"My hunch, when I hear of yet another seemingly pointless and preventable death, is that drug testing of this kind is desperately needed. But, as a medical man, I know it's sensible to base our interventions on more than just hunches."
When it comes to the issue of illegal drugs in the UK, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone more qualified and committed than Professor David Nutt; former chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (AMC), and now Chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD). I called him to ask him about drug testing schemes, where punters can have their drugs tested at clubs and festivals, and if they should be introduced in the UK.
It's a discussion that's intensified in recent months. Following the tragic death of Nick Bonnie this October at Manchester's The Warehouse Project, the super-club launched a drug testing initiative. The scheme is a research project led by Prof. Fiona Measham of Durham University, also a member of the ISCD, and part of a wider partnership that includes The Warehouse Project, the police, the council, drug charity The Loop, and Guy's and St Thomas' NHS trust. As well as being the first scheme of its kind in the UK, it also has the cross-sectional support of club owners, the police, local politicians and health workers, and faced little public opposition so far.
With the scheme now launched, does this signal a change of heart from the UK government in trying to tackle the recreational use of illegal drugs, and can the scheme become a useful tool in helping to reduce harm to the public?
Tests at The Warehouse Project are currently carried out once a month. If the Home Office testers find particularly alarming substances in the drugs, they put out public alerts via social media and digital displays inside the club in real-time. "The Warehouse Project's initiative is fantastic", claims Nutt, and is "about the best that can be done under current laws. They're putting together the data from social surveys which reveal what the clubbers think they've taken with forensic analysis of the drugs and pooled urine - not tracing anything to individuals - which shows what chemicals they've actually been consuming."
The official press conference from The Warehouse Project, following the death of Nick Bonnie.
It's hoped that the scheme will prove useful in collecting data but in terms of actively reducing harm, there are clear limitations to the scheme. The only drugs being tested are those confiscated by security, or handed into the drug amnesty boxes anonymously. There's no way for people to submit their own drugs for testing on the spot. More than that, there's nothing to say that such drug tests are a complete solution. As Nutt points out, "the testers might be able to spot some adulterants but, because of all the forensic wizardry people see on TV, I think many overestimate how much can be found out about a pill in a few minutes, and on a tight budget."
Also, it wouldn't be a debate about drugs without a harsh spotlight on the moral and ethical implications of it all. Nutt suggests that with a potentially successful drugs testing scheme, there's the possibility of people becoming blasé about their own well-being: "Psychologically, clubbers could see themselves as handing over responsibility for their safety to the drug testers; forgetting that no test will be able to eliminate risk." He stresses that if the scheme were to be rolled out on a permanent basis UK-wide, he'd want clubbers to "educate themselves about the risks, and to take full responsibility for their own safety."
Could a wider scheme that allows clubbers to test their own drugs be more useful then? For answers, we could look to Europe.
Energy Control was founded in Barcelona in 1997. It currently has offices throughout Spain, and offers drug testing services in clubs. After speaking with core member Mireia Ventura at length about their work, the organisation appears to have a refreshingly honest view of recreational drug use. As well as the issue of clubbers handing over responsibility for their drug-taking to the testers, critics often point out that these services could seek to legitimise recreational drug use; even going as far as encouraging people to take drugs because, in knowing exactly what's in their stash, they feel safer taking it.
Energy Control host information stands at Spanish music events.
When I raised this with Ventura she was, in line with Energy Control's ethos, candid:
"Our drug checking service is effective precisely because it takes these circumstances into account. An integrated drug checking service creates awareness about a drug's effects and side effects, educates users about the methods of risk reduction, and thereby reduces the risks for drug users. Research has revealed that integrated drug testing methods do not stimulate increased drug use, and may even slightly reduce drug use levels among the target audience."
Energy Control has been operating in Spain for over fifteen years and considering the scale of recreational illegal drug use in the UK, it kind of puts our lack of similar schemes to shame. According to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Addictions, the UK regularly tops the list for the prevalence of ecstasy use in the general population. The 2011 report estimates that 8.3% of 16-64 year olds in the UK have taken ecstasy at some point in their lives. Spain, also considered by the survey as one of the "highest prevalence countries", has a much lower rate, at 4.9%. If nothing else, we seem painfully slow in acknowledging that a pretty decent chunk of the population take illegal drugs.
It's not just Spain that's being pro-active on the issue. Saferparty.ch is a similar organisation based in Zurich, Switzerland. It offers a range of services, including drug testing in clubs, and seems to have an even more progressive approach to recreational drug use than Energy Control. Their mission statement is to "empower recreational drug users so they can have the best health conditions inside a chosen lifestyle." For some this may seem tantamount to encouragement, but they insist that this perspective comes from the belief that, for most clubbers:
"Drug use is only a reality during a chapter of their life. The main methods [of testing] are providing neutral facts, and giving feedback and advice related to a concrete, individual situation. A short risk assessment is part of the consultation. This helps to recognise problematic drug use, and to provide additional help as early as possible."
It's an approach that can seem hard to argue against. If thousands of punters are going to take illegal drugs every weekend, it makes sense to try and make the experience as safe as possible. Encouraging as he is about The Warehouse Project's efforts though, Nutt highlights the need to be cautious about setting up similar schemes in the UK too rapidly:
"We would need some decent evidence on just how it should be done, so it works best, and without worrying side effects. Yes, let's try it out now at a few clubs and festivals, but let's be a bit cautious and invest in monitoring the results. Then, if it works well, and the facts speak for themselves, surely the political opposition will melt away."
That all sounds perfectly fine in theory, but what it unfortunately comes down to is that drug policy and scientific evidence rarely seem to work together. Nutt knows this better than most, too. After being appointed as an unpaid advisor to the then-Home Secretary Alan Johnson, he was shown the door in 2009 after a pamphlet containing a speech he'd made criticising the UK drug classification system was published. Shortly after, Johnson wrote a letter in the Guardian explaining his decision to give Nutt the boot: "His role as my principal adviser was to (unsurprisingly) present advice. It is the job of the government to decide policy…. He was asked to go because he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy."
Basically, it's all fine and well to give advice, but if that advice goes against what the guy you're advising thinks, he's going to ignore you. Oh, and don't make a fuss about it, because we'll sack you if you do. Despite Nutt's experience, it would seem unfair to brand every British politician as anti-progressive on the issue. There are MPs that support the scheme at Warehouse Project, like John Leech. John Leech is the MP for Manchester Withington, and raised the original motion for the support of the Warehouse Project's drug-testing scheme earlier this year. In his original statement, Leech seemed like the kind of guy the UK government could use moving forward: "Taking illegal drugs is still a crime, but this pilot scheme is about promoting public safety and awareness about the dangers of drug abuse. This isn't about ideology, it is about coming up with practical solutions to keep the public safe from dangerous substances."
John Leech, obviously.
In a bid to get some balance of views I put a number of questions to Leech about the scheme, but he wouldn't provide any straight answers. He did send me this statement though:
"In terms of allowing people to test their drugs before taking them, I'm not convinced this is something we ought to encourage. I think it sends out mixed messages. Do we really want people to have the ability to test how pure their crack is before taking it, and in essence encouraging people to kill themselves? I certainly do not. While instinctively I wouldn't choose to legalise drugs, I agree that we should take an evidence based approach. I am happy to have the debate, and look at the science with an open mind."
While it's nice to know he's against helping people kill themselves, he seems to have missed the point. Drug testing services are put in place specifically to try and stop people killing themselves. It's disheartening to hear this from an MP too. His reaction is emblematic of the problems that are often encountered when it comes to having a frank discussion about drug policy, but having that come from a potential policy-maker is even worse. Taking a step back too, you could say that such mixed messages don't tally up with how other moral and ethical issues are treated in the political sphere either. As Nutt points out:
"The best comparison is the policies relating to underage sex; another illegal activity with risks to well-being that can be seen through a moral viewpoint, or a pragmatic, harm reduction viewpoint. The moralists have opposed education, the supply of condoms and the morning-after-pill to underage people. Gradually, society came to see that this approach increased the problem. Now, despite underage sex being illegal, young people learn about sexual health and can access contraception."
In short: if people are going to do it, then they should have access to services that allow them to do so with (hopefully) minimal risk involved. Nutt also feel that there's a marked double standard in how different drugs are treated politically too:
"Looking at policies relating to other Class A drugs, Thatcher, the last Prime Minister with a scientific education, was persuaded that supplying clean needles to heroin users would reduce harm; and, of course, it did. The difference with these two examples is that both teenagers and heroin addicts are seen as vulnerable. Clubbers who would benefit from drug testing just want a good time. I think society might have a harder time accepting the need for their safety to be protected."
This seems to be where the issue really lies: politically, it's not seen as a viable option to support a service that acknowledges that thousands of people take illegal drugs. If policy makers really are dedicated to the public good, introducing drug testing services at clubs and festivals could be one way of doing this. These schemes could save lives. It's about time someone in charge acknowledged it.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickcarnegy