In an official statement, the Met said the footage was filmed outside venues on Curtain Road, Shoreditch as part of “‘a week of action supporting women’s safety” in December 2021, during which “one woman was arrested on suspicion of possession of Class A drugs”.
The force says that it worked with two licensed premises to run a drugs itemiser machine – similar to those found at airports – to test for the presence of drugs on people’s hands. If people did not want to have their hands swabbed, they were refused entry to the venue.
The initiative was in response to “a spike in incidents where women and girls have been made to feel unsafe or have been victims of crime”. A similar operation took place at ReVA nightclub in Gloucestershire at the end of last year in response to allegations of spiking incidents.
We spoke to Niamh Eastwood, the Executive Director at Release, a drugs charity focusing on law and policy, to find out if you can expect to have your hands swabbed every time you go out now.
VICE: Do you have to let the police swab your hands for drugs?
Niamh Eastwood: On the face of the law, absolutely, someone can refuse. The police have no legal basis to carry out random drug swabs. The power that the police do have to stop and search someone around drugs is under the Misuse of Drugs Act Section 23, which gives a constable the right to stop and search someone if they have a reasonable suspicion to believe that someone is in possession of a controlled drug. Clearly, the use of swabs is not sufficient to determine that suspicion because it’s essentially a fishing exercise.
So if you refuse, nothing will happen?
Well, that being said, if someone refuses the police might try to say that that [refusal] in and of itself indicates a reasonable suspicion. This hasn't been tried it in a court of law, but I would suggest that there would be very thin grounds for the police to operate on. The power to carry out the swabs does not exist, so that would lead to a situation where if the police officer arrested someone for refusing, it arguably will be an unlawful arrest and could lead to a complaint and very likely action against the police.
If the swab comes back positive but there’s no drugs on that person, what happens?
No offence has been committed – the police can't prove that you were actually in possession of drugs. Our understanding is that these drugs swabs are quite sensitive and could pick up the fact that you have indirectly potentially come in contact with drugs through bank notes, for example. It wouldn't be sufficient evidence to bring a charge against someone. In fact, if we look at the statement from the Metropolitan Police, it appears that the one arrest that occurred was after someone was observed trying to dispose of drugs, so it wasn't the drug swab test that led to that arrest.
From a drugs policy perspective, is swabbing outside nightclubs at all useful?
It’s the opposite of helpful. It’s more likely to increase harm to people rather than reduce it. If people do see the police carrying out intrusive searches, whether that be through this or using sniffer dogs outside nightclub venues, then what people often will do is preload their drugs – they will take everything that they have on their possession in order to avoid police detection. That could lead to serious health harms, including overdose. The Met Police have framed this activity in the context of trying to target violence against women and girls. I would argue that women use drugs as well and if they think that their drug use will lead to them not being able to come forward to report a crime or report harassment, that's a real problem.
The evidence shows us that it’s an utterly failed approach. The Home Office itself has done research into the effectiveness of the UK’s drug policy and found that despite spending £1.6 billion a year on drug law enforcement, it has little impact on the availability of drugs.
In 2015, VICE reported on drugs swabs being implemented outside clubs measures outside nightclubs? What happened?
It’s been going on for a while. With drugs policing, you see different kinds of patterns pop up and go back down again. From what we saw in that video, it was slick, it was more of a PR opportunity for the police. It’s just being seen to do something and the media will pick it up and run with it for a while before it disappears.
Is there anything else people should remember before they go out?
Make sure that you do as much research as you can around how to stay safe, be with friends or make sure that your friends know where you're at.
I think often what's missing is the responsibility of the nighttime economy itself to make sure that their clientele are safe. They should be working with organisations like Release and The Loop who provide drug checking – testing drugs rather than people – to try and make sure that the environment is as safe for their clientele as possible.
When it comes to criminal justice, don't say anything to the police without a lawyer. Don't admit anything. If you are unhappy with a stop and search that's occurred, complain about it. The police have to be held to account for their actions.