Home Office gives green light to first drug testing clinic

A handful of illegal drugs

Drug users bringing illicit substances into the new clinic will get results of what they contain within 10 minutes. Photograph: Rex

The first drug-checking service licensed by the Home Office will allow users to have their illicit substances tested without fear of being arrested in a move that could be rolled out nationally if it is shown to save lives.

The year-long pilot project, which had a soft launch in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, last Friday but begins in earnest this week, will allow anyone over the age of 18 to take their drugs to the clinic, run by the charity Addaction. Testing the content will take about 10 minutes, during which time the user will complete a short questionnaire to allow harm reduction advice to be tailored to them.

“This is about saving lives,” said Roz Gittins, Addaction’s director of pharmacy. “We know people take drugs. We don’t have to condone it but nor should we judge people or bury our heads in the sand. It’s our job to do whatever we can to help people make informed choices about the risks they’re taking. Checking the content of drugs is a sensible and progressive way to do that. If people know what’s in something, they can be better informed about the potential harm of taking it.”

The launch of the service comes amid rising concerns that users are buying drugs which contain other potentially toxic or more potent substances. Cocaine laced with the synthetic opioid fentanyl has been linked to a number of deaths, while there have also been warnings about the sale of super-strength ecstasy at a number of music festivals.

A drug safety charity, the Loop, already conducts drug testing at music festivals and has carried out a similar exercise at a pop-up site in Bristol city centre. But the new project, which has been three years in the planning, is the first to be licensed by the government.

“It’s Home Office-licensed, but in addition to that we have a local agreement in place with the police force,” Gittins said. “So people will not be stopped and searched on their way in or out of the buildings, because they are supportive of what’s going on.” The pilot is being run in partnership with Hertfordshire University and The Loop, which is providing the testing equipment.

“The work done by the Loop already shows that people who have had substances tested often then decide not to take them, or take less than planned, resulting in less health issues,” added Gittins.

Fiona Measham, professor of criminology at Durham University and director of the Loop, said: “Three summers’ piloting festival testing and a year piloting city-centre testing has shown that drug safety testing can identify substances of concern, productively engage with service users and reduce drug-related harm.”

All the groups involved in the pilot insisted that they were not in any way condoning the use of illegal drugs. Gittins denied that the testing service would have a negative impact on people living near to the site and said the Bristol city centre pilot had been carried out without incident.

“If anything, this should be a positive step to help reduce drug-related harms. It is not just people’s lives, it’s also potential increased costs to the health service, for example, locally. If we can help to prevent those from occurring in the first place, then that is another positive thing.”

Although coastal towns have become “hot spots” for drug deaths, according to data from the Office for National Statistics, Addaction said Weston-super-Mare had been chosen for the pilot because it was relatively small, making it ideal for a test site.

Few countries around the world offer government-licensed drug testing – the Netherlands is a notable exception. Its Drug Information and Monitoring System, founded in 1992, has been described as the “first pill-testing initiative in Europe” and acts as an official branch of the public health system. Government-backed trials are also currently being held in Australia.

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