Drugslab is a Dutch initiative we could learn some valuable lessons from.
Værterne for Drugslab, Rens og Nellie
This article is part of "Safe Sesh", a VICE harm reduction campaign produced in collaboration with The Loop and the Royal Society for Public Health. Read more from the editorial series here.
New-age music plays. A young blonde woman in her pyjamas sparks a lighter, then takes four long hits from a translucent pipe. Vapour fills the chamber, then her lungs, then the air. The substance is DMT, a drug found naturally in plants, and which is said to occur in the human body when one is near death. The woman relaxes into her beanbag and closes her eyes, beginning to hallucinate. Several minutes later she opens her eyes again, smiling and telling her co-host about "little men with pointed hats", before painting a picture of pink and blue cats.
The young woman is Nellie, her co-host is Rens and, together with their friend, Bastiaan, they present a show on YouTube called Drugslab. Each episode runs about 15 minutes, and features one of them doing a different drug every week. Highlights include Nellie crying at the cuteness of a teddy bear while tripping on 2C-B, a psychedelic drug similar to MDMA; her describing to Bastiaan the feeling of GHB as "like tiny pussy tingles"; and Rens cracking up at the similarity between boxing gloves and lobster claws while wobbling out on ketamine.
Oh, and this is funded by the Dutch government.
Drugslab airs as an extension of the TV programme Spuiten en Slikken ( Shoot and Swallow) and is produced by the Dutch public broadcasting association BNN. Despite only being in existence for nine months, Drugslab has over 430,000 subscribers and over 16 million views. Its intention, per its YouTube bio, is to "take in the drugs you want us to try. We do this in the name of science so we can show you what the effect of drugs are on the human body."
Its aim, at heart, is harm reduction – with factors like heart rate monitoring and dosage advice balancing out the wide-eyed grins and glass-eyed half-comas. It also places welcome emphasis on comedowns, filming epilogues hours and days after each trip, occasionally featuring Rens, Bastiaan or Nellie in states of emotional disarray.
"Knowing about the risks, and general education about drugs, is very important," Nellie tells me. "I learned from my past that if young people want to experiment with drugs they will definitely try, but they don't want to become addicts or poisoned. My hope is to create an openminded, honest and intelligent way of looking at drugs: don't close your eyes to the problem, but talk about it."
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Drugslab comes as our need for sound education at home is at an all-time high. The street purity of cocaine and heroin reached highs of between 43 and 74 percent in 2016, up from below 20 in 2010. The purity and amount of MDMA in ecstasy is also way up, contributing to the deaths of 57 people in 2015. Spice is wreaking havoc on vulnerable people on our streets and in our prisons. In fact, with 3,674 drug deaths overall that year – a UK record nobody wanted to achieve – you could say that the need to educate people about how to use drugs as safely as possible has become a national issue.
Something like Drugslab, it turns out, would be a good place to start.
The show engages viewers on a trustworthy level: its portrayal of drug taking is wholly realistic because, of course, it's happening there in front of you, thus when the education section begins one is not immediately sceptical.
For instance, when Bastiaan takes MDMA he doesn't come anywhere close to suffering psychosis – something that FRANK, the UK government-led drug education service, would have you believe is a possibility, despite the only evidence being "a handful of dubiously related case studies", according to Volteface, a think-tank examining alternatives to current drug policy.
Instead, he gags on the taste, has a good time and the next day feels like shit, which – with allowance for the ecstasy cases that do result in hospitalisation or death – is most people's experience on the drug.
"It's not that we're pro-drugs," Nellie says, "but we're living in a society where famous singers sing about Molly and getting high. We are trying to make videos that are easy to watch – with entertainment, but also with a lot of serious notes, for young people who want to experiment, but also for parents who want to know what their children may try so they can speak honestly with each other and, for example, make rules, just like you do with your child and alcohol."
I ask Nellie about the success of Drugslab. "We might be so successful because BNN has a good history of making programmes about sex and drugs for young people," she says. "First, everybody thought they were crazy. Now, it's totally accepted and people see the benefits of making these kinds of shows. We've got a big team with a lot of experts, and besides talking about the risks, we also have a lot of fun. It's really made with the best interests at heart."
That this type of thing would be funded by the Dutch government isn't all that surprising. The Netherlands is a country that long ago faced up to many of its responsibilities regarding drugs and its citizens. It's famous for its lenient cannabis laws, of course, but it also gives people the opportunity to have their drugs tested for free and anonymously at plentiful testing centres around the country – something the UK is lagging behind on terribly. Though the presence of The Loop – a drug testing service – at a handful of UK festivals is definitely welcome in 2017, it's a drop in the ocean of what needs to be done.
Realistically, so would a similar initiative to Drugslab. Even if something like it was created for a UK audience, it still wouldn't overturn decades of turning users into criminals and educating generations in a way that is wholly ineffective. Taken on its own merits, however, what is the effect of Drugslab? Well, having watched all of its videos I can say that, though I don't know everything about drugs, I certainly know a lot more than I did, and would be more trusting of similar information emanating out of the Dutch government in future.
Crazy, isn't it? Trusting a government, even a bit, on the issue of drugs. But this is where real drug education begins – with trust – and it's likely that any government willing to engage with things like Drugslab would at least inspire that. Then comes the hard part: using that trust to protect its citizens. And with street purity rising, and the body count increasing, it's time for the UK's politicians to take that first step.
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