Will testing drugs really make users safer?

While we wait for further research on initiatives like new drug checking services, the question of whether recreational drug use is suited to such facilities is still up in the air


Ian Hamilton
Thursday 28 February 2019 12:58
Louella Fletcher-Michie at Bestival 2017 with Ceon Broughton before she took the drugs that led to her death

Could Louella Fletcher-Michie’s death from a drug overdose have been prevented?

It is certainly possible. Her story, like all the others, is an individual case with its own particularities, but we do know how to make the chemical pursuit of fun safe.

One way is to provide free testing of drugs so you know how strong they are and what’s actually in them.

It initially sounded like good news when the Home Office approved a new service in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, where you can take illegal drugs to be tested. This appears to be an admission that banning drugs doesn’t work, or at least a recognition that if people are going to use drugs, the government has a duty to ensure safety.

As it stands, drug supply is unregulated, unlike alcohol or tobacco where quality and purity are scrutinised and standards are explicit. This leaves people like Fletcher-Michie effectively playing Russian roulette as they don’t really know how strong a drug is, or what it’s mixed with.

So whether you’re new to taking drugs or an old hand, those unknown ingredients or variations in strength can catch you out. Record numbers dying due to drug use are a testament to that.

It will be interesting to see how this new service works and who uses it. In some ways it makes sense to provide this service through a specialist drug treatment provider like Addaction.

But it will depend on how willing recreational drug users are to step into a service that is populated by people who are dependent on drugs.

Physically it’s not a big ask but mentally it could be, these clinics are not easy places to walk into, with a perception they are only for the desperate and hardened drug addict.

There is also the issue of age. Clinics are typically dominated by older men, and previous drug-checking services operated at music festivals were accessed mainly by much younger men and women. This mismatch between the profile of a recreational user and of those in treatment might put off the younger group from getting their drugs checked.

Putting young naïve users in proximity to older, more experienced drug users could create problems like dealing, exploitation and opening up access to drugs the younger user might not have thought about or previously been able to source.

Despite those concerns, I really hope the service will be used, as drugs like cocaine are getting cheaper and stronger. Knowing the strength of a substance is clearly important, we make choices about the strength of alcohol we want to drink rather than just consuming it and then finding out how potent it is afterwards.

Although some people will continue to find these unknowns an attractive risk, most like some information and control over what they consume, legal or illegal.

Obviously this drug checking service is limited to those living in or close to Weston-super-Mare, but until this type of facility is rolled out across the United Kingdom, there are some simple ways you can stay safe while using drugs. Take this example of three ways to be safer when using ecstasy:

1: Try half a pill first, wait to see how you feel before using more

2: Try not to use more than once a month

3: Don’t mix with other drugs including alcohol

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Although this advice is aimed at those using ecstasy, it’s good for any type of drug.

Using a drug checking service and following advice based on the results requires some forward planning, this runs counter to the spontaneous way that drugs are often consumed.

Equally, we know that people don’t always respond in a logical way when advice or education about drugs is provided. Some people may be attracted to using higher strength drugs when they find out strong ecstasy pills are in circulation for example.

So while we wait for further research and evaluation of initiatives like this new drug checking service, the only way we can protect people who use drugs is to regulate their supply and consumption. Perhaps this pilot drug testing service is a tiny step towards that, or just a glimpse of what drug policy would look like if safety was the priority, not populism.