Last month a friend of mine and his girlfriend were in line for a gig at the o2 ABC in Glasgow. During the ritual pat-down, security lifted a completely legal homeopathic remedy from his pocket and promptly ejected him from the building.
Scotland currently exercises a zero-tolerance policy to drugs in venues and, unfortunately for my friend, even homeopathic medicines are enough to have you hauled out of an event by security.
The nightlife scene across the border, however, is adopting a radically different approach, with some venues offering free, anonymous drug-testing services to clubbers who want to determine the purity and strength of what they plan to ingest.
Walk-in booths are expected to be placed outside clubs in Preston later this year with the cooperation of local police and in partnership with drug-testing charity The Loop. Similar schemes have been operating across Europe for years and one was recently piloted at the Secret Garden Party in Cambridgeshire last year.
There are, however, no plans to implement a project like this in Scotland, with critics arguing that open testing will only encourage people to take illegal drugs. Professor Neil McKeganey, founder of the Centre for Substance Use Research at Glasgow University, is one such critic, telling the Times that he is staggered that it is even being considered. In his opinion, open testing has a 'superficial and rather simplistic appeal', and may facilitate drug use. Speaking to SR, Harry Shapiro, director of DrugWise, called such claims 'nonsense' and stated that there is no evidence to suggest that the introduction of testing facilities would result in higher usage rates.
Katy MacLeod from Scottish Drugs Forum agreed with Shapiro, adding that at the Secret Garden Party, 'about one-fifth of people who received test results actually went on to dispose of substances as a result of engaging with the service'. Despite the resistance that the scheme has met north of the border, these results indicate that it empowered festival-goers to make informed decisions which consequently reduced drug use and drug-related harm.
Drug policy reform is widely supported in Scotland given recent statistics which reveal that drug-related deaths at clubs and festivals is a major crisis. Although the National Records of Scotland’s 2016 figures won’t be released until August, evidence shows that there were 706 drug-related deaths in 2015 alone. Heroin and/or morphine were implicated in the cause of nearly half of the total number of deaths – more than in any previous year – while ecstasy-type drugs contributed to 15 deaths.
Also feeding into the momentum for reform is the number of high-profile drug-related deaths in recent years. In Scotland, deaths from adulterated or highly potent drugs are at an all-time high and each year the drug market expands to offer new psychoactive substances to young people. In 2014,17-year-old Regane MacColl collapsed in the Glasgow Arches and later died after taking a rogue ecstasy pill. In October last year, 16-year-old Shellie Callaghan also died after taking a rogue ecstasy tablet at a house party in Midlothian. Lee Kelly, a business studies student, died after taking what he thought was MDMA at a rave in Glasgow last year.
All-too-familiar stories like these influenced an article published by the British Medical Journal last November entitled 'The war on drugs has failed', a contention echoed by the likes of the Royal Society for Public Health and the Faculty of Public Health. Current policies aren't working, and Police Scotland has faced heavy criticism for its 'stop and search' approach to nightclub queues. Reports say that officers turned up at Club Tropicana in Aberdeen with a sniffer dog and drug-detection device in 2015, incensing patrons who protested being made to feel like criminals. Mr Shapiro denounced this apporach as 'outrageous', before adding, 'you have to ask yourself, "is this the best use of police time?"'.
Katy MacLeod is equally concerned, arguing that these measures can only heighten the risk of overdosing: 'drug searches in nightclub queues can often have unintended consequences such as people swallowing drugs they have on them to avoid detection or simply pre-loading with drugs before entering the queue'.
Another flaw with the Scottish government’s national drug strategy isolates nightclubs and makes them appear complicit with illegal drug use when individuals adamant on taking drugs could just as easily head to the bathroom facilities of a nearby bar. Current policy would have Police Scotland standing with sniffer dogs outside every late-night bar and fast-food restaurant within a five-mile radius of a dance or music event.
Although not everyone is in favour of open drug-testing, there is a general consensus among health professionals and particularly among nightclub owners that the present system is not working. Current strategies are driven by a fantasy that Police Scotland has the manpower and resources to abolish recreational drug-use and, frankly, this is an unrealistic expectation.
Whatever your opinion though, the Scottish government maintains that it has no plans to reform drug policies even in the event that the SNP wins its independence campaign. It looks as though nothing is going to change north of the border any time soon, so my friend will have to leave his homeopathic medicines at home for the foreseeable future.