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Andrzej Tokarski, via Adobe Stock

What you need to know about the government-approved drug testing clinic

It’s one step towards combating rising drug-related deaths

In an unprecedented move, the Home Office has issued a licence to drug treatment charity Addaction enabling it to trial a new drug checking service in a Weston-super-Mare clinic. With statistics showing that 74 per cent of all drug-related deaths are categorised as “accidental poisonings”, and that fentanyl-laced-cocaine deaths are continuing to rise, it is clear that informing users of what’s in the drugs they’re taking could have a real, life-saving effect.

You may have heard of organisations such as The Loop, a not-for-profit drug harm reduction organisation, which has been checking people’s drugs at music festivals and at a Bristol city centre pop-up over the past couple of years. While they were able to offer this service through a legal loophole and agreements with local police, this Weston-super-Mare clinic is the first time a drugs testing service has received the government seal of approval.

While this is a small-scale pilot project, there are hopes that if the service is well received and proved to be useful, that more clinics might be able to follow suit and apply for Home Office licenses. Addaction is working in conjunction with the University of Hertfordshire, which is performing the drugs tests and conducting a research project alongside the service. Staff at the clinic have also received specialist communication training from The Loop.

With drug-related deaths remaining at a high, it is imperative that the government makes tangible moves towards harm reduction, and licensing drug testing clinics could be a step in the right direction. Not only could it save lives, it could also help alleviate the costs and strains on local health services.

Addaction’s Director of Pharmacy, Roz Gittens, who is leading the project, explains the ins and outs of how the clinic will work and the benefits such a service could provide. She tells Dazed that, “we’re not condoning the use of drugs or saying that it is safe to take drugs, but we acknowledge that it goes on and we're trying to help to reduce those associated risks, including drug related deaths, because even one death is too many.” Here’s what you need to know.

WHY YOU SHOULD GET YOUR DRUGS CHECKED

Roz Gittins: Part of the challenge around illicit substances – and that includes those that are being purchased online – is that people really don’t know what’s in them. And it can vary each time they buy them. There could be issues of it being laced with other substances they weren’t aware of, or it could be a really potent formulation for example. It’s really that opportunity to get an indication of what is likely to be inside the substance they may be intending to take. So hopefully this will help to reduce those potential harms.

HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS

Roz Gittins: An individual over the age of 18 can come into our service, say that they'd like to use the drug checking facility and then one of the Addaction staff will come out and meet with them. We are doing this as part of a research study with the University of Hertfordshire, so we ask them to sign a consent form that they’re happy to hand over a small sample of whatever they have on them, and they hand that over to the university staff who then do an on-site check of that substance. We do not hand it back; we cannot legally do that. So, once that’s taken, it’s then disposed of. It normally takes about 10-15 minutes; it depends on the type of sample. We will then ask the person, while that checking process is taking place, to fill in a short questionnaire. This helps us get more of an idea of what they're expecting the sample to be, and how they're planning on using that so that Addaction staff can better tailor the harm reduction advice when they go to tell the person what the results of that check was.

WHAT YOU CAN GET TESTED

Roz Gittins: We’re open to any type of substance being checked to give an indication of what may be in it. It could be someone using opioids, someone buying something online. It doesn’t just have to be pills; we are happy to accept all types of samples. We do provide a service for people regardless of what their drug of choice may be.

IT’S CONFIDENTIAL AND YOU WILL NOT BE SEARCHED BY POLICE

Roz Gittins: We are mindful of the fact that it’s in the drug treatment service, and that that could be a barrier to people coming in, but we are an open, free, confidential, non-judgmental service with an excellent team. And we have, in addition to the Home Office licence, an agreement with the local police force, which we’ve gone out of our way to make happen. They have assured us that they will not be stopping and searching people on their way in, or out, of our service. Which hopefully provides people with additional assurance about coming in to use the service, because I appreciate that that's something that people may be wary of.

WHEN AND WHERE YOU CAN USE THE CLINIC

Roz Gittins: The Weston-super-Mare Addaction clinic will be open for a drop-in drug checking service for a total of four dates; the remaining two dates are Wednesday March 6 and Friday March 15 from 10am-5pm. We’re hopeful that if we actually get people accessing it, then that demonstrates that there really is a need and that this is something that people actually want.

STAFF CAN PROVIDE YOU WITH ADVICE AND ANTIDOTES TO CURB OVERDOSES

Roz Gittins: We can also provide things like take home Naloxone, which is the antidote to opioids – like heroin – overdose. We can do that for free and confidentially, it doesn’t require the user being in structured treatment with us, we can just give them to them. We can also, if they are choosing to inject, give them clean injecting equipment and again we can do that for free and confidentially. Or, it could be that we signpost them to other services whether it be the GP, or sexual health services, whatever they need, locally.

HOW IT REDUCES HARM AND BENEFITS THE COMMUNITY

Roz Gittins: We know that it works – The Loop found that, when they’ve offered the service in festivals and city centres, that people have chosen to take less of their drugs as a result, or they’ve decided to hand in the rest to get rid of it because they knew more about those potential risks. It’s about people being able to make a more informed choice.

The really positive benefit of us bringing this kind of service in the drug treatment setting is that, if the result of a conversation that we have with someone is that they do decide that they want additional help and support with their substance issue, then we can do an assessment at that point, to help them access further advice and support, if that’s what they need, and if that’s what they want.

WILL THERE BE MORE CLINICS?

Roz Gittins: I see it as a really positive move that the Home Office has felt able to support us in this venture. And to see more organisations follow suit and do this kind of work under a Home Office licence would be fantastic. In terms of getting that more widespread, we know we’re working in challenging times when budgets are really tight, and it could well be that some local authorities feel able to commission this kind of service locally, but that may not be feasible all over the country. I think we really are at early stages, but if there is scope to roll this out, which I think would be fantastic, it’s going to need funding to make that happen.

For more information, check out Addaction and the work they do