← Back to portfolio
Published on 3rd April 2017

Is drug testing just around the corner for the UK?

Drug testing in our cities may will be on the UK horizon. Discussions are currently taking place between the police and the Home Office about the benefit of implementing this revolutionary service nationwide.

The scheme was trailed at two UK festivals last year and, after its success, the forecast is for many more this summer.   

Users can hand over a small sample of their drug, which then undergoes a series of chemical analyses. The results let them know the strength of their drugs and exactly what they contain, along with advice and information on how to consume them safely.

Preston would be the first UK city to implement drug testing. Lancashire police are currently discussing trialling the scheme.

Harry Shapiro, director of DrugWise, a charity that aims to give evidence-based and non-judgemental information about drugs, said that the scheme is not “not a magic bullet” as users may not understand or listen to the results, but if it comes hand in hand with advice on how to take it safely, he described it as a “perfectly valid part of a health and welfare package”.

But the power of implementing the scheme lies elsewhere. Shapiro explained that “It can’t happen without the approval of individual police forces who are by and large utterly stretched so nabbing people for the odd ecstasy pill in their pocket is not a police priority anyway.

“As long there’s no obvious antisocial behaviour the police have as much interest in keeping people safe as anyone else.”

Alex Stewart, a former member of the Metropolitan Police, said that many officers believe the UK’s current drug policy needs reform as they see first-hand the effect drugs like MDMA have on individuals and the community:

“It’s very rare in my experience to encounter people who’ve only taken party drugs and then become violent and certainly when I policed Camden town centre alcohol was the single biggest contributing factor to any kind of violence. It vastly outweighs the violence that’s done attendant to any form of drug transaction.”

Stewart wholeheartedly supports the idea of drug testing: “You've got a lot of people taking drugs already and we know from a raft of tests that are done when drugs are taken in from purchasing or seized in a raid that they're cut with all manner of shit.

“If people are going to be using drugs we do what we can to make the consumption of drugs safer, partly so those individuals are at less risk but partly so there's a smaller knock on effect on other public services that can't afford to have any additional pressure on them.”

Drug testing is implemented in cities in Switzerland. The country has proportionately less than half the number of drug related deaths as the UK.

MDMA is illegal in Switzerland too, but regarded as a soft drug, whereas in the UK it is class A. This means there is the most severe penalty for an offence involving the drug and is considered by the government to cause the most harm to user and society.

In 2008, the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs, recommended that MDMA be downgraded to Class B after an assessment of its harmfulness. The review stated that “there are few data suggesting negative impacts on society when directly compared with the other widely used class A drugs” and that “fatalities are relatively low given its widespread use”.

The review also recommended that “consideration should be given to developing a national scheme for the purpose of testing MDMA with a view to providing harm reduction advice and developing monitoring data”.

The Home Office rejected this advice on the grounds that it would give the impression to young people that MDMA not a serious drug. However, the number of users has only increased since it was made class A in 1977, with statistics showing an increase from 2014 to 2015 of 84% amongst 16-24 year olds.

Like it or not, recreational drug taking is and will continue to be an inherent part of the UK’s club and festival culture. Critics of drug testing argue that it will ‘normalise’ the use of MDMA. The abundance of its use amongst young people on a Friday night totally debunks this reason to not endorse harm reduction. It already is normal.

Henry Fisher, a chemist who volunteered with The Loop, the charity that carried out the drug testing at Secret Garden Party last summer, said:

“If someone’s already at a festival and they've smuggled their drugs in or bought drugs on site then they're 100% pretty much planning on taking them.”

In fact, The Loop found that where they tested drugs and told people that they're not what they thought they were, they often gave the rest of theim over to be disposed of so in that eventuality it means there are fewer people taking drugs.

Fisher said that the festival goers were very responsive to the advice given by the team:

“If they're casual users they don't necessarily know that much about their drugs or how dangerous they can potentially be or how to minimise those dangers. A lot of people that walk into our tent haven't spoken to a drug worker in years, if not ever and the last time they were told anything by anyone in any position of responsibly about drugs it was probably a policeman coming into their school and saying ‘all drugs bad, ok?’.

Having that dialogue with people in a position of authority but can deliver information that they can use can really make a difference to how they go about using their drugs.”

Such advice is needed now more than ever before. Since about 2012 the organised crime groups in the Netherlands, which is where most of MDMA and ecstasy pills taken in the UK come from, found a new way of producing large amounts of very high purity MDMA. This means that year on year pills have been getting stronger.

The Loop, through their testing at Secret Garden Party, found an abundance of high purity crystal MDMA and very high strength ecstasy pills with amounts of up to 250 milligrams. The average typical dose that somebody would be looking to take would be between 80-100 milligrams. This would be two to three times the amount that someone’s expecting which can seriously harm the body.

Anne-Marie Cockburn has been a prominent campaigner for the legalisation of ecstasy since the death of her daughter, Martha, in 2013. Martha was fifteen years old when she took half a gram of MDMA that was 91% pure, ending her life and leaving Cockburn a childless single mother.

Cockburn celebrates Britain’s recent adoption of drug testing, seeing it as a method of preventing other parents going through what she has:

“I'm so sick of hearing about drug deaths at festivals. That's not ok. That's somebody’s daughter or son. Yet another teenage coffin likely to be ordered after that. What kind of world is that we're living in? It’s not even news worthy often, you don't even see it anymore. We've got used to it.”

Cockburn has recently been working with Anyone’s Child, a campaign that aims to end the war on drugs through bringing together those who are bereaved or have lost a loved to the prison system because of drugs:

“There’s all sorts of ramifications for Britain’s failing drug laws and we’re all united in our recognition that whatever your views are, moral argument or otherwise, we know what’s in place isn't working when there are 10 people every single day in the UK dying from a drug related death. That's not ok.”

Cockburn believes that a death like her daughter’s is a needless product of prohibition and can be prevented by education, regulation and harm prevention schemes such as drug testing.

“In her naivety, Martha didn't realise that taking as much as that without really thinking about the purity would push her into the danger zone and she just overdosed by mistake.

“After she died on her Google search I found she'd been looking for ways to take ecstasy safely. She did want to get high but she didn't want to die. She was a risk taker, she was curious as many teenagers are but she wanted to live to tell the tale.”

The government has frequently seen Martha’s young, striking face alongside a plea for policy reform. Cockburn has written to them with her story countless times, just to be told the current laws are working. Cockburn disagrees:

“What more evidence do I need that that’s not true when I'm going to visit my 15-year-old in her grave?”

How many more tragedies like Martha’s will it take for the UK to change its line on ecstasy?