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Call to launch drug-checking service in London

UK’s first regular drug-testing service was introduced in Bristol last week to help addicts avoid taking contaminated drugs, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

Drugs (credit Myriam Zilles via Unsplash)
credit Myriam Zilles via Unsplash

The mayor has been urged to roll out drug-checking services across the capital to protect the health of Londoners taking illegal substances.

City Hall Conservatives said Sadiq Khan should follow the example set in Bristol last week, where the UK’s first regular drug-testing service was introduced.

A Home Office licence allowed a partnership of charities and Bristol City Council to provide a service in which people who are frequent or dependent users of drugs like heroin, crack, benzos and spice can check that their substances are not contaminated.

The free and confidential analysis in Bristol includes searches for harmful cutting agents, or whether the drugs have been adulterated with high-strength synthetic opioids such as nitazines or fentanyl.

The London Assembly’s Tory group said Khan had “failed to act” on a recommendation from City Hall’s health committee to introduce a drug-checking service almost two years ago, in March 2022.

Emma Best, City Hall Conservatives deputy leader, said: “By treating drug taking as a public health issue and providing drug checking services to those who choose to consume drugs, we can keep people safe and reduce drug-related harm.

“Sadiq Khan must follow Bristol’s lead and establish drug checking services as soon as possible. The evidence shows drug checking saves lives.”

The Bristol service works by allowing people who use drugs to surrender small amounts into an amnesty bin at a city centre location. The contents and strength of the drug are then chemically tested in a mobile lab.

Service users return about an hour later to receive an individually-tailored harm reduction consultation with a health professional. The aim is to reduce the consumption of dangerous and high-strength drugs and lessen the risk of poisoning and overdose, while directing service users to local treatment and health services.

Mayoral sources said that the main barrier to establishing an equivalent service in London would be the process of gaining a licence from the Home Office.

It is understood that the London Drugs Forum – jointly chaired by Khan’s policing deputy Sophie Linden and his senior health advisor Dr Tom Coffey – is currently researching whether and how such a service could be brought to London.

A spokesperson for Khan said: “The mayor is determined to do everything he can to protect Londoners from the harms of illegal drugs.

“As part of his ongoing public health approach to tackling illegal drug use, the mayor’s London Drugs Forum works with partners across the capital to ensure a comprehensive and joined up approach, as well as considering a range of tools to best keep Londoners safe, including drug checking services, so we can build a safer London for all.”

London currently has in place a ‘Local Drug Information System’ (LDIS), which works to monitor whenever a new harmful substance enters the illegal drug market, allowing local authorities to quickly issue public health warnings.

A drug analysis pilot has recently been started in the borough of Westminster, run by the charity Turning Point, with the first tests undertaken last week. Every three months of the year, anonymised urine samples from people using illicit opiates will be sent for testing with a UK Health Security Agency lab.

A report on what substances have been detected will then be shared through London’s LDIS. The pilot aims to provide surveillance information for the system on the area’s local drug supply, as opposed to Bristol’s scheme where the public can submit substances for testing to find out for themselves the contents of individual samples.

Mark Dronfield, senior operations manager at Turning Point, said: “In order to respond to the emerging threat from synthetic opioids we do need better information about illicit drug markets.

“Whilst we are not able to provide a drug checking service, as this requires a Home Office licence, we are concerned about the emergence of synthetic opioids.

“We have therefore started a pilot of anonymously testing urine samples which will enable local agencies to respond quickly when potent synthetic opioids are in circulation.

“We would support a national drug checking service where members of the public could submit substances for testing to find out what’s in them and make informed decisions about their drug use.”