small amount of MDMA and then dab it on to their tongue and then wait to see what the reaction is. This should help to prevent harmful exposure to super strength drugs.
How can someone become a volunteer with The Loop?
Visit The Loop website to find out more.