By Christopher Smith
Rarely a month goes by without the press announcing a party drugs-related death. Last Monday the death of 17-year old Faye Allen was widely reported, who tragically collapsed in a Greater Manchester nightclub after taking a “MasterCard” ecstasy pill. While the cause of death has not yet been announced, similar past cases have ruled death down the to impurity of the drugs causing adverse effects or individuals not looking after themselves properly whilst under the influence. Heartbreakingly, this means that some of these deaths could have been prevented through drug testing being readily available or through the availability of thorough impartial education about harm reduction while taking drugs.
The drugs that many consider to be party drugs are of course illegal, and possession even for personal use has harsh punishments. If you’re caught with a small amount of ecstasy or cocaine you could spend up to seven years in prison and/or face an unlimited fine. Despite these harsh tariffs and the risks that are so regularly reported in the press, one could argue that for many students these party drugs still play a part in their university life. A 2014 survey by Gair Rhydd found that 60 per cent of all students had taken drugs, with 31 per cent saying that they had taken ‘hard drugs’, which include the likes of MDMA, cocaine and ketamine. You only have to walk into certain Cardiff club nights and see the vacant expressions to realise that these people have not simply had one too many rum and cokes.
I’ve been in that situation. I’ve taken MDMA on nights out with uni friends. Only the powder wasn’t MDMA, and I was in for the for the worst night of my life. Instead of the familiar feeling of creeping euphoria I felt nothing, only to suddenly get prickling all over my skin and feel my heart rapidly pounding out of my chest. I knew something was wrong and left the club, feeling feverous and vomiting when I got home. It took over 24-hours for these unpleasant side effects to subside. I was one of the lucky ones.
The problem with these drugs being illegal and their continued consumption means that they are not regulated. With white powders you face a Russian roulette: it could contain MDMA or it could contain talcum powder cut with paracetamol. More worryingly, it could contain compounds such as PMA which is nicknamed “Dr Death” due to the amount of hospitalisations it causes. Can you really trust your dealer or that chap in the smoking area? Because it’s unlikely they even know themselves what that baggy truly contains.
The only way to know what you are taking is to test your drugs. However, this leads to a catch-22 situation. You can’t go to an official body for testing as they are of course illegal and you could be arrested. But if you take them without having them tested you could be consuming anything. It is possible to buy kits off the internet but they are often expensive and many worry about their bank accounts being linked to such transactions. Newcastle University Students Union are attempting to change this, and under a scheme are providing cheap kits to students so they can test exactly what their drugs contains. Students will be able to pick up the kits for £3 to help make a safer informed choice.
Holly Mae Robinson, president of the scheme, stated: ‘We are not promoting drug use. It’s trying to avoid the harm of people that are going to use them. People are always going to use drugs and we just want to make it safer.’
While encouraging testing, education about responsible use is also vital in reducing the harm risk. In 1995 18-year old Leah Betts died after taking an ecstasy tablet. This was widely reported and used in anti-drugs campaigns. However, the Coroner’s report concluded that it was not the ecstasy tablet that killed Leah, but was the large quantity of water she consumed after taking it. In just 90 minutes she drank 12 pints of water, resulting hyponatremia. If you take a drug like ecstasy you may feel an unquenchable thirst. However, if you have not been educated on the appropriate amount of water to drink it could have tragic consequences.
This is why educating about risk reduction is so important. This also covers issues like individuals not mixing their drugs, preventing overheating and not “double dosing”, which is where you take drugs and feels nothing so consume more, only to be hit by double the effect. If anything feels untoward it’s also important to get yourself straight to hospital. While possession of drugs is illegal, consumption isn’t, so you won’t get in any trouble.
I’m not condoning the use of drugs or advocating for their decriminalisation – drugs can be incredibly harmful, both for your body and your criminal record. However, I feel that people will continue to take them regardless of the law, which has been evidenced. Therefore, educational and testing facilities should be available to all in order to reduce the risks. If I’d have known what the powder contained I could have avoided my horrible ordeal. Even more seriously, we don’t want any more cases like Leah Betts or Faye Allen.