The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

Why we have to promote safe drug use

With many drug-related deaths per year, greater efforts should be made in drug use education


The fact that we do not condemn people to death for their crimes is a huge part of what makes us civilised.

When someone breaks the law, we punish them with imprisonment and aim to rehabilitate them. Whether or not this works in practice is another issue. However, we can probably agree that, no matter what, breaking the law should not be a death sentence.

Despite this common moral understanding, our current drug policy sentences dozens of young people to death every year, simply because they choose to break the law.

In the UK, around 5 per cent of 16-24-year-olds take ecstasy every year. Ecstasy itself is a relatively safe drug when taken responsibly; it has little potential for addiction and is not toxic when taken at safe doses. Professor David Nutt, former head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, has previously stated that ecstasy is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco and that taking ecstasy is less risky than horse-riding.

Despite the relatively low potential harms of ecstasy, the UK is one of the leading countries in the world for ecstasy-related deaths. In 2015, 57 people died as a result of taking ecstasy, or a combination of ecstasy with other drugs. Recently, the London nightclub Fabric was shut down over two ecstasy-related deaths on its premises.

So why are so many young people dying from this drug if it can be taken safely, and is in fact taken safely, by so many people every single day?

The main problem is lack of education.

Our current drug policy purely focuses on prohibition: “Drugs are bad, do not take them.” The situation is parallel to abstinence-based sex education resulting in the highest pregnancy rates. As a result of our abstinence-based drug education, when young people inevitably do take drugs, they do not know how to use them safely.

Ecstasy should be taken at a low dose. This means less than 100mg for a first time. If you do not know the concentration of your pill, grind it up into a powder and take a small dab on your finger, and wait an hour before taking any more. You should take ecstasy in a safe environment, without mixing it with other drugs – including alcohol and prescription meds. If you are dancing, you should stay hydrated – this means drinking around 0.5-1L of water an hour.

Ideally, you should also test your drugs before consuming them, with one of the many types of test kits that can be purchased online. This will give you more of an idea about the contents of your drug, helping you detect potentially harmful adulterants.

Almost every single ecstasy-related death could have been prevented if the victims had known these facts, if they would simply been educated about the risks. Telling people “ecstasy is bad (end of story)” produces situations where uninformed people take drugs anyway and get hurt.

For example, the most infamous ecstasy-related death, that of Leah Betts, is commonly known to be due to her drinking too much water. This is technically true – she drank too much water because she was told to stay hydrated. What she did not know was that ecstasy interferes with your body’s ability to regulate water retention; lack of drug education is what killed Leah Betts.

Many parents of children who have died due to a lack of drug education have realised that our current drug policy is partly responsible for their deaths. They realise that telling kids not to do drugs just does not work, and that we need to be pragmatic about preventing drug-related harm.

So why hasn’t the government listened to the parents or the scientists?

It is likely that politicians are afraid of angering their constituents, as most voters want to see illegal drugs eradicated, and worry that harm reduction initiatives would encourage illegal drug use.

While it is possible that telling kids how to take ecstasy safely could encourage a small increase in drug consumption, we know that the alternative of prohibition does not keep drug use down; ecstasy use is rising and shows no sign of slowing. By telling kids not to do drugs, the government is not discouraging drug use. Kids know that people their age take drugs everyday and do not end up being forced into prostitution or with brain damage. The messages of the government are ignored, and illegal drug use continues.

The only rational alternative is for the government to accept that illegal drug use will always occur, and aim to reduce drug-related harm. We can take a number of harm-reduction approaches:

– Allowing on-site drug testing at festivals and clubs (piloted by pioneering charity The Loop) to enable people to avoid potentially deadly pills.

– Providing better drug education to young people will reduce the prevalence of risky drug-taking behaviour.

– Offering drug-testing kits to students that allow them to test their drugs before use, promoting responsible behaviour and reducing harm from adulterated substances.

The last two approaches are what the Students’ Union has decided to adopt, in line with the “effectively countering drug misuse” policy passed at Senate last year. Where the government has failed, our student organisations will step in; the SU will soon be providing drug-testing packs, including test kits and harm reduction information, to all students. These will undoubtedly have the potential to save lives.

Students will never stop taking drugs, just like they will never stop other risky behaviour like cycling to class or obliviously walking out in front of buses.

It is our responsibility to make sure students are kept safe. Ignoring the failures of our drug policy condemns countless young people to death.