Sewage Spat at England's Druggy Glastonbury Festival

By Will Godfrey 06/28/11

Britain's most popular music festival has a longstanding tradition of drug use. Is that why organizers turned down researchers' requests to test the sewage from the event?

Good clean fun? Photo via

Glastonbury, the UK's biggest and most prestigious music festival, where the mud—if it is just mud—is always plentiful, went off well this weekend as acts such as U2, Beyonce, Primal Scream and Coldplay attracted 150,000 fans. But the event has had a hard time ridding itself of the twin stinks of sewage and narcotics this year.

It started when analytical toxicologists from the University of London proposed a groundbreaking scheme to discover true levels of festival drug use by sampling sewage from the 900-acre site's notorious toilets. Dr John Ramsay spent months planning the project, hoping that the results from an event where "the rules of society are a little bit different, a little bit freer" would be revealing. In particular, he sought to gauge the popularity of new psychoactive compounds and "legal highs," which skirt the law and are widely sold from stalls at the event.

But the festival's founder, Michael Eavis, indignantly vetoed the unsavory survey, stating: "The drug culture these days has changed beyond belief. What a cheek to even suggest there's a problem." He stopped short of saying how he would stop a squad of disguised scientists simply showing up and helping themselves to the overflowing latrines, if they chose to.

His words surprised regular revelers. One told The Fix: "It's very easy to get hold of any drug you could possibly wish for," while in the dance tent this year "everyone was wildly out of their minds on drugs." She conceded that "magic mushrooms aren't allowed anymore. You used to be able to buy them from stalls, but now you have to go up to the Stone Circle [a miniature 'Stonehenge' in one part of the site] and ask a sweaty hippy."

The local Avon and Somerset police force also took a skeptical view of Glastonbury's alleged clean-up. They installed new testing equipment at a nearby custody unit to detect banned substances, including those which find their way into "legal" highs. They also set up amnesty bins at the festival's gates, for ticket holders with cold feet to dispose of drugs prior to entry. Seizures this year were "predominantly party drugs" including ketamine, crystal meth, ecstasy, amphetamines and mephedrone.

The weekend ended with a sad twist when the body of Christopher Shale, 56, Chairman of the West Oxfordshire Association of Britain's Conservative Party and a "great friend" of Prime Minister David Cameron, was found in one of the festival's VIP toilets on Sunday morning. Mr Cameron said he and his wife were "devastated." The cause of death is so far "unascertained pending histology and toxicology reports."

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Will Godfrey.jpg

Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of TheFix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others. He is currently the Executive Director at FILTER. You can find Will on Linkedin and Twitter.

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