ALMOST exactly a year ago, on July 9, 2016, the family of Megan Bell, from Seaham, received the news that any parent dreads most – their beloved daughter, just 17 years old, had lost her life at T in the Park, a popular music festival in Perthshire.

In the aftermath of the tragedy it emerged that the former pupil of St Anthony’s School, in Sunderland, had, either willingly or inadvertently, taken drugs. The inquest confirmed that she had more than three times the lethal amount of ecstasy in her system.

The Northern Echo: Fiona Measham, co-founder and director of MAST

Fiona Measham, co-founder and director of MAST

While we will probably never know for certain exactly how, or why, the teenager came to take the illegal substance, otherwise known as MDMA, the result was as inevitable as it was shocking – there was basically no way she could have ingested it in such a high concentration and survived.

It was this gamble, taken by large numbers of young people attending nightclubs and music festivals up and down the country every year, that lay behind the decision to set up The Loop.

Established by Fiona Measham, a professor of Criminology at Durham University, and drum and bass DJ Wilf Gregory, in 2013, the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) provides harm reduction advice and information, welfare support, drug safety testing and training at clubs, bars and festivals in Britain and beyond. Last summer, it made international headlines by introducing the UK’s first front-of-house drugs testing service, known as Multi Agency Safety Testing, or MAST, at music festivals the Secret Garden Party and Kendal Calling.

Here festival-goers could take their drugs to a specially designated tent to have them screened by The Loop’s volunteers – mainly doctors and chemistry professors – without fear of judgement or prosecution. Once they knew what was in them, which might have been anything from crushed malaria tablets to concrete, almost one in five chose to discard them.

Crucially, as all the analysis was done expeditiously on-site, where dangerously high-strength drugs were identified, warnings could be circulated to both the police and festival-goers. Had this happened at all music festivals last year, it may have been that the six people who lost their lives in the record high number of drug-related deaths may never have done so.

For Fiona, who, like The Loop itself, is based in Manchester, the decision to do something to stop such needless waste came naturally. “For the past 25 years I’ve been conducting research on changing trends in drug use,” she says. “There comes a point where you think, why don’t I set something up myself? There’s a need for more support for people who take drugs in nightclubs and at festivals.”

Fiona is perhaps uniquely well qualified for her role as The Loop’s director, having attended festivals herself from a young age and being co-author of the first British academic study on the relationship between dance music and drugs. In physical appearance, she confounds the stereotype with tousled, shoulder-length blonde hair and red lipstick. Her scholarly credentials have no doubt helped in her dealings with police and local authorities, however, and Fiona generally finds that she has their backing. This year, MAST will be rolled out to around nine festivals, and this has only come about through good relationships.

“We only ever go to a festival with the support and at the invitation of the local police,” says Fiona. “We’re there because they want us to be there. I think it helps to be a grassroots, bottom-up process of change. At local level there’s a real willingness and desire to have us there. The police have to deal with the frontline realities of people taking drugs at festivals. At Westminster, they have to deal with it in the abstract.”

That said, there has undoubtedly been a national warming of opinion towards MAST, with the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) now calling for all music festivals “where drug use is common” to provide testing as standard – a move which is backed by 95 per cent of festival-goers.

The sticking point is the perception of just how widespread drug use is. Though neither politicians nor parents may care to acknowledge it, Fiona cites that 95 per cent is recreational and the concern is that until we are prepared to acknowledge this, there will never be adequate provision for the needs of vulnerable young people at nightclubs and festivals.

For Fiona and her team, accustomed to dealing with girls in skimpy outfits left freezing, alone and intoxicated, the messages are clear – stay with your friends, make sure you eat and drink and, above all, exercise moderation. “It makes me sad seeing that they get into such a state, some of them,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important to have services looking after them. Sometimes we have to call their mum and dad.”

What is clear is that, while a risk remains to young people, schemes like MAST are badly needed. In 2015, a record 3,674 drug misuse deaths were recorded in Britain, with 57 dying after taking ecstasy, largely due to an increase in purity. The North-East has the highest death rate in the country from drug misuse, with 86 deaths in County Durham alone between 2012 and 2014. Put simply, the situation is getting worse, not better, with stronger drugs and more people dying from them.

It was summed up by Megan’s father, Chris Bell, shocked by the ease with which she ended up overdosing on ecstasy. “It is a massive drug culture – drugs are as easy to get hold of as a packet of crisps,” he said. “People die every year at these festivals and it can’t carry on. We can’t let this happen to anyone else’s child. No other family should have to go through what we have.”