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Calls for shift in UK drugs policy to halt increase in club deaths

By | Published on Monday 19 March 2018

The Loop

Drug safety charity The Loop is calling for major reforms to UK drug policy. Its #TimeToTest campaign launches today with a new report, ‘Night Lives’, showing that a shift away from harm prevention has led to an increase in drug-related deaths in night clubs.

The report has been jointly published by The Loop, drug policy think tank Volteface, Durham University and The All Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform. It states that drug-related deaths and hospital admissions have risen sharply in recent years, despite drug usage rates remaining fairly static.

This is due, the report says, to the government shifting its drug policy and resources away from harm prevention. With less tolerant rules, venues have become scared of losing their licences, adopting ‘zero tolerance’ policies that leave them ill-equipped to act effectively when something does go wrong. At the same time the strength of certain illegal drugs on the market has increased. All of which has made taking drugs in clubs and bars more dangerous.

There were 63 ecstasy-related deaths in England and Wales in 2016, according to the report, up from ten in 2010. Meanwhile, cocaine-related deaths were up to 371 in 2016, from 112 in 2011. In Scotland during the same period, they were up from 36 to 123.

During the same period, the amount of MDMA in the average ecstasy pill has increased by about five times. Meanwhile, the purity of cocaine has drastically increased, up to an average of 80%, and often as much as 90%.

Without proper drug safety provisions at UK clubs and bars, these changes in the UK illegal drugs market have not been tracked. Equally, people don’t know when they have purchased drugs that aren’t what they were expecting. As a result, people are not receiving the correct early treatment when they fall ill and signs that they might be in trouble are often missed.

The report sets out a number of recommendations, including providing drug testing services in districts with a strong night time industry, as well as drug awareness training for venue and bar staff. It also recommends the launch of an independent information service to reduce drug-related harm, and the wider adoption of drug safety policies already introduced at several UK festivals.

Director of The Loop, and co-author of the report, Fiona Measham says: “UK night life makes a vital contribution to our economic and cultural life yet we have reached an impasse. Clubs risk closure if there is a drug-related death but they also risk closure if they attempt to introduce harm reduction measures”.

“By contrast, UK festivals have been introducing evidence-based and effective measures to address the growing drug-related problems faced in the UK”, she goes on. “Drawing on festival drug policy and practice, this report makes key recommendations to bolster our night time economy and to protect the customers and venues within them”.

Jeff Smith MP, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform adds: “Night-time venues are at the centre of British music culture – making our cities exciting and vibrant places to live while contributing over £66 billion to the UK economy. Keeping people safe requires more than zero-tolerance rhetoric around drugs and out-dated licensing laws. This report offers credible and tested solutions to help protect people attending events. I hope that venues, local authorities, and the government will work together to make these recommendations a reality”.

As well as the public safety aspect, the report does also highlight some financial considerations, as referenced by Smith. The night time industry in the UK is estimated to contribute £66 billion per year to the economy, but some flagship venues have faced temporary or permanent closure because of drug-relating licensing rules. Meanwhile, the police resources required to investigate each drug-related death costs the tax payer more than £10,000.

In recent years, clubs such as Fabric in London and Rainbow Venues in Birmingham have had their licences revoked following drug-related deaths on the premises. Both of these venues operated best practice drug policies, and their acceptance that drug use would take place despite efforts to prevent it were used against them. This highlights why other venues might not be so keen to be seen doing anything other than saying they have a zero tolerance policy, under current circumstances.

You can read the full ‘Night Lives’ report here.

The Loop says that it is already in talks with local authorities to provide drug testing in some town and city centres – so people know what kinds of drugs they have actually bought – in addition to increasing its presence at UK festivals this summer. In order to keep services free at the point of use, the charity has also launched a fundraising campaign, asking for contributions towards the organisation’s work as it becomes more in demand. You can donate here.

Watch this short film on drug safety work at last year’s Boomtown festival to find out more about The Loop and other initiatives: