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Our features editor discusses the failings of our current approach to drug use in the UK and highlights the possibility for an alternative future.

Drug culture is youth culture. As students in Glasgow, I think we can all agree on that, regardless of our respective dabbling statuses. The National Union of Students (NUS) revealed in 2018 that two out of five students use drugs. The most common substances abused are cannabis, ecstasy, nitrous oxide and cocaine. 

Opposing these facts is the UK government, hellbent on a moralistic high-horse-esque route of drug criminalisation and punishment, which is ironic considering the sheer volume of coke scandals that Tory MPs have been embroiled in. Possession of Class A drugs carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison and an unlimited fine. Even business owners of corner shops touting poppers may be at increased risk of prosecution. Everything relating to drugs that can be criminalised is criminalised, and to show for it, we have the luxury of one of the worst drug epidemics in the world. An epidemic that worsens but never wanes. According to The Health Foundation, there are nearly three thousand annual drug deaths in England. Meanwhile, Scotland faces some of its highest rates of recorded drug deaths yet, maintaining its prestigious title as Europe’s drug death capital.

In theory, criminalisation may deter substance abuse, but theories don’t reflect reality, and this approach drives the drug market underground to the realms of the dangerous and unregulated. The antidote? Let’s take Portugal, a country that in 2000 disavowed this harsh judicial system of criminalisation, instead legalising drugs whilst enforcing a regulatory scheme focusing on public health, rehabilitation, and social work. This step saw the country’s drug deaths stabilise to a global low. I’ll have whatever they’re taking. 

This more socially just viewpoint is not held by the Conservatives in power, as they strive to craft a façade of control by asserting dominance over party enhancers. The Tories continually cling tight to a mantra of crackdowns on crack, believing it to be the only way to stamp out the epidemic, with Johnson himself even dressing up in police cosplay as an iconographic symbol of law and order.

David Celino. Georgia Jones. Tommy Cowan. Cerys Reeves. These are the victims of a UK judicial system favouring incarceration over people’s lives. Their deaths are not just tallies but bitter reminders of what a more liberal approach to drug testing and consumption in the UK could resemble. Switzerland, Holland, Czechia, and the Netherlands are other countries with reduced drug deaths due to their harm reduction approach, much like Portugal. Harm reduction techniques empower and support users through a lens of human rights and respect instead of demonising them. This holistic framework encourages safe consumption through testing practices, educational resources and social policy, which overall make drugs safer. If such a system was implemented in the UK, perhaps some drug deaths may have been prevented or even destigmatised, a crucial component of harm reduction, taking the shame out of using. 

September of this year saw a positive transition, with Ireland operating its first drug-testing site at the Electric Picnic Festival. The initiative proved fruitful, as the testing team identified and warned festival goers of Mybrand purple pills circulating, containing double the average MDMA dosage. Similarly, The Loop, a UK-based harm reduction and drug testing charity, often features at festivals, including this year’s Boomtown. The Loop seeks to provide information to users on drug testing with guides and further resources. 

However, the scope of these non-profits remains limited until legislation is implemented decriminalising drugs and enshrining mandatory testing in licensed premises across the country, whilst allowing testing to become easily accessible and destigmatised, to ensure those who should be testing their drugs don’t feel afraid or ill-informed when it comes to seeking assistance.    

Our benevolent leaders must accept that people will take a chance on substances regardless of potential prosecution, as evidenced by the stark death toll. Only the political powers that be have the ability to mitigate such dangers and end the epidemic. 

For more information, support, and testing advice, please follow the link to The Loop website:

https://wearetheloop.org/

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