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Why police are wrong to punish Fabric for drug deaths

Is in-club drug testing the way forward?

Why police are wrong to punish Fabric for drug deaths
25 August 2016

There's a long-running feature in Private Eye magazine called 'joined-up government', named after the famous New Labour mantra that sought to ensure that different governmental departments were speaking to each other and working for a common cause, rather than pursuing contradictory ideas.

Naturally, the regular Eye boxouts highlight the all-too-regular occasions when one person says they're going to do one thing, then someone else immediately says they're going to do the opposite, highlighting the often farcical nature of government policy and bureaucracy that goes on at Whitehall and beyond.

Well, it springs to mind when considering the approach of the police towards Fabric nightclub, as its initial closure for a weekend became a potentially permanent situation after Islington Council revealed that the Metropolitan Police had requested an 'interim suspension of Fabric's licence'. There is now an ongoing 28 day review, while Fabric's doors remain shut.

The move follows the recent drug-related deaths of two teenagers. On Saturday 6 August, an 18-year-old male collapsed outside the venue at 8:20am, before being pronounced dead shortly afterward; this followed the death of another 18-year-old on Saturday 25 June. The club had previously witnessed four deaths and eight other incidents in which clubbers collapsed between 2011 and 2014.

Ecstasy pills

This activity has led to the superclub having a hugely difficult relationship with authorities and in December 2014, police urged the council to "seriously consider" removing the club's licence. Following the recent events Fabric have now issued a full statement, saying, "The safety of our customers is our number one priority...We have zero tolerance to drugs on the premises and, as recently as December last year, we were described by District Judge Allison in a court judgement as a "beacon of best practice" in managing this issue... We know there are always areas where we can improve, and, following the recent tragic deaths, we are undertaking a thorough review of the lessons we can learn."

Following the 2014 police request, the club implemented stricter entry procedures, including sniffer dogs and ID scanning, although it won an appeal a year later to take these measures away, arguing that they were ineffective and and had been counterproductive, by creating larger entry queues, which had the potential to provoke violence.

Essentially, though, the police approach is simply more of the same that we've seen relating to clubs for many years: more security, more checks, stop people bringing them in, and - if possible - close the clubs outright.

And yet, if the end goal really is to stop deaths, how exactly does any of this prevent it? Much like terrorism, no amount of security will stop someone determined getting through the doors and, moreover, if the drugs doing the rounds on the street are dangerous, even if they don't make it into a club, they'll eventually get bought, and used, somewhere else, with the same tragic results.

Festivalgoers at Secret Garden Party

The situation becomes more nonsensical when you consider that just three weeks ago, Secret Garden Party in Cambridgeshire became the first UK festival to offer people the chance to have their illegal drugs tested to find out what was really in them. 200 people took advantage of the trial, conducted by the drug-testing organisation The Loop in conjunction with Cambridgeshire police and council, with a spokesman reporting that, “Around a quarter of people who brought in their drugs then asked us to dispose of them when they discovered that they had been mis-sold or were duds. We were taking dangerous substances out of circulation.”

The Warehouse Project club in Manchester already operates a similar facility which began in 2013 - drugs that are found, or confiscated, are tested for their contents, with the results published on Twitter so that other users can see what they're potentially consuming.

So why are police pursuing two contradictory methods in attempting to prevent drug deaths?

Well - and this is perhaps unsurprising - the situation is not exactly black-and-white.

Crowds at Farringdon's Fabric

Firstly, it is important to note that it is not simply impurities, or high levels of purity that can lead to deaths - often it is the mixing of drugs that can prove fatal. No amount of testing could prevent this. In addition, field testing kits only show the main ingredient, and not secondary substances; therefore, there is no guarantee that a drug that passed a 'test' would ultimately prove totally safe.

Secondly, with many casual or first-time users drawn to taking drugs by the presence, or approach of a dealer in the club, why not start making it as difficult as possible for pushers to gain entry into the club. In turn, this could mean many casual users simply not bothering to take drugs that night, lowering demand and then supply in the long-term, further reducing opportunities for casual users to dabble.

However, stricter security and the like has failed to make any difference to people wanting to consume the prevalent clubbing drug, MDMA, with use of the drug on the rise across Europe.

Moreover, the likes of Fabric have staff trained and experienced in dealing with the side-effects of any misuse - it is surely better for people to consume drugs in such an environment rather than an alternative, unlicensed, underground venue, which is where the clubbing scene will be pushed if established venues are forced to close.

It's a complicated issue, with no easy answers, but surely the way forward is a move towards testing, education and encouraging people to be as safe as possible rather than a doomed attempt to force people to stop doing something that they are clearly going to do anyway. Such an attitude has revolutionised sex education and teenage pregnancy - surely an activity with more than a passing resemblance - why couldn't it do the same for drug users?

(Images: Rex)