All across the country cities and towns are recovering from last night’s frolics in the night-time economy and getting ready for the busiest night of the week. By and large the scene is dominated by alcohol use, but prevalent too is the unregulated world of illicit recreational drugs. Stories of contaminated and/or unknown dangerous drugs appearing on the market which inevitably lead to a young person’s death have existed for some time now (the story of Leah Betts being particularly prominent in the '90s), but our willingness to let ourselves and users to be better informed about the contents of a substance have lacked much development. But with harm reduction philosophies taking a firm grip within the mind-set of those in power, there is evidence that innovative projects have taken off and do appear to be working.
After meeting someone working in the heart of Amsterdam at the Stichting Adviesburo Drugs (a drugs research and advice organisation) I learnt about one such initiative that the centre established and runs.
The scheme essentially allows users to get samples of their pills, powders, liquids and other substances tested. You can get an ecstasy tablet tested for €2, and if it is already in their extensive database (approximately 20,000) you can find out the results immediately and have your pill returned. Substances which are required to go to a lab for testing cost €12.50, and results usually take 3 days to get back to the user.
So this allows people to drop their sample off on the Monday, and have the results ready for the weekend, peak-time for recreational users. The whole purpose of allowing such an apparent flouting of the law is to give accurate information about the contents of a substance which is often unknown due to it not being regulated and thus susceptible to numerous uncertainties. As a result, the information can then be used to make informed decisions about whether to take it, and how much to take.
But beyond this, there seem to be numerous advantages for a number of individuals and agencies involved in the whole night-time drugs economy. It was quite bizarre to learn the effect that was being claimed of this initiative – that it was actually helping to regulate the market – by providing a green light to the substances which are neither contaminated nor counterfeit.
In other words, this has given users a powerful tool in product selection – those pills which are not safe won’t sell, and so even apparently dealers have started to take advantage of the testing service, to make sure their goods pass the test.
Additionally, the multi-agency approach to information sharing ensures that knowledge of dangerous products are quickly circulated amongst key agencies, such as the emergency services, club security and other night-time economy workers. If a bad batch is out on the market, the guys at the Adviesburo will be among the first to know. Information can then be relayed to relevant people which can allow crucial time to prepare for emergencies and prevent excess harm.
Interestingly, a drugs testing scheme was recently established in Wales, ‘WEDINOS’ (Welsh for ‘after dark’, or alternatively the Welsh Emerging Drugs & Identification of Novel Substances Project), which allows the ‘…collection and testing of unknown / unidentified or new psychoactive substances and combinations of substances, and the production and dissemination of pragmatic harm reduction advice’.
Whilst there are plenty of similarities to the scheme in Amsterdam, such as the inclusion of a wide variety of relevant organisations, and providing test results to users, the Welsh project is distinguishable by its focus on ‘new psychoactive substances’, the hot topic of drugs policy with plenty of media sensationalism thrown in for good measure.
However, the service in effect still tests, and finds evidence of, widely known substances such as heroin, cocaine, ketamine etc. But I suspect that justifying the project by looking at substances which fall into a grey area of the law would have been easier than arguing the case for the testing of long-standing established drugs.
Now in the Netherlands, you might think it common-sense given their pragmatic approach towards many things that drugs testing services exist. But in the UK, trying to introduce innovative harm-reduction initiatives seems to have been a little more tricky. Certainly the legal frameworks provide sticky ground for such projects to work. If users give samples to organisations (such as drug service providers) then there are issues of ‘permitting premises’, and the transportation of illicit substances (from an organisation to the testing lab) puts individuals in an awkward legal position if found with them.
Undoubtedly critics of drugs testing schemes will claim that they do nothing to reduce levels of use or deter people from using drugs and they should be shut down immediately for sending the wrong message. But this I think is being naïve of drug use in our society. Young people will take substances regardless of the law – that I think is pretty well established (although I also recognise some of the arguments that Peter Hitchens makes… more on that another time) – the reasons they do are often complex and multifaceted (and certainly not all are negative or driven by addiction).
So if the choice is between someone using a drug which they have no idea what it actually is or how strong it is, or, having factual information about a particular substance from which a reflective decision could be made – do I really want to take this pill that has a bunch of nasty crap in it? – then the obvious answer is clear. If we are not ready to undertake fundamental changes to existing legislation, then there needs to be at least some wiggle-room and discretion for experiments and initiatives to be tested out, which are free from political and moral restraints and based upon solid evidence of how best to minimise harm. Drug testing projects are a step in the right direction.