While the British government refuses to improve its increasingly archaic drug policy in the face of evidence and expert advice, other authorities have been left to take the lead.
This morning, West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson published a report laying out a number of recommendations aimed at reducing drug harms, protecting communities and making better use of limited police resources. One of the recommendations was to introduce on-site drugs testing, a service offered by harm reduction organisation The Loop, whose co-founder Fiona Measham revealed this morning that there are already plans to roll out their testing labs to three as-yet undisclosed UK town and city centres within a matter of weeks.
"Three town and city centres are onboard for us to be delivering in spring, summer time, and I think Birmingham will be the fourth once we've identified where the testing might happen," said Measham over the phone. "The testing could be in a nightclub, but also in town centres. It could be in a pop-up lab, it could be in a Portkabin, it could be in a church. You know, there are lots of possibilities. It would depend on local knowledge about where the best venue would be."
The Loop's service is this: take your drugs, whatever they may be, to one of their staff members. A tiny sample will be taken to be tested for strength and purity. While you wait, there's the chance to receive tailored drugs harm reduction advice from a welfare officer. When you get your test results, you're able to see exactly what you're taking and decide if you want to take it at all – and, if you do, the information you're then armed with allows you to work out how to use that drug in the safest possible way.
The organisation – a partner of VICE's Safe Sesh campaign – has been providing this service at clubs and festivals for a couple of years, and last summer expanded to six festivals, including Boomtown. There, they tested 1,132 samples and gave over 2,000 festival-goers tailored harm reduction advice. "The head of the paramedics and the head of welfare [at Boomtown] both said they had seen significantly lower drug-related problems coming to them this year, and were adamant this was because we were onsite," Measham told VICE at the time. Towards the end of last year's festival season, The Loop also tweeted that every medical and welfare organisation their staff had spoken to agreed that on-site testing can reduce harms from drugs.
Another harm reduction recommendation laid out in Commissioner Jamieson's report is "establishing a formal scheme to divert those suffering from addiction into treatment and away from the courts", an approach both Durham and Somerset & Avon police have been using for months, as revealed by VICE last year. The report also suggests training police officers in the application of naloxone – a medicine that can reverse heroin overdoses – as well as prescribing heroin in a medical setting and "considering the benefits of Drug Consumption Rooms [DCRs] to assess if they would add value to current services in the West Midlands".
In a press release, Niamh Eastwood, executive director of drug policy charity Release, said the call for DCRs is "rooted in evidence and must be welcomed", pointing out that, "By providing a safe and sterile place for people to use drugs, DCRs can save lives, provide treatment access, reduce strain on emergency services and make the streets safer for everyone. [...] Opioid-related deaths are now at a record high in the UK, and DCRs can help put a stop to this crisis. No one has ever died from an overdose in a DCR, anywhere in the world."
What the conservative press and Home Office will make of these suggestions is yet to be seen. As Measham said on the phone, the recommendations are "clearly going against the grain of government policy". However, they are also clearly sensible and – importantly – evidence-based.
"The report just opens so many doors," added Measham. "It opens the door for more police and more police forces to come out in favour of something they might have been thinking about already, but weren’t sure how it would be received – and I think this is going to be very, very well received."
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