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Vincent Gallagher

Students are being given MDMA testing kits at uni

Newcastle University has introduced a scheme called ‘Test Your Drugs, Don’t Test Yourself’ – we speak to campaigners, dealers and prohibitionists about what they think

A pioneering scheme called “Test your Drugs, Don't Test Yourself” is being introduced at Newcastle University. A grassroots society named Students for Sensible Drug Policy Newcastle (SSDPN), at the University’s union has spearheaded a campaign that enables students to receive handy presumptive drug testing kits. These devices are designed to help a drug user ascertain which substances could be present in any pills or powders that they are about to ingest, snort, or inject.

This development surprised me. I worked as a welfare officer at Leeds Beckett University for nearly two years and I really pushed for this. I brought it up in meetings, I wrote formal pitches for the idea; I did pretty much everything short of buying the kits myself and slinging them off the roof of Headingley stadium during Varsity.

I was informed that it was never going to happen on account of “the University’s zero-tolerance approach to drugs” and the opinion that it could “affect the intake next year if parents think the place looks druggy”. A much greater emphasis was placed on marketing the University than on the welfare of the students already paying their £9,000 a year. So if Newcastle University is allowing the testing kits, the idea can’t be that bad, right? Wanting to find out more on the topic, we asked some a range of people what they thought.

George Heyworth, the Secretary for Students for Sensible Drug Policy Newcastle (SSDPN):

“We aimed to open up a narrative in which students could freely and honestly discuss drug use. We hope to encourage students who do choose to use either legal or illegal substances to be able to do so in a safer environment. An environment conceived by free discussion and an evidence-based approach rather than a misguided one created by unhelpful rhetoric such as the 'Just Say No' approach.”

Professor Fiona Measham, founder of the welfare charity The Loop:

Fiona, who tests drugs at a range of club nights and festivals, was keen to express that just because something has been through a test that indicates the presence of MDMA doesn’t mean it is safe. Quite the opposite is true; people are dying from the high concentration of MDMA a lot more often than adulterated stuff these days. “Some of them [pills] are coming up as 250mgs of MDMA,” she said. “That’s more than a double dose for an adult male and if you double-dropped two of them you’d be taking half a gram. That kills people.”

“To be fair I would like it because I aim to have the top quality stuff. If there are any issues quality-wise then I need to know about it” – A London-based drug dealer

A London-based drug dealer:

“To be fair I would like it because I aim to have the top quality stuff. If there are any issues quality-wise then I need to know about it. So it would do me a favour because there have been times when I’ve returned things to my supplier because of the results of EZTest kits. But I guess it just depends what kind of dealer you are really, if you’ve got repeat custom you want the best stuff you can get. I didn’t know what PMMA was until one of my customers came back with a kit and told me I’d sold it them. That was my first involvement with testing kits, I’d had never had to deal with that before. It ended up being more work for me, as a whole batch of pills had to be sent back, but I appreciated it.”

Nick Jones, the director of EZTest – the team behind the kits that are currently being distributed in Newcastle:

Nick was keen to point out both the usefulness and limitations of his product. “The biggest, strongest message that we want to put out there is that just because you have a good indication of what a drug might be it doesn’t make it safe,” he stressed. “There was a girl who took an exceedingly high dose of MDMA the other day and tragically died [Faye Allen, 17-years-old, passed away at Victoria Warehouse in Manchester two weekends ago].

“If everyone had access to gas chromatography machines that would be amazing but we don’t. This is the best we have: a presumptive guide that can give you a good indication as to what is contained within your drugs. It’s a massive step in the right direction but, never forget, you’re always risking your life if you take any recreational drugs.”

Peter Hitchens – columnist and notorious drug prohibitionist:

I needed to hear the other side of the argument. After hours of traipsing round asking loads of people it became clear I was going to struggle. I even spoke to a concerned mother named Deborah outside my local university, she said: “Well, I don’t want my son to take drugs at uni but it’s the same as giving out free condoms really isn’t it? Being proactive.”

So, after becoming exhausted (and a little desperate) I contacted the only outspoken prohibitionist I could think of: Peter Hitchens. As well as being a professional columnist for the Mail on Sunday, his life-long moral crusade against drugs led to him to write a book on the topic titled The War We Never Fought.

“This is no great novelty, it’s all part of the general decriminalisation of illegal drugs,” he said. “This country has become the victim of drug decriminalisation for about 40 years. Yet people constantly turn around and tell me there’s some sort of cruel prohibition taking place.

“The local authorities, and others, for a long time have been distributing clean needles for people to use illegal drugs,” Hitchens explained: “I just write the obituary of this dead corpse of a country. I’m not a political activist,” he declared firmly when I asked him what his solution to the problem of dangerous drugs would be.

I think we can all agree that students, particularly freshers who are finding their feet away from home for the first time, are an extremely vulnerable subsection of society. Any provision that is aiming to help vulnerable individuals who may have made bad choices can only be a good thing in my book so hats off to the SSDPN. They noticed something they didn’t like in society and actually went out and changed it.