Chief constable wants safety tests for drugs

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The Independent Online
A Dutch system of "safe houses" where illegal drugs are tested for dangerous impurities should be considered in Britain, a senior police officer said yesterday.

Richard Wells, Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, called for more radical thinking in trying to reduce the harm that drugs cause.

He suggested that there might be important lessons to learn from the network of centres in the Netherlands known as "safe houses" where people can take ecstasy tablets and for about 80p have them tested to discover whether they have been mixed with other dangerous substances.

Mr Wells said: "This is about making the drugs that people are taking less harmful, in the same way as substituting methadone for heroin, or needle-exchange schemes.

"In Holland people from the drug culture, supported by government funds, go to parties and raves and offer a cheap service for people to test drugs.

"I'm not calling for that in Britain - the Dutch culture is a more progressive culture than ours - but we want to see if it is transferable. We don't know if it will work here, but we need to at least see."

Mr Wells stressed that any scheme would only work if it was part of a "three-pronged" approach to tackling drugs, that included law enforcement to reduce the supply and education to reduce the demand.

Hundreds of thousands of ecstasy tablets are taken - usually at dance raves - every weekend in the United Kingdom. The purity varies tremendously. Substances including amphetamine, heroin, bath scourer and fish-tank cleaner have all been found in tablets.

Such contamination has been blamed for a number of deaths. The issue was highlighted last November by the death of Leah Betts, who took an ecstasy tablet at her 18th birthday party.

The safe-house scheme has two testing systems. Ravers can take their ecstasy tablets to the safe-house table inside selected raves and clubs for a two-minute test that costs two guilders - about 80p.

Ecstasy tablets are also sent to the safe-house headquarters from 15 centres around the Netherlands for testing. The system is used by a wide variety of people from health workers and the police to ecstasy users and worried parents.

Mr Wells denied that considering safe-houses was pandering to the drugs culture.

"It's a practical aim which says, look, we're not going to be able to stop people taking drugs overnight, so let's look at the practical ways in which we deal with it," he said.

Nevertheless his suggestion is bound to provoke strong opposition from some sections of society, particularly the right, who believe that such projects encourage drug-taking.

But Mike Goodman, director of the national drugs advice charity Release, supported the idea. "Many young people in Holland buy two tablets at a time - one to take and one to test," he said. "This is not saying that we should be encouraging the use of drugs - but if people are doing it, there are ways of doing it safely."