Our approach to pills is unsafe


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.


Green Rollexes, White Mitsubishi and Yellow Stars – PMA based pills to stay away from

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.


Also known as “Red Dragons” – spread the word to avoid them

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.


Further Reading:

Calling Time on Dodgy Pills

Mephedrone: Then and Meow

It’s called “ecstasy” for a reason


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12 responses to “Our approach to pills is unsafe

  1. Although pill testing kits would be a benefit, they aren’t always accurate and don’t test for the huge range of novel psychoactive substances which are available and which ecstasy may be adulterated with. For this reason pill testing kits may actually lull people into a false sense of security with pills which might actually be more dangerous than a pill testing kits tells them. At the same time pill testing kits wouldn’t be available to all, especially those who don’t take ecstasy in a club environment but at home or in a friends place.

    The only way to deal with this issue is through the legalisation, and strict regulation, of ecstasy, where people buying a pill can be as sure of the content, strength and purity as if they were buying a pint. I’m not saying ecstasy should be available in Tesco – that would be irresponsible – but continuing to allow the production and sale of the drug on the black market will ultimately lead to more deaths.

    It is the current system of drug prohibition, particularly in relation to substances like ecstasy, cocaine and amphetamine, that has led to the emergence and use of novel psychoactives such as mephedrone and BZP, as well as synthetic cannibinoids many of which are thought to be much more harmful than traditional cannabis. Ever more novel substances are emerging with little being known about their related harms and risks of use (PMA/PMMA being part of this group), and this is a direct result of both chemical entrepreneurialism and perceived fluctuations in the price and purity of traditional drugs. .

    At the same time the police and the media have to own up to their complicity in this issues. As you mentioned the police offer half truths about the safety of drugs, and alongside the mainstream media perpetuate false and misleading ideologies around drug use and users. The media especially need to have stricter guidelines on how they report drug-related issues to ensure the minimising of sensationalist reporting that leads to knee-jerk political action, and that perpetuates negative and stigmatising stereotypes of users. The moralisation of the drug issue is a favourite of the media, and it creates a stronger barrier even than legal sanctions to changing drug policy. The recently reported story of a young woman dying from ‘cannabis toxicity’ is just another example of both a medical professional (the coroner) and the police, as well as the media, propagating entirely false information about drugs. No one has ever died directly from ingesting cannabis; it is virtually impossible. Perpetuating such misleading information about drugs in the media is exactly one of the reasons it is so difficult for politicians to even tentatively suggest a review of the drug policy situation, lest they commit political suicide by tabloid. .

    We seriously need a change to our drug laws. It is shocking that America, a country renowned for it’s incredibly draconian (not to mention racially unjust) drug policies, has had the political courage to stand up against decades of propaganda and finally begin to address recreational drug use pragmatically before the UK has, especially given the UK’s larger focus on drug use as a health related matter compared to the US. Unfortunately Theresa May’s official line is that drug policy is working, when it hasn’t been working for 40 years. We need a change very soon and under the current Westminster government I doubt it will come.

  2. The Arches actually deal with Ecstasy users better than any other venue would. If they see you being sick or clearly too out of it they’ll take you to the first aid room and sober you up then send you on your way, as opposed to simply throwing you out on to the street like most other clubs would do.

    Legalisation is necessary, if Ecstasy was monitored and in control of distrubution by the government, it becomes safe. People would no longer have to rely on buying off of strangers with the possibility of getting a “dodgy pill”.

  3. As Existential mentioned, The Arches deal with it better than any other venue. I’ve suffered the negative side-effects many times and instead of being thrown out for being too out of it, I’ve been escorted to a first aid room and looked after by paramedics they have working in there till I’m sober enough to safely return, or go home safely. Do many people realise they have these people working in this unheard of room?

    The many times I have been in that room, it has been full of people out of it and as far as I’m concerned, by doing this the venue are preventing so many possible deaths/hospital visits. I have watched them deal with people and their personalities are fabulous, they seem to know what they are doing.

    Maybe not fair to tar the club with so much negativity. This is happening everywhere and they are already putting in more resources than any other club to increase the safety of us all. It just so happens we hear more from The Arches than anywhere else as it’s the biggest and busiest venue.

    • I specifically didn’t “tar the club” – I said that whilst I’m remiss to defend them because I personally dislike the venue – from a clubbers POV – that has nothing to do with what happened. It was a dig at some folks who’ve said this is “another Arches death” which doesn’t help anyone.

  4. I’ve had one of these last summer when they were decent and the green Rolexes were being warned about. It was a good pill. Its pretty clear the copycats are trying to punt duff pills using a previously good rep.

  5. The Arches is a charity. Money made through clubs goes into the arts and creative learning programme which is world class and unmeasurably important to Scotland’s cultural landscape (see here – http://www.thearches.co.uk/support-us). They follow best practice in terms of FOH and Health and Safety and I believe have won awards commending them for such. Please do a wee bit more research before stating it’s a ‘massive venue who make a profit from underage boozers and pill takers’ – this is not the case, and I think it’d serve your article better if you corrected this.

    • They make money from young clubbers by punting alcohol and provide a space in which they understand large amounts of drugs will be consumed. Whether they give that money to shareholders or the arts is not the issue I’m discussing. Thanks for doing your PR job though.

  6. I think drug charities should be buying up kits to test pills and selling them at cost price. Of course there are risks involved and it isn’t ideal but far short of legalisation or looking for police cooperation to set up neutral testing zones without fear of prosecution,like they have been doing in the Netherlands since 1995. I believe that it is the best way forward to give individuals testing kits and then a more informed choice can be made on whether to take a pill or not. They cost about £2.50 each and do not appear to come under section 9a of the misuse of drugs act as far as I am aware. But this is a shit piece of legislation and very hard to nail http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1971/38/section/9A

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