making matters worse

Overly zealous drug laws are putting lives at risk

20th March 2019

“If we went out raving and we were both going to take Es but you scored the E, and I took it willingly and died, the argument is: ‘should you be held legally responsible for my death?’”

It’s a pretty simple question, posed by Chris Brady from The Loop, a drugs-testing and harm reduction service. It cuts to the core of an issue that, as a sometime recreational drug-taker who has had a few misadventures with drugs but thankfully survived to drone on about it, I’ve thought quite a lot about.

I’m not really sure if I’ve ever nearly died, but one of the times I felt closest I was surrounded by my mates, pleading for help, while they laughed.

I was in a dingy hotel room in Ibiza, struggling to breathe and losing my vision. Totally self-inflicted of course, no sleep or food for a few days which had been full of drink and a number of different drugs.

If I’d died in that hotel room, I’d have died because I had decided to do some drugs, no other reason

Eventually, one friend dragged me to a hospital. He wasn’t happy about it, because he was confident that I’d be absolutely fine and also afraid of getting into trouble at some point in the process.   

I’ve honestly no idea if I’d have died in that hotel room had I not gone to hospital. It certainly felt like it, but who knows? Though the lesson kids, either way, is to not act like you’ve got the capacity of a peak-Haçienda-era Shaun Ryder on your first “LADS” Holiday.

Let’s say I had died though (applause breaks out, fireworks, Celebration by Kool and the Gang erupts from sound systems across the land). If I’d died in that hotel room, I’d have died because I had decided to do some drugs, no other reason. Not only would it have been cruel to punish people who would have — I hope — already been suffering, but pointless and plain wrong to punish people who ultimately were not responsible. Wouldn’t it?

It’s not uncommon to hear young people today referred to, almost disparagingly, as stuff like “Generation Sensible“, or to be told that “young people these days are boring” because they don’t drink and do drugs at the same rate as previous generations. At the same time though, parts of the media and your UKIP uncle love to go on about drug-taking as the scourge of society, and paint young people who are just trying to have a good time, as criminals and junkies. The truth is much more complicated than either of these caricatures though, and only so much can be gleaned from surveys, statistics and figures, due to the illicit and stigmatised nature of drug-taking and the trade surrounding it.

What’s pretty clear though, is that people of all ages are still dying, hurting themselves and getting locked up in relation to drug use, with drug deaths at a historic high generally, as well as a number of deaths of young people at festivals and parties garnering significant media attention in the last few years.

Every life snuffed out early is a tragedy, and especially in cases like these where the only intent had been to have a good time. For decades, our approach and our attitude toward this kind of incident has been one of moralising, rather than pragmatism. Instead of looking at practical ways to avoid party-drug deaths, our current laws have been particularly effective at doubling down on these tragedies, by looking to place blame and criminalise people who have done very little wrong.

Tragedies

Following the death of 22-year old Joanna Burns after taking MDMA while on a night out in Sheffield in 2017, her close friend Katherine Lavin received a 6-month suspended jail sentence for supplying the drugs. Lavin had been the one among her friends to collect the drugs which they’d all agreed to buy, from a bartender friend Benjamin Williams, who was jailed for two and a half years.

Similarly, after the death of 19-year old Lincoln University student, Ashley Hughes in 2015, two of his friends were charged for supplying him with the drugs and both served time in a young offender’s institution.  

Prohibition can make people reluctant to seek help because they’re scared of the police, and adverse consequences

A recent court case concerning the death of Louella Fletcher-Michie, the daughter of Holby City actor John Michie, at Bestival in 2017 concluded with Fletcher-Michie’s boyfriend Ceon Broughton being charged with manslaughter. Broughton had purchased the highly potent psychedelic 2CP, and he and Fletcher-Michie both took the drug before the latter began experiencing difficulties and tragically died.

The last case is the most controversial. The sentence — eight and a half years for manslaughter — is much more severe than in many cases, but this reflects the fact that Broughton failed to act to save his partner, out of fear that he would get in trouble. At the time of the festival, Broughton already had a suspended prison sentence. Regardless of the morality of Broughton’s actions, it’s plain to see how things might have played out differently had the threat of prison not made Broughton think twice about getting help.

Ineffective

As Lizzie McCulloch of drug policy thinktank Volteface, explains: “Prohibition can make people reluctant to seek help because they’re scared of the police, and adverse consequences.” But this fear can also cause additional problems in different circumstances. 

“Someone might have taken drugs and be worried about going to the hospital, going to a doctor, or even telling their parents. It’s not even just authority figures, it’s also about going to your own family even. Not just in the context of overdoses, but addiction and problematic use too there’s all this stigma which can make it difficult for people to get help.”

It’s fair to say that Broughton does bear more responsibility than the others mentioned, but ultimately, the issues at play are more or less the same. These cases force us to question the intent and priorities at the heart of our current drug policy, and moreover, they highlight the ways which prohibition can so often increase the risk of serious harm befalling recreational and party users. Young people have died in these cases, and others have had their lives ruined to varying extents. Isn’t it worth asking why this is happening, and what for?

Part of the problem is a disconnect in how people of different generations and social groups understand the drug trade and how people interact with it. According to Brady, the way that people, particularly young people, buy, distribute and take drugs has changed significantly in recent years. This is due to a number of factors, including the rise of the dark-web as a marketplace which almost anyone can access and purchase most illegal substances.

You can never actually know what you’re taking… So you can’t really be sure how to dose it

As in the cases of the university students mentioned above, it’s pretty typical for a group of friends to decide together that they’re going to do drugs, and for one to actually purchase them. The reasons for this are pretty obvious, and boil down to convenience, but are also attributable to the risks associated with buying illegal drugs.

It’s common for only one person of a group of friends to actually buy the drugs 📷 Debora Cartagena

“If you’ve got a group of five people it makes more sense for just one person of them to have contact with a criminal/drug dealer, than five of them going separately because ultimately you’re increasing the risk of getting lifted,” says Brady.

Prohibition’s counter-intuitive effects aren’t limited to relative innocents involved in “social dealing” being criminalised. Because the production and distribution of illicit drugs are left unregulated, to be handled largely by criminals, consumers don’t have access to a safe product. This inevitably leads to additional harms, as McCulloch explains.

“People don’t know what they’re buying, even if they’re going to a dealer they’ve gone to for years that they trust. You can never actually know what you’re taking, if it’s contaminated with anything or how potent the drug is, so you can’t really be sure how to dose it.”

Obviously people need harm reduction advice and education about how to take drugs as safely as they can

But prohibition doesn’t just mean that people don’t know what they’re getting, it also means that often they don’t know much about what they’re getting, or what they think they’re getting. Drug education for young people hasn’t come on much since the days of Zammo and “Just Say No”, and though parents, teachers and policymakers might like to think that ignoring the issue is the best way to go, ignorance can be deadly.

Though many drug-deaths are reported simply as overdoses, the truth is often more complex. In lots of cases, the taking of different drugs in conjunction with one another is a factor but many recreational users don’t know about the extra risks posed by mixing drugs, even with alcohol. Even the loveliest dealers don’t tend to provide instructions; safety advice and best practice information will never be thrust upon you and, even for those who actively seek it out, can be hard to come by.

Taking illegal drugs, or drugs of any kind, is of course inherently dangerous to some degree. But, by failing to equip people with sufficient information to reduce the risks if they do decide to take them, we are clearly contributing to those risks rather than reducing them.

Dosage can be hard to get right when you don’t know how strong the active substances are 📷 Tanjila Ahmed

“There needs to be two types of education,” says McCulloch. “Obviously people need harm reduction advice and education about how to take drugs as safely as they can. That might mean taking very small amounts at first, waiting a bit and leaving it and seeing how you feel and taking a bit more. It might just mean staying with your friends or making sure you’re well-hydrated, but not too well-hydrated.

“But there’s also education about consequences, it’d be really beneficial for festivals and others to share information about what would happen if you took your friend to the sickbay, and in what situations they would or wouldn’t get in trouble.”

McCulloch says that when this information isn’t forthcoming or even available, people tend to assume the worst, which can have fatal consequences.

Regulate

Putting aside all the above — as well as the wider context of death, crime and general misery caused indirectly by the effects of prohibition — if prohibition works in keeping the majority of people away from harm caused by drugs and the drug trade then perhaps it’s worth it?

Well, the reality is that in the decades since our government embarked upon the “war on drugs” it has become no more difficult to acquire drugs, harms are not falling and organised crime fuelled largely by the illicit drug trade still thrives throughout Britain.

The only way to actually reduce the black market is to legalise it and regulate it

Law Enforcement Action Partnership UK (LEAP UK) is an organisation made up of former police, intelligence and military workers, and others who’ve seen firsthand the futility of our current drug laws and the problems they have inadvertently created or worsened.

John Cross of LEAP says: “Realistically, no-one goes without drugs because a dealer has been arrested, not for more than an hour or two. Police only ever talk about disrupting illicit drug crime, never about ‘reducing’ it.” 

People are less likely to seek help because they fear the police 📷 West Midlands Police

This, Cross explains, is because organised criminals who ultimately control the trade are almost totally unaffected by street dealers being arrested, never mind when the people who’ve bought from these dealers are. If anything, criminalising people who’ve had little involvement with the actual drug trade could well be more likely to drive them further toward criminality.

The consequences of the disruption achieved by police under current drug laws can be severe and are often born out by communities that are already suffering. Cross continues; “Following arrests, a turf war may ensue as rival gangs move to fill the void. Violence increases and local communities pay the price for it. All law enforcement have managed to do is move the dealer along to the next house or the next street.”

“The only way to actually reduce the black market is to legalise it and regulate it. That is how you take control of it and that is how you put organised crime groups out of business for good.”

Harm reduction

In the short term, while we wait for politicians to muster enough courage to broach the topic of serious drug policy reform (let’s not hold our breaths, eh?), there’s only one viable course of action to try and stop young people dying and having their lives ruined as a consequence of prohibition. Particularly with summer approaching, it’s important for festival and event-organisers who haven’t already to change their policies toward illicit drug use, in order to save lives and protect people. This will start with adopting more realistic attitudes, according to Brady.

“It has to be about keeping people safe, which first of all means accepting that people are using drugs at these events. I’m yet to go to a festival where I’ve not seen people off their neck.”

And credit where it’s due, a number of festivals are starting to get on board with the harm-reduction agenda. The Loop have been attending more and more festivals and events in the last few years, which means that thousands of revellers who were going to take drugs anyway have at least had the opportunity to get them checked out and receive some harm-reduction advice from experts. Often, this is enough to impact their usage.

“The feedback we’ve had is that in general terms people who are still using the drugs they were planning on using will use it in lower amounts and take more care with it,” says Brady, who notes that he was involved in providing these services at dozens of events last summer alone. 

Notably, following the death of Fletcher-Michie in 2017, Bestival made the decision to have The Loop at the next event in 2018. A key thing to note about harm-reduction is that it isn’t harm-elimination. There will always be risks involved and it would be wrong to claim that services like those offered by The Loop would have prevented any previous deaths.

“Harm reduction services are only as good as the behaviour of the person who has engaged with it afterwards. In the case of Louella Fletcher-Michie, if a harm reduction service had been there they would have discussed the difference between 2CP and 2CB, they would have discussed the risk profile and the risk of combining it with other drugs, and they would have talked about the importance of accurate dosing. They would have got those messages, but whether they’d have acted differently as a result, we don’t know. That’s down to individuals’ decisions.”

We need to be providing access to these services anywhere we know people take drugs

Festivals are a start, and though it is relatively early days for the UK festival scene, with many organisers still yet to get with the program, tentative steps in the right direction are being made. The same can’t necessarily be said though more generally, as conversations about harm reduction are yet to seep through into the wider events and entertainment industry.

Cross also sees the all-round benefits of harm-reduction policy — particularly drug testing — and considers it a crucial first step to be taken by many more organisations.

“We consider drug testing facilities at festivals to be an absolute necessity. In fact, we need to be providing access to these services anywhere we know people take drugs,” says Cross. “Testing makes perfect sense from a police perspective. If testing helps reduce risk and potentially steer someone away from taking a dangerous substance, that can only be a good thing.

“At the end of the day, that could very well be the difference between saving a life and making the call that no police officer wants to make, to tell a parent that their son or daughter won’t be coming home again”

20th March 2019