After the Met Police released footage of them drug testing East London partygoers, drug law experts Release explain what our rights are, and what this means for the government’s crackdown on illegal substances
You might have seen a video by the Met Police doing the rounds on Twitter recently: a slick montage soundtracked by a misguided notion of ‘cool’ music, it showed the police stopping people on the streets to drug test them. In the footage, officers can be seen approaching people and asking them to take random swabs, with cops brushing their hands for signs of illegal substances. “Taskforce Officers were out recently doing drug swabs in Shoreditch as part of a wider operation to ensure the night-time economy is a safe place for all,” the caption read.
Unsurprisingly, the video provoked wide outrage, with people questioning the legality of this kind of stop and search practice. Others labelled it as a “PR stunt” and a “really poor use of police resources”. Addressing the furore, the Met posted a statement arguing that the move was part of “a ‘week of action’ supporting women’s safety”. The statement said that police targeted areas which had seen an uptick in incidents where women and girls were “made to feel unsafe”. “We know there is an inextricable link between Class A drugs and crime and violence on the streets of London,” it continued.
While there is valid concern for women’s safety at nighttime, with reports of spiking on the rise, the Met’s explanation feels strange given the lack of testing for date rape drugs such as GHB or rohypnol. Instead, the video sees police testing for recreational drugs like ketamine, methamphetamine, and MDMA. In this apparent attempt to improve women’s safety, the one arrest made that night was of a woman – not even one year after Sarah Everard was killed by a serving police officer.
But should we be worried about the police swabbing for drugs on nights out? “There is no legal basis for the police to ask you to undergo a drug swab,” Niamh Eastwood, a legal expert at Release, tells Dazed. “The only lawful way for this to take place is where a person consents to it, often this will be done as a condition for entry to a venue, as was the case for the swabs in Shoreditch, but the police did not make that clear until they released their statement after the video had been up for a few hours. The police can only stop and search a person if they have reasonable suspicion they are in possession of controlled drugs.”
The swabs, Eastwood explains, only show that you have touched drugs, “and that may not be direct contact, it could be indirect, so via a surface. Being under the influence of drugs is not an offence, unless driving. Only possession is an offence if dealing with personal use.” In an interview on LBC, Release’s Andre Gomes theorised: “Imagine you’d gone to visit the parliament, you touch one of the toilets there and now you’re testing positive for cocaine,” in reference to recent traces of cocaine being found in Westminster loos.
“We can’t dismiss the fact that some intimidation by the police could have been carried out; there is no evidence of the consensual nature of it being disclosed or not in the videos” – Andre Gomes, Release
Speaking to Dazed, Gomes explains that, although the tactic seems to have been deployed as condition of entry into venues, which is legal, “the video also shows police roaming the streets and swabbing them, even outside of venue-entry contexts”. “The swabbing seemed to be based on consent in both situations, but we can’t dismiss the fact that some intimidation by the police could have been carried out; there is no evidence of the consensual nature of it being disclosed or not in the videos. Testing positive on a hand swab should not be considered as enough evidence for it to be an offence – only actual possession of a drug is an offence.” Pub toilet surfaces and banknotes are known to be rife with cocaine, meaning that the tests clearly can’t determine whether you’ve actually handled a substance or not.
The video comes after the chillingly authoritarian news of a government plan to confiscate passports and driving licenses from class A drug users – a bleak return to the ‘war on drugs’ narrative. “This is definitely part of the government's wider strategy to show how “tough” they're being on drugs, but it is more of a visual stunt than actually reducing drug-related harms,” says Gomes. “Such roaming operations encourage the pre-loading of drugs – taking more than a usual dose to avoid being caught possessing them – and means people that are already disproportionately policed, such as people of colour, will continue to be harassed by officers. The Home Office’s own 2017 evaluation of the previous drug strategy noted that: ‘Activity solely to remove drugs from the market, for example, drug seizures, has little impact on availability’.”
Release encourages people to browse a list of resources by stop and search project YStop to know what to do when approached by a police officer for something like a hand swab. “Being aware of your rights and how to be in control of police interactions is a necessity in today’s world,” says Gomes. “Know it before you need it.”