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.This article is by Henry Fisher, Health and Science Policy Director at VolteFace and a member of the testing team at The Loop.
Lincolnshire Police is clearly a force that likes to be ahead of the curve. They’ve just found a pioneering new way to counter the winter flu epidemic among Lincoln’s clubbing scene, which – as we all know – is spread with abandon on club doorknobs and handrails, facilitated by our shoddy hand washing practices.
How have Lincolnshire Police achieved this public health miracle? They've introduced a new anti-drugs operation that will ensure the clubbers of Lincoln will never again go out without first scrubbing their hands red raw.
Operation Waiver will require every person entering the police's randomly chosen club to offer up their hands to be swabbed for drugs, using a drug-detecting itemiser machine. People found with traces of cocaine, MDMA or similar on their grimy paws will be taken aside for a full police search. Never again will a pre-taxi line of mystery white powder get snorted in Lincoln without a side order of Carex and warm water.
Now, I’m only guessing, but I suspect improving the hand hygiene of the city’s recreational drug-using population was not actually the primary goal of Operation Waiver. Rather, this new plan is aimed at catching Lincoln's drug-using ne'er-do-wells, with their dirty druggy hands, red-handed.
I’m all for making the most of technology to better control drug harms in our towns and cities, but it’s very unlikely this will be the outcome of the latest scheme by Lincolnshire Police. First, consider how easy it is to avoid detection. Whether it’s through washing their hands, getting a friend to rack out the lines, using some kind of "snuff dispenser" device or even just simply holding a tissue, the inventive and dextrous clubber is more than able to find a way of getting their drug of choice into their body without coating their mitts in the process. Or, of course, if they would rather not risk getting pulled up and searched, the people of Lincoln can simply take their cokey digits to another club, one without police and machines on the door.
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Attempts to prevent people taking drugs through deterrence measures have a famously poor record of success. This latest ruse by Lincolnshire police is not new, either, having been introduced sporadically at clubs and pubs in the mid-2000s, when such initiatives were all the rage (spoiler: it didn’t stop drug use then either).
Worse, this measure is not only likely to be ineffective at achieving its intended aim, it could actually increase drug harms. When highly visible drug detection measures are introduced to door policies – whether it’s hand swabbing, sniffer dogs or similar – this increases the tendency of panicked clubbers to consume their entire night’s drug stash in the queue, especially if the scheme isn't introduced alongside amnesty bins. After all, can’t get nicked for drug possession if you've just swallowed them all, amirite? Hopefully I don’t need to point out why this is a Very Bad Idea which greatly increases the chances of adverse drug effects and overdose occurring, especially in the current climate of record ecstasy pill strengths and MDMA crystal and cocaine purities being reported across the board.
Nor, sadly, have Lincolnshire Police looked around for more useful alternatives to reduce the harms of drug use in their night time environment. Instead of adopting the same tried and failed initiatives, they could have invited The Loop to deliver our MAST harm reduction service in their city centre, testing drugs handed over by the public and delivering valuable harm reduction information to the people of Lincoln. City centre schemes of this kind have been running successfully for years in Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands, where drug testing services are well established.
Lincolnshire Police’s current approach only serves to criminalise clubbers, rather than make them safer, like a city centre MAST service would. In addition, while The Loop’s method allows new drug trends and dangerous samples to be identified and acted upon – we were first to identify dangerous pentylone analogues infiltrating the UK's MDMA market this summer – new drugs not already in the itemiser database would simply go undetected, missing a precious opportunity to sound the alarm before more widespread harm can occur. Similarly, while The Loop regularly sends alerts about high strength ecstasy pills detected in circulation, hand swabbing is unable to deliver this information, even if public alerts were a part of Operation Waiver – but it doesn’t appear that they are.
The cost of each itemiser comes in at around £20,000 to £30,000. Add in the police time needed to operate the machine throughout the night and that’s quite a price tag for an operation that is easily undermined, increases drug harms and gives Lincoln’s clubbers the festive gift of a criminal record. More enlightened solutions to dealing with club drug harms are readily available, and have the potential to reverse the trend of increasing club drug deaths in the UK, if adopted more widely. It’s time we tested drugs for people, not people for drugs.
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