'˜We don't condone drug use - but let us test if yours are safe'

A controversial pilot scheme to offer clubbers in Preston a chance to check what their weekend drugs contain is due to be launched by a charity in the city centre in the New Year. Brian Ellis talks to the former Lancaster University professor behind the project.
Prof Fiona MeashamProf Fiona Measham
Prof Fiona Measham

Professor Fiona Measham makes it clear straight away - she does not condone substance use.

But in the New Year a team from her charity Loop should be in Preston city centre offering clubbers a chance to have the quality of their drugs tested before they take them.

And, significantly, police have promised not to interfere.

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Preston could be the first city in Britain to offer the service in a pilot scheme which, if successful, could then be rolled out across the rest of the country.

Could be, because Fiona is still not absolutely sure the radical experiment will be allowed to go ahead.

“We are hoping it can be set up,” she said. “But some of the national press have been getting a little bit over-excited about it.

“Possibly some of the coverage has been a little bit disproportionate to what we are trying to do.

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“But the police, the council and the public health people have been very supportive. So we’re hopeful it can go ahead.”

The idea has already been tried out at two music festivals in the UK – one of them the Kendal Calling in Cumbria – and similar schemes have worked successfully in parts of Europe.

But will clubbers in Preston overcome understandable suspicion and give the Loop tent a visit, or just a wide berth?

“We had a healthy supply of people using the service at the festivals and we didn’t advertise it in advance,” added Fiona, a fomer Professor of Criminology at Lancaster University and a director of Loop.

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“Our aim is to reduce hospitalisations and maybe even deaths. We hope that it adds to the information about what is circulating on the market.

“There are unscrupulous dealers out there who are selling rubbish.”

Some of that “rubbish” is likely to shock users who might only buy on the street at weekends and are unaware of the dangers they could be facing.

At this point Fiona throws three substances into the conversation to prove what a minefield it can be for young people naively trusting sellers to deliver drug purity.

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“Boric acid sold as cocaine, ground up anti-malaria tablets also passed off as cocaine and 100 per cent concrete dust sold as ecstasy,” she said.

“They are just examples. Some of the headline grabbing ones, I admit. But it goes to show no-one can tell what is in the drugs they buy.”

The process Loop hope to use in Preston is a simple one. Clubbers turn up at the tent, hand over either one tablet or a small scoop of drug and wait for it to be analysed for content, strength and purity.

The procedure takes between five and 15 minutes and, when they return to collect their results, they can make the decision to either hand over the rest of their supply for disposal by the police, or simply melt away into the night.

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Free and confidential advice is on offer by experienced drug workers who can highlight the risks they face.

“We don’t try and lecture people - if we did I think they would probably run out of the door,” said Fiona, now at Durham University. “But because they are probably just people using drugs at weekend - party drugs - it is an opportunity to make a first contact with them.

“At the festivals, if people expressed a concern about the substances they were using we were able to tell them what was in them. When they heard that, one in five said they wanted to hand over their drugs for disposal.

“The thing is that dealers don’t have access to testing, so maybe they don’t know what they are selling. All the way along the chain people can add things, so the user is totally unaware of what they are taking.”

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Two years ago, around Christmas and New Year, four people died - three in Suffolk and one in Shropshire - after taking Red Superman tablets which contained a lethal dose of the more powerful PMMA (paramethoxymethylamphetamine) instead of MDMA (methylenedioxy-methamphetamine) which is the active ingredient in Ecstasy tablets.

Five days before the first of those deaths, a nationwide alert was issued in the Netherlands about the same type of triangular pink/red tablets which had a Superman ‘S’ stamped on both sides.

Fiona flagged up that alert to the Warehouse Project in Manchester where she was due to pay a visit with her mobile mass spectrometer. The club posted it on social media that same night.

But, even though Public Health England also knew of the Dutch warning, the scare wasn’t picked up in other parts of the country until after the first victim died on Christmas Eve.

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Fiona is hoping the pilot study will go ahead in Preston in the New Year, although similar schemes have been rejected at events in other parts of the country by councils and public health officials.

“I have to make it absolutely clear,” she said. “We don’t condone drug use. But if we look at the evidence of other countries which already have this drug testing, we’ve found they have much lower mortaility rates in relation to drugs. In Switzerland they’ve had no party drug deaths for the last seven years.”

The pilot has the backing of Peter Yarwood, of the Preston-based substance misuse group Red Rose Recovery.

People who are minded to take drugs don’t always know what they are getting,” he said. “This could potentially save lives and is an opportunity for intervention.”

Coun Drew Gayle said: “I think it is a practical solution, but I don’t know if it’s a moral one.”