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Drug alerts: do they work and what do they achieve?

May 18 2009
Being alerted that drugs are contaminated or of a different strength after people OD is closing the stable door after the horse has bolted Being alerted that drugs are contaminated or of a different strength after people OD is closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. There is a scramble to get the info out there, but out where and to whom? And it will be too late for some! The bottom line: it's just scare mongering by the well-intentioned people involved in this process, who feel that some good comes from this frantic inter-agency emailing of the drugs alert. In 2006, the BBC reported that "bad heroin" had claimed eight lives in areas as far apart as Lambeth, Ilford and Hackney, yet there was no conclusive evidence that the same batch had killed them. Harry Shapiro, from Drugscope, said there was a likelihood that these deaths were the result of the same batch. Or that you seem to get clusters of deaths around the country, often linked to the same 'bad' batch. I'm afraid 'likelihood', 'seem' and 'often' is not good enough, Harry. It's not exactly hard science. People who use illicit drugs are (common sense dictates) aware that there are always fluctuations in the quality and purity of these drugs. So you've begged, borrowed, stolen or worked (or even, in some cases, flogged a few copies of the Big Issue) and you have a tenner. You have - after much hanging around and hassle (phew!) - scored your morning 'fix'. You go to your local drug agency to get some clean works. They inform you that there is contaminated or strong heroin on the street. You are also informed that there were three deaths in Hackney five days ago due to bad heroin. As yet, they are unsure whether the gear was contaminated or very strong - the result of the autopsies on the three deaths has not yet come through. The drugs worker smiles at you and talks to you as if he were a friend, doing you a favour. What are you going to do? You're sick as a parrot and clucking your tits off. You have the gear in your hand. You're thinking: "I don't need this, but hey! What the fuck?î??? This happened in Hackney nearly a week ago and I'm in Bromley". You look to Dave (NVQ level 3 in drugs work), your friendly, smiling drugs worker, for some advice. At this juncture, he is as much use to you as a condom with a hole in it. Would you ask him for advice? He might talk you out of using your gear. What could he tell you? If it's strong, inject a little at a time. But what if it's contaminated? You might get stoned, but its deadly effects might affect you later. And what if it's contaminated and stronger than you're used to? You can have all the works, needles and swabs you want, but "sorry - we can't test drugs". He does not have the facilities to test your gear. Talking to FRANK, the government's drug advice phone line, is just as useless. I was advised to look on the web for a drug testing kit, if you can find one for testing the purity of drugs. Allow 14 days for delivery. So it's little wonder that we're not stopping drug-related deaths due to contaminated or above average strength drugs. Without proper testing facilities, an alert strategy and solid information about what to do in these circumstances, people die. Current drug alerts are like calling out the fire brigade to a house fire without giving them the water to put it out.
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