It’s prohibition that causes “drug related
deaths” by creating a dangerous,
unregulated market

This article was published a day before a review by Islington Council revoked Fabric nightclub’s licence following the drug-related deaths of two teenagers. A response to the ruling is included below.

Last year I wrote for the CfL blog on the folly of the Psychoactive Substances Bill, and its moralistic, vague attack on the recreational use of so-called “legal highs” – a strategy which demands the undermining of fair justice and makes presumptions of guilt, establishing a microcosm of positive rights in the realm of intoxicants which is anathema to the fundamentals of the law of this land.

This year, the Bill came into force, and the Home Secretary who oversaw its development has become our Prime Minister. She also presided over a host of questionable decisions in ignoring the scientific recommendations from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs – the independent yet impotent body which counsels wilfully blinkered government policy on our long-standing A to C classification system.

Now Theresa May is in No. 10, it seems right to pick up on some recent developments to make the case for a real solution to the problems surrounding drug use.

Drug deaths this summer have been in the headlines, associated with the consumption of ecstasy pills – tablets which purportedly contain MDMA. One of the two particular risks identified has been the perennial problem of adulterated pills, often containing the less recreational but more toxic PMA. PMA produces general stimulation, dehydration and overheating, and also has a longer onset time than MDMA. While not necessarily lethal, its underwhelming and delayed effects often cause individuals to take more under the mistaken belief that they are merely dealing with weak MDMA pills; the double doses can then prove much more medically dangerous.

The other is the unusual prevalence in recent months of stronger pure MDMA tablets, reaching the potency of those in the rave scene’s late 1980s to 1990s heyday. This might be good news for the seasoned partier, but the ravers of the 1990s are now hitting middle age, and a generation of millennial drug-takers who have not grown up in the presence of such strong offerings are not prepared.

But how could they tell, in either case? Imagine a trip to the off-licence which yielded a bottle of vodka, marked and sold as containing 37.5% alcohol by volume. Imagine further that, mixed with soft drinks and happily consumed by revellers heading out for the night, it really contained methylated spirits, or its ABV was around 65% instead. Those who consumed it might not notice, might end up in hospital, and might even die. This is the situation drug users are dealing with.

The level of class A use has continued to fluctuate between around 6% and 9% of the population in recent years, and there is no sign that any prohibitionist policy will change that figure. People want to intoxicate themselves in a variety of ways. Whether you agree that it is their right to do so or not, it is a fact that it will not stop. Ecstasy deaths have been steadily and rapidly rising in the UK, from 9 in 2010 to 71 in 2014 – and there is no similar proportional rise in use.

There is a solution, though. The Cambridgeshire event Secret Garden Party has become the first in the UK to offer drug testing for festivalgoers, with no risk of prosecution or confiscation, and carried out in cooperation with police and local council alike. Those who intended to use illegal drugs, which will always be a sizeable portion of a festival crowd, had the opportunity to have them tested for strength and purity without fear of legal repercussions. Surely this is the right way – the first rung on a ladder towards decriminalisation and, eventually, legalisation and regulation. This endpoint would eliminate the risk posed by adulteration and unknown potency.

The effects of this illicit drug uncertainty echo beyond the occasional deaths of users, too. Nightlife in London is already being eroded at a catastrophic rate. The long-awaited Night Tube service, a step towards making our capital the twenty-four-hour city it rightly should be, ironically coincides with a plummeting number of late-night venues to actually visit. Despite London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s pledge to protect the night economy, recruiting a “Czar” to oversee it, his response to a recent petition admitted impotence when it comes to protecting clubs from the pernicious pandering of councils to wealthier interests. One of East London’s most loved clubbing destinations, Dance Tunnel, closed its doors for the last time in August.

It is against this existing toxic backdrop that the prohibitionist crusade crashes in – now the Fabric nightclub of Islington, cultural behemoth, has had its licence suspended under orders from the Metropolitan Police pending investigation of two teenage drug deaths on the premises. As anyone who has visited Fabric knows, the entry procedure is probably more secure than that at Heathrow. Yet, as well as the tragic and likely preventable deaths of the two victims, the venue is being punished for something far beyond its control – the ability to stop drug deaths does not lie with bouncers. Perhaps more shocking is the testimony of undercover officers who visited before the suspension to assess the venue’s adherence to its licence conditions. Wilfully ignoring the importance of harm reduction, one statement heavily implied that the patrons’ preference for water over alcoholic beverages was a sign of reprehensible drug use – an indictment of a permissive environment – instead of the correct conclusion that everything was being done to ensure the safety of those present.

There are millions of people in the UK who choose to take recreational drugs, and millions more who frequent establishments often associated with the activity and unfairly scapegoated when things go wrong. Prohibition doesn’t stop drug use, and it doesn’t reduce the risks of drug use. With calls for decriminalisation at an all-time high, and even The Times coming out in support, it is undoubtedly time to start heeding what so many have said for so long: adopt a policy that delivers what prohibition has never achieved. If Theresa May’s government is to produce “a country that works for everyone”, it must do so for these millions as well as everyone else.

Update (September 7, 2016)

In the early hours of September 7, after a seven-hour hearing, the members of Islington Council’s Licensing Subcommittee A chose to revoke Fabric’s licence, depriving the capital of one of its cultural institutions and destroying 250 jobs. Fought for by the Metropolitan Police and enacted by just three councillors, it is about more than just one nightclub. It is indicative of a stubborn unwillingness to accept that prohibition has failed for over forty years and will continue to do so, and shows that decision-makers are happy to destroy urban culture along this fruitless path.

The Night Time Industry Association immediately issued a rallying cry on the Town Hall steps as the meeting let out – “this is not the last word”. If we fight this injustice, it could be the beginning of a process which turns the tide of the war on freedom and nightlife. If we don’t, it almost certainly will be the beginning of the end for what remains of them.

Tom is an editor and writer from London who firmly believes in the value of voluntary action and interaction between free individuals, and is particularly interested in pursuing logical, scientific policy on drugs and wider health issues. Follow him on Twitter: @tjghendriks

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty