Why we should test drugs for safety

I have long advocated for better drug laws that focus on people’s health and safety and put an end to the needless criminalisation of millions who use drugs. To me, these are the only drug policies that work. 

In the face of sluggish national reform on harm reduction, I’m pleased to see local action leading the way (at last) in the UK. Last year, I welcomed Durham County Chief Constable Mike Barton’s announcement that he will trial a heroin distribution programme for the roughly 2,000 people who use the drug in his jurisdiction. It is positive to see a number of other cities, most notably Glasgow, also looking to introduce supervised drug consumption rooms.

In addition, police forces in the likes of Durham and Bristol should be applauded for piloting 'diversion' schemes, in which people caught in possession are diverted away from the criminal justice system into treatment or education programmes.

More recently, I was heartened to read about The Loop, a brilliant charity that offers hassle-free and anonymous drug safety testing at music festivals, concert venues, and, hopefully soon, in city centres across the UK. 

‘Multi Agency Safety Testing’ (MAST), as it is formally known, allows members of the public to bring substances they have purchased to The Loop’s pop-up labs for analysis. Their chemists analyse each sample using up to four testing methods to obtain an accurate understanding of the contents. Then they deliver the test results back to users as well as providing harm reduction advice and information.

After starting their work at music festivals, where drug use is common place, the Loop’s team are now hoping to expand their work to other venues and also to city centres across the UK. I think delivering drug safety testing in UK city centres would not only save countless lives, it would reduce the impacts of drug-related harm on healthcare providers, criminal justice services and the wider community.

There are plenty of reasons why drug safety testing is a fantastic idea. Take, for instance, the recent rise in the number of drug-related deaths due to ecstasy and cocaine in the UK, which are now at the highest level since records began. Hospital admissions for cocaine alone have increased by 90 percent since 2011. 

Many factors contribute to these saddening numbers, but our current drug laws don’t make things easier. In the UK, national drug policy continues to punish, rather than support, people who use drugs. As many street drugs increase in potency, they also become increasingly unpredictable and risky. Punitive laws do little to address problems like mis-selling and adulteration that have become growing public health concerns. This is where the Loop’s drug safety testing, supported by many police and crime commissions, can not only fill a gap, but will save lives.

Early data is very promising. The scheme has been so successful that Secret Garden Party credited the Loop with reducing drug-related hospital admissions by 95%. The Boomtown Festival saw a reduction of drug-related medical incidents onsite by 25%.

In a joint report, Night Lives: Reducing Drug-Related Harm in the Night Time Economy, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, Durham University, The Loop and Volteface have laid out the case for bringing this service to our city centres. 

Given the relative success of the festival programme, I think this is an excellent idea. If drug users are going to be taking unknown substances at clubs and parties, it seems common sense that they should at least know what it is in them.

The Loop’s latest crowdfunder campaign #TimeToTest is raising money to purchase the equipment required to run five regional testing hubs across the UK. Find out more about their campaign and how you can support it here.

It is thanks to policies like these that I remain hopeful about the possibility of drug reform in the UK. Eventually I believe we should treat drugs in the same way we do alcohol, tobacco or medicines,  where testing is unnecessary because they is sourced from legal producers and sold from accountable retailers.

But in the meantime, measures like drug safety testing remain essential if we want to see real reductions in the number of avoidable hospitalisations and deaths. That’s what harm reduction is all about: reducing risks, reducing pain, and making people’s lives better. 

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