Last week, the UK’s first drug safety testing clinic to be licensed by the Home Office opened its doors in Weston-Super-Mare.
Whilst this is a very welcomed and progressive move by the Government, they have not always been so favourable to drug safety testing.
Here is a timeline of their positions on drug safety testing:
July 2016 – When The Loop introduced Multi Agency Safety Testing (MAST) in the summer of 2016 at two festivals, Secret Garden Party and Kendal Calling, it received a significant amount of media attention. Many commentators praised this harm reduction initiative for being pragmatic in response to the rise in drug-related deaths at festivals, whilst critics highlighted that it could be seen to condone drug use. The Home Office rejected drug safety testing, stating in July 2016 that:
“No drug-taking can be assumed to be safe and our approach remains clear. Drugs are illegal where there is scientific and medical evidence that they are harmful to health and society. We must prevent drug use in our communities and help dependent individuals to recover, while ensuring our drugs laws are enforced.”
November 2016 – After Commander Simon Bray, the National Police Chief’s Council lead for drugs, stated that club drug testing might be useful, the Government responded that:
“While operational decisions are a matter for chief constables, the government expects the police to enforce the law”.
June 2018 – Jeff Smith MP asked written two questions relating to drug testing in March and June of 2018, and both responses confirmed the Government’s previous position:
‘No illegal drug-taking can be assumed to be safe and there is no safe way to take them.
While operational decisions are a matter for Chief Constables, the Government and the public expect the police to enforce the law.’
However, it appears that 2018 was the year that more pressure was put on the government to take a strong stance on drug testing, particularly at festivals. This is likely to be due to the deaths of two young people at Mutiny festival in May 2018. By this point, there had been 11 festival deaths in two years.
July 2018 – Thangam Debbonaire MP proposed a motion to discuss drug safety testing at music festivals and it was debated in the Commons on 6th July 2018. In response to the discussion, Minister Nick Hurd stated:
“I can confirm … that the Home Office’s position, and that of Ministers, is that these [drug testing] are local operating decisions that we are not standing in the way of. The fact that chief constables from Cumbria, Avon and Somerset and Hampshire have stepped forward and said that they do want to co-operate sends a strong signal”
“It is a local operating decision and we are not standing in the way, as is proven by the number of festivals deploying it”
The position was confirmed when the Shadow Drugs Minister Carolyn Harris queried the Government’s assessment of drug safety testing on drug-related fatalities. Drugs Minister Victoria Atkins responded:
“In relation to drug testing at festivals, chief constables are responsible for operational decisions in their local area and we are not standing in their way. We are exploring with the National Police Chiefs’ Council whether their advice on this issue needs to be clarified.”
November 2018 – Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott asked the Government for an assessment on drug testing at festivals and nightclubs, and whilst again the response was fairly similar, there was an additional paragraph given by Drugs Minister Victoria Atkins:
“The National Policing Lead for Drugs provided updated advice in the summer to all Chief Constables to make them aware of matters that they should consider if working with event organisers who may wish to use drug testing services. He is currently considering this issue further in conjunction with forces.”
December 2018 – Thangam Debbonaire MP asked what guidance had been given to police forces around drug testing. Drugs Minister Victoria Atkins responded:
“The National Policing Lead for Drugs provided updated advice in the summer to all Chief Constables to make them aware of matters that they should consider if working with event organisers who may wish to use drug testing services. He is currently considering this issue further in conjunction with forces and will produce further advice for police forces in the spring.”
February 2019 – Now in 2019, the Home Office has provided a license for the Addaction drug testing clinic. A Home Office spokesperson said:
“Anyone interested in lawfully undertaking activities which include the possession, supply or production of controlled drugs (including potentially the service of drug testing) needs to apply for a licence. They would then be subject to the usual considerations, visits and fees.
“A Home Office licence (for one year) was issued so approved research could be undertaken in Addaction’s clinic in Somerset in accordance with the terms of that licence”
It is clear that from previous statements given by the Home Office that one of their main concerns was that they did not want to be seen to be signing up to anything that risks endorsing illegal drug use. However, the turning point for the Government’s position on drug safety testing was in summer 2018, following the two young drug-related deaths at Mutiny festival.
Questions we should now be asking are:
What does the National Police Chief Council’s guidance say about drug safety testing?
And will 2019 see the wider roll out of drug safety testing?
Scarlett Furlong is Policy Advisor at Volteface. Tweets @ScarlettFurlong