The deaths of 16-year-old David Celino and 9-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbel in the same week in August have scarred the conscience of the nation. Their deaths, in separate circumstances and different places are equally tragic and serve as stark reminders of the human cost of our 50 year experiment at drug prohibition.
Though understandably much of the commentary has focused on the tragedy of their deaths coming so young, Just 25 years of life between them, it is clear that their deaths were not happenstance, but the brutal reality of a ‘war on drugs’ that fuels violence, causes undue harm and risk, and destroys families, communities and when we consider narco-states such as those in West Africa, entire societies.
David Celino from Worsley in Greater Manchester was celebrating his GCSE results at Leeds Festival with a group of friends at the end of August. “A beautiful, fiercely independent and warm character” Celino was taken to hospital on the Saturday night after falling ill at the festival and appearing at the medical tent, and tragically died the next morning.
Initial inquiries have suggested that his death may have been caused by an ecstasy (MDMA) tablet of “grey or black oblong shape”. His family said that ”Leeds Festival was the highlight of his summer – ultimately it was to take his life in the most unfair, cruel and horrible way, and we are broken.”
Catherine Hankinson, Assistant Chief Constable at West Yorkshire police, said: “While the exact cause of his death is yet to be established, one line of inquiry is that he had taken a particular type of ecstasy (MDMA) tablet, which was described as a grey or black oblong shape.” The force said its investigation into his death was ongoing.
Whilst the Police have distastefully described David’s death as an “isolated incident”, the reality is very different. David is the latest, and won’t be the last, in a list of likely preventable deaths from drugs at Leeds Festival in the last decade.17-year-old Anya Buckley died at the festival in 2019,17-year-old Lewis Haunch in 2016 and 19-year-old James Houghton in 2013. All three had taken ecstasy before they died.
In 2021, the council was handed a formal notice by a coroner to prevent future deaths at the festival following the deaths listed above. Sadly, despite measures implemented including campaigns around drugs and alcohol, the deployment of additional late-night medical officers, and the establishment of a ‘drugs advisory board’ these piecemeal measures weren’t sufficient to prevent the death of David Celino.
Melvin Benn, Managing Director of Festival Republic (who run Leeds Festival) said: “The safety and wellbeing of all our festival goers is always our absolute priority and we remind all festival goers that there is no safe way to take prohibited drugs and there are no safe prohibited drugs.”
This inane, clinical, boilerplate response is both predictable and pathetic. Melvin Benn has been in the business for decades, and is fully aware of not only the importance but in many cases the centrality of drugs and people who take them in terms of keeping festivals like his in business.
Benn has, to put it charitably, a mixed reputation when it comes to supporting drug testing facilities – and front-of-house services such as those provided by The Loop are yet to make an appearance at the festival – despite attempts to do so in 2017 when said that it was just ‘a matter of time’ – five years on and the absence of harm reduction initiatives continues to cut lives short on his watch.
Speaking recently regarding the provision of back-of-house testing run by the Irish Government at Electric Picnic festival, Benn said:
“If the Chief Superintendent catches you with drugs, trust me, he will wheel you to the prison. He won’t hesitate, he’s very clear on that but at the same time, what we can do to help, we should do. Ultimately, the best thing to stay safe is not to take prohibited drugs, it’s not that complicated.”
This ‘just say no’ fear mongering message is proven to be both ineffective and counterproductive, doing nothing to reduce drug use and simply encouraging risky behaviours more likely to cause harms such as overdose.
If Benn is really serious about keeping festival goers safe then he would drop the tired rhetoric and embrace evidence based solutions such as drug checking facilities, and use his prominent platform to call for substantive legislative change, including reforms to ensure wider and faster availability for drug checking licences to help prevent deaths like David’s from happening again.
Olivia Pratt-Korbell, “a little ray of sunshine”, was fatally shot after a gunman chased a man – both of whom had no links to her family – into her home in Knotty Ash, Liverpool. Subsequently, it was made public that the man being chased, and the intended victim of the shots that killed Olivia and injured her mother Cheryl, was a former drug dealer who had recently been released from prison.
Olivia was caught in the crossfire, a victim of a gangland hit gone wrong, in a neighbourhood that has been overtaken by organised crime, funded by the immense profits that drug dealing bestows upon those willing to, literally and figuratively, answer the call.
Her death, though we are yet to learn of the full circumstances, was at the very least made more likely and probably plainly the result of the decision that our political class continue to take to allow organised crime to provide drugs to millions of people across the country – and make exorbitant profits whilst doing so.
Decriminalisation would not have prevented her death, but the legal regulation of all drugs, allowing legitimate actors such as businesses or governments to produce and sell substances would (if done correctly) take the market away from illicit control, thus depriving criminal gangs of their single largest revenue stream.
Turf wars over who can sell drugs where, and the civilian collateral casualties involved with such feuds, would be ended if an effective legal, regulated market was made available.
Alternatively, attempting to avoid as far as possible the criminalisation of those involved with the illicit drug trade, in an effort to avoid the ruinous effects of a criminal record on job prospects and other life chances, might also contribute to a reduction in the scale of organised crime and the violence associated with it. As people who wish to get out of the business but have no prospect of success outside of the illicit world due to the presence of a criminal record, could pursue a different path.
There are no entirely effective policy solutions to any societal problem, least of all the complex issues regarding poverty, opportunity, mental health, abuse, trauma and vulnerability that drug policy has to wrestle with. But these deaths were not inevitable.
Calling Daniel and Olivia victims of the ‘war on drugs’ isn’t to absolve, for example, the person who fired the shot that killed Olivia of responsibility for the killing. It’s about making clear that these deaths were enabled by our failed, morally bankrupt system of drug prohibition and criminalisation – and could have been prevented if we embraced a different approach that would take power and money out of the hands of organised crime.
This piece was written by Jay Jackson, Head of Policy & Public Affairs at Volteface. Tweets @wordsbyjayj