On Saturday , a woman died after a night out at the Arches in Glasgow. In separate incidents, 4 other clubbers were taken to hospital as a result of the pills that were going around this weekend in Scotland.
It shouldn’t matter what age someone is or what they look like but seeing the images of a young woman who’s no longer with us really hits home. We’ve been here before, many times – with dodgy batches of green Rolexes causing fatalities during the summer and tainted yellow/speckled Rolexes said to have been in circulation over Hogmanay. Despite the warnings, thousands of Scots continue to take ecstasy, hundreds of hours of police time are spent dealing with them and dozens of people die as a result of dodgy pills.
There has already been heat on the Arches, particularly as the person who died was just 17. I’m not a fan of the place personally and I’m remiss to defend a massive venue who make a profit from underage boozers and pill takers but we shouldn’t pretend that ecstasy use would be in any way affected by whether the Arches exists or doesn’t. Like many venues, they pack in as many punters as the law allows, a situation that’s safe for neither drug takers nor anyone else. It’s certainly not the first time deaths have occurred which have been connected to the venue and as a result, you’re far more likely to be ID or searched going there than most places – on occasion, there are even sniffer dogs and police inside. All this has no effect on drug use at all, clubbers simply learn how to hide their drugs better or swerve the place for a few weeks until the cops and the bouncers lose interest. Of course, clubs can and should take precautions to minimise the risk to those who’re spending their money there, like having water available at the bar or having separate chill out areas but we have to look beyond blaming a venue for what people do there because if the venuedidn’t exist, clubbers would take their money and their drugs elsewhere.
There is scarce information on the red “Mortal Kombat” pills in today’s press, neither the police nor medical professionals seem to have made clear whether they contained MDMA (the drug commonly referred to as ecstasy) or something else, although it’s been reported that this may be another death related to PMA, a drug which while related to ecstasy chemically, is much more toxic. Given that the press has reported this as being related to “ecstasy“, we would welcome clarification from the Police as to whether this is the case.
All those hospitalised over the weekend are connected by having taken these particular pills, so it’s not clear why a Police Scotland spokesperson was so quick to dismiss the idea that this was a batch of tainted non-ecstasy, instead stating, “The reality is that no illicit drugs are safe, they are inherently unsafe.” That’s at best a partial truth.
MDMA has existed as a drug for over 20 years, there are by now well documented risks associated with its use. However, it remains far safer if taken in managed doses than many legal substances. Making MDMA an illicit drug, ensuring production and distribution are managed by criminals in an unregulated environment is inherently unsafe. Creating a situation where anyone can give you anything and call it “ecstasy” is inherently unsafe. Telling people every pill is as dangerous as every other one is inherently unsafe.
It’s now time to examine the public health choices we’ve made as a society and to begin to take some collective responsibility for the welfare of our nation and our young people in particular. I would assert that the “war on drugs” is failing but it just doesn’t exist anymore. Politicians and the police are acutely aware that attempts to limit either supply or demand will only ever be short term solutions and in a force with increasingly scarce resources, there is no stomach to dedicate any more time to “fighting“ drugs.
We also can’t deal with ecstasy by medicalising it or talking about rehabilition, there is no physical dependency aspect – we need to face the fact that people don’t take ecstasy because they are addicts, they take it because they enjoy it. Giving people what seems like intentionally partial information, has also always failed. For many, that face in the papers today will be forgotten by the weekend, when they’ll watch dozens (or if they’re off to the Arches more likely hundreds) of folk round about them take pills, dance and get on with it, like they do every weekend. Being honest about ecstasy and ecstasy use has been a taboo for too long and that has costs us dearly far too often.
Although we can’t treat ecstasy use like it’s a medical condition, we must treat deaths from dodgy pills as the health emergency they are, a totally unnecessary stain on Scotland. We have chosen to allow this to happen and we must now make better choices or at least allow drug users to make better choices for themselves. Regardless of your views on the legal status of ecstasy, we have sufficient powers in Scotland to mitigate some of the worst effects. While drug policy is a reserved matter, our powers over health and policing must now surely be used to whatever extent is feasible to begin to save lives.
Making drug testing kits available in venues like the Arches is not a holistic solution but it would dramatically change the relationship between dealers and recreational users, removing the ability of dealers to peddle what they pleased. Where testing kits are available, far from encouraging drug use, they encourage users to avoid pills cut with harmful substances, saving lives in the process. I’m mindful of when some claimed needle exchange programs would result in a nation of heroin users, rather than less people dying – we now know that‘s false.
Ecstasy consumption in Scotland is higher than in any country which employs a harm reduction strategy; we‘re the 4th largest consumer nation per head with nearly 1 in 10 Scots confessing to having used MDMA. Ecstasy use won’t go away, so we cannot continue to “handle” it by waiting for people to die, then blaming a nightclub – nor by saying all illicit drugs are equally unsafe, when that simply isn’t true. We can’t change what happened at the weekend but we need to realise that our collective choices matter every bit as much as the choices of our young people, who’ll continue to choose to take drugs and take risks that just don’t have to exist.
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