Zero Tolerance isn’t working at the Arches or anywhere


A 39-year-old man is in a serious but stable condition at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, having reportedly taken 4 pills, believed to be ecstasy, while in the queue at the Arches nightclub. It comes just 2 months after the tragic death of a young woman of just 17 who attended the venue on the night of her death. In response, Police Scotland/the Arches announced security would be beefed up, all punters would require photo ID on the door and all club nights would be strictly over 21s. The suggestion that it wasn’t age or lack of a passport which was responsible for tainted pills or drug related club deaths fell on deaf ears.

The details of Saturday’s incident remain sketchy, although the official police statement that, “police were called to a report of a man taken ill after taking illegal drugs while being searched in the queue for the Arches nightclub” suggests that the man took the drugs after they were discovered. I won’t repeat the myriad of arguments we’ve already made about ecstasy; that MDMA is a relatively safe drug if consumed according to appropriate advice, that there is no funding or will for the continuation of our failed war on drugs, that the evidence gleaned from 20 years of ecstasy use by millions of people worldwide doesn’t support the view that ecstasy is the great social menace we’re led to believe, that many of the dangers related to pill use are made worse not better by its legal status, that regulation and testing could be the first step to tackling Scotland’s tainted pill supply, that the only way to make pills safer is to start making safer pills. Instead, we should pause and think about the specifics of what’s happened at the Arches in recent months and why it’s plain that the response in this case may always lead to this kind of outcome.


We’ve tested all the claims about MDMA many times before. And tested pills.

For all the heat on the venue, including from ourselves, it’s worth pointing out that as a place to take ecstasy, the Arches is amongst the better venues in many respects. They have medical staff on hand, water at the bar, it’s as safe as a venue of its scale and function could reasonable be expected to be. The scale and function are important though; the Arches is huge, usually packed and it exists as a space where lots of people take pills. I can’t stress enough that just a few less punters on those busy nights can make a massive difference, not just in an emergency but to the general feeling of safety and comfort for those who’re out having a dance.

Following the death 2 months ago, the venue implemented the recommendations of Police Scotland and the Polis have had a pretty large stake in the way things have gone down since. Reports of sniffer dogs, increased Police visibility, much more thorough searches than the “do you have a massive knife down your drawers” kind but also more medics on hand, more people giving out and even spraying water, more awareness of what was actually going on. Nationwide, no less than 150 people were arrested in the space of a few weeks. That does make me wonder the depth of knowledge the Police actually have, if they can magic up those numbers at any time and suggests they are more than aware of where to look, when the media is watching and looking for people to blame. If Twitter is to be believed, the latest stupid suggestion from the Polis, involves turning the lights on and slowing the music down every hour.  You couldn’t make it up. The Arches has thus far just repeated their “Zero Tolerance” message, mainly because it’s the only message anyone is ever allowed to have.

And what about those we’re supposed to be protecting? They fall broadly into 3 groups; those who hide their drugs better, those who take them all first and those who go elsewhere. None of these groups are any safer as a result of what the Polis have done at the Arches. There is no effect for those who get their drugs in. Those who take their drugs beforehand, perhaps in larger doses than they would otherwise are now less safe because their ability to be responsible drugs users is undermined. Those who go elsewhere simply demonstrate that “zero tolerance” in one club is a bit like socialism in one country. The scale and function of the Arches means there will always be occasion when people go too far, especially if we continue to refuse to protect clubbers by testing and regulating ecstasy.

Even though I’m not a fan, one of the worst responses could be “ban it, shut it down, boo” (although that’s undoubtedly all we’re hear from our media.) What’s happened this weekend just demonstrates “zero tolerance” doesn’t achieve the stated outcome. We’ve either pushed people into venues they’re less familiar with, where they might be less safe or we’ve encouraged clubbers to pre-load with their nights supply of pills, to avoid the attention of the coppers. Zero tolerance does not equate with zero ecstasy use.


Pretending no drugs are taken here benefits no-one

Instead of making things safer, the way the panicked response from our media, the Police, the Arches and our political establishment has been implemented has made them more dangerous. It’s therefore not impossible for clubbing in Scotland and indeed ecstasy use in Scotland to be more safe in 2 months time than it is right now. If we’ve gone this far back in such a short time, we can just as easily move in the other direction. How can we argue we’re taking public health seriously if the direct result of the approach pursued is just even more irresponsible drug use? Will we now ban under 40s or will we start to address the issues? It doesn’t matter if the intentions were good, the results haven’t and won’t be. If we can’t make ecstasy use go away then we have to have tolerance in some form or fashion and a discussion about the best way to implement that.

While all of this has been going on, oh where, oh where, has the Scottish Government gone? There’s never a peep from Holyrood, even about what they’d like to do, always merely repeating that drug classification is a reserved matter and that drugs are bad and all that. Despite running to a meagre 670 pages, the White Paper says little about what an independent Scotland would do differently, other than have power to reclassify drugs. If the Government are serious about their health and policing remit, they have to lead the discussion by outlining what they plan to do to regulate ecstasy use and prevent needless deaths and undue strain on our police and health services. While full powers over classification are needed, we don’t have to wait for independence or for the Westminster baddies to be on our side to start saving lives.

The SNP constantly boast of their world leading Naxolone program for opiate users, a take home kit which can stave off the effects of an opiate overdose and save crucial time while medical attention is sought. We made a choice long ago that, without changing the legal status of heroin, we would endeavour to stop people dying – that means tolerating the fact that some people use drugs. Even before we discuss drug testing in clubs, a resource we desperately need, funding for home testing kits could be made available urgently, without a single law being altered. Polis Scotland and the Arches could begin testing and publishing the results whenever drugs are seized, to help users avoid known batches of tainted pills and give a more complete picture to our health, social and police services. We could recognise and encourage good practice, when dealing with venues where large amounts of people take drugs because sending in the dogs just isn’t working.

While I strongly believe that MDMA should be regulated and not criminalised, we must extend the principle of harm reduction which we apply to heroin and some other drugs to ecstasy use and ecstasy users, if we are to create a safer environment for the many thousands of Scots who‘re not going to stop popping pills. In the case of the Arches, it’s evident that zero tolerance has failed again, we can’t tolerate this failure anymore.


Further Reading:

Our approach to pills is unsafe

It’s called “ecstasy” for a reason

Testing times for Scotland’s pill takers


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4 responses to “Zero Tolerance isn’t working at the Arches or anywhere

  1. “taken ill after taking illegal drugs while being searched”; did he perhaps take this, perhaps rather large, dose in order to avoid their being found? In other words, did the search process itself contribute to the fatality?

  2. Very well written and level-headed article but I’m disappointed to see yet another piece on drug legislation completely and utterly ignore the fundamental argument against prohibition: That the state has no business whatsoever telling people what substances they can and cannot ingest. When you base your argument on harm reduction then you implicitly concede that the state has a right to forcibly prohibit behaviour which causes no harm to others.
    I suspect that achieving saner drug policy in this country is simply a matter of waiting for the culturally conservative to die off, but if we don’t have the patience for that then we need to stop pretending that drug prohibition is about harm control. The UK government’s complete rejection of its own scientific advice is damning proof that certain substances are illegal not because they hurt people, but because a sizeable swathe of the population has a moral objection to individuals altering their consciousness. Explaining to people that every argument for drug prohibition is simply a twisted consequence of prohibition itself is futile if we don’t also make the point that it’s none of their fucking business.

    • While I completely agree that it’s none of the Government’s business what people take, this is a piece about the Arches and the Police, asking the specific question of whether, on its own terms, zero tolerance is working and asking why harm reduction doesn’t extend to ecstasy. It doesn’t aim to be a holistic discussion of the drugs debate, it’s just a few quick thoughts about how we could actually do a lot right now to make nightlife safer, while we get ready for a massive battle ahead to change the classification laws. I don’t think one approach detracts from the other.

      I’m not waiting for more people to die, drug users of our population of aging miserablists, we need to build a movement to make these changes pronto.

      We have to address all the narratives about drugs to make clear that no-one benefits from prohibition. Important as it is as an argument, “I’ll do what the fuck I want” isn’t going to make the law change, in my opinion.

      We do clearly, and consistently make the point that people do what the fuck they want in relation to drugs and we have to deal with that, not moralise about it.

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