The UK has a serious drugs problem. Deaths linked to club drugs are at their highest levels since records began. Sixty-three people died after taking ecstasy in England and Wales in 2016, a six-fold increase since 2010. Drug-related health problems are also off the charts. Hospital admissions linked to cocaine have risen by more than 90 percent in the last four years. Data from A&E departments revealed by VICE shows an even more dramatic rise in the number of incidents linked to the drug.
It doesn't have to be this way.
Drug safety testing should be rolled out in towns and cities across the country, according to a report published today. The report – produced by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, Durham University, The Loop and Volteface – calls for action to reduce the harm caused by drugs in the UK's nightlife scene. Other suggestions include better drugs awareness training for nightlife staff and information campaigns aimed at drug users.
Drug safety testing is already offered in countries including the Netherlands, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark and Canada. The idea is that anyone thinking of taking drugs can take a sample of their stash for testing. One hour later, they receive a breakdown of the substances found in their sample and advice on how to reduce the risks involved in taking drugs. One UK event promoter told the report's authors: "I have sent far too many young people to hospital simply because they misjudged their dose, mix, or their drugs were not the substance advertised. Testing facilities would obviously be a game changer for young drug users."
To date, drug safety testing in the UK has been limited to music festivals. In the last couple of years, the service has been introduced at events including Secret Garden Party and Boomtown Fair. At Boomtown, where testing was rolled out as part of a series of harm reduction measures last year, the number of drug-related medical incidents fell by 25 percent. In other words: we already know these ideas work. Report author Dr Henry Fisher, from the drugs policy think tank Volteface, says: "It is now up to councils, clubs and police to work together to implement them."
Non-profit organisation The Loop, which runs drug safety testing services at UK festivals, has today launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for five pop-up testing labs across the UK. "With five labs we can reach far more people," says The Loop’s founder Fiona Measham. Providing services in town and city centres will also help The Loop reach drug users who might not go to festivals. Measham says: "We want anybody who’s worried about what they are taking to be able to access testing services."
Anyone who's spent much time in nightclubs knows drugs are a major part of the UK nightlife scene. Unfortunately, as the report acknowledges, everyone involved in the nightlife scene is forced to pretend otherwise. The authors note that "not a single dance club venue in the UK can confidently claim be drug free", but operators are forced to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to drugs, which is at odds with keeping their customers safe. "Venues cannot actively put in place the procedures, protocols and initiatives that would reduce drug-related harm, because they are required to maintain a fiction of a supposedly drug-free environment," the report states.
Promoters recalled times when they were prevented from spreading the word about dangerous drugs in circulation because of concerns about a venue or event's reputation. It’s worrying, but not particularly surprising, that nightlife operators would adopt this approach; there have been cases where venues have recorded drug seizures in line with police guidance, only to have this information used against them when their licence comes up for review.
Unfortunately, pretending that drugs aren't an issue in clubs doesn't keep anyone safe – which is why deaths linked to ecstasy and cocaine are on the rise. When drug-related deaths occur at nightlife venues, it’s obviously a tragedy for the individuals concerned. But the shockwaves from these incidents extend much further. There are the friends and families who lose loved ones. Then there's the wider emotional impact on venue staff and management, plus the paramedics and police officers who respond to the scene.
All this should serve as incentive to do everything we can to prevent club deaths. But there are plenty more reasons as well. As the report notes: "The moral case for failing to act until another death occurs in the night time economy is inexcusable, but the practical and economic cases are also compelling." The police incur significant costs in dealing with drug-related harm in the nightlife scene. Then there's the NHS, which – already stretched close to breaking point – is having to bear the burden of an increasing number of drug-related A&E attendances and hospital admissions.
In light of this, there have been growing calls for a new approach to drugs and nightlife. Jeff Smith, a Labour MP and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, says: "Keeping people safe requires more than zero-tolerance rhetoric around drugs and outdated licensing laws. This report offers credible and tested solutions to help protect people attending events. I hope that venues, local authorities and the government will work together to make these recommendations a reality."
There are promising signs this might be about to happen. Local police forces have largely been supportive of drug safety testing at festivals. The Loop says it is in advanced discussions with councils across the UK about rolling out its services, and hopes to be operating its testing labs by the summer.
On the other hand, the view from central government is less certain. A spokesman for the Home Office says: "Drugs are illegal where there is scientific and medical evidence that they are harmful to health and society. No illegal drug-taking can be assumed to be safe and there is no safe way to take them. We must prevent illicit drug use in our communities and help people dependent on drugs through treatment and recovery, while ensuring our drugs laws are enforced."
Nevertheless, Measham remains optimistic. "We’re hopeful central government will see the benefits of two years of successful testing at festivals," she says.
Regardless of what government ministers might think, the rising cost of Britain’s drug problem is becoming hard to ignore – as is the failure of existing drugs policies. As Fisher says: "Our young people, public services and much-loved venues are bearing the brunt of this failure."
Donate to The Loop's crowd funding efforts here.
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