Mass drug testing proposed

Following the news that Staffordshire police have started indiscriminatingly and without reason testing any customers of various pubs, clubs and the V2003 festival (V Festival), UKCIA sent the following letter for the attention of the Chief Constable of Staffordshire Police, the Home Secretary, the MP for Stafford and the DAT co-ordinator for the Staffordshire area.

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Replies to our letter: Home Office, MP

The UKCIA Letter

Dear Sir,

I am writing to you concerning the random drug testing that the public in Stafford and surrounding areas are being subjected to. I refer to the use of the "£40,000 computer equipment" that has been used since at least December 2002 to test pub and club customers, as featured in several news stories last year[1]. More recently it has been announced in the Sunday Times that this same system will be used to screen the thousands of people expected to attend the V2003 music festival at Western Park, Staffordshire in August[2].

I am interested in both the technology used and the policy surrounding its use in these circumstances.

Firstly, what exactly is being tested for? With which drugs is it concerned, but also are you testing for contact with the drug (e.g. have handled cannabis) or including the metabolites excreted after usage of the drug (e.g. have smoked cannabis)? Could you provide some information as to how the system works - how the computer decides whether or not a person has taken illegal drugs.

As this system has been used on the public for some time now, I assume that it has been comprehensively tested by an independent body to ensure its accuracy. However no technology can be perfect and hence there will be times with incorrect results - both false positives and false negatives. Could you provide me with the research done to show how common these situations are? In addition I am interested to know what level of accuracy and reliability is claimed, and whether or not it appears to correlate with your experiences in day-to-day testing.

The only article I have seen mentioning this aspect of the above drug-test results refers to a time it was used 190 people in a Stafford club in May 2003. 6 were found to "test positive", but no drugs were found on them. If this is a common situation then is it not effectively wasting the officer's time to both perform the tests and follow-up with a search? There are some doubts as to whether "contact with drugs" is useful to test for. As you are probably aware, research done in 1999 by the analytical forensic chemical experts at Mass Spec Analytical Ltd. in Bristol tested more than 500 random banknotes and found only 4 tested negative for traces of cocaine and at least 4% gave a "massive reading which showed they had been in close contact with the drug"[3]. I am concerned that situations like this widespread, but innocent, movement of cocaine powder may give rise to large numbers of incorrect results. If there are "levels" of contact with illegal drugs that are deemed acceptable, then what are these, and how have they been arrived at?

Secondly I am interested in the policy with which the machine is used. The general drug testing of people going to a pub, club or festival without any previous suspicion is as far as I know fairly unprecedented within this country. It is interesting to note that at this time few, if any, other police forces are using this technology - as an example Avon and Somerset police have ruled out its used for the Glastonbury festival as they apparently intend to concentrate on dealers rather than people who may have come into contact with illicit drugs for whatever reason.

I would be interested to know how the people tested are selected. Is it on a random basis, do you concentrate on people who "arouse suspicion" (if so, what are the criteria for this?) or do you attempt to test 100% of the people attending a chosen location or event? Around 60,000 people are expected to attend the V2003 festival and it does not sound likely that it would be practical to test every one of these, let alone search the people who "fail", especially if it is still the case, as it was last December, that there is only 1 of these machines being used.

When a person is confronted with the test, three events may occur. The person may refuse to take the test, "pass" the test, in which case I assume they are free to pursue whatever activity they wish, or "fail" the test.

If a person "fails" the test (i.e. drug residue is found) then what consequences ensue? Perhaps the person is refused entry to the event, detained, searched or arrested. At this point, what set of rights does the individual have - do they have a right to refuse a search, or to walk away? I am interested to know both the range of possibilities and the typical procedure.

The test is billed as "voluntary" but what is the policy if someone does decide to refuse to take the test? Will they also undergo a search, or be forbidden to enter the event - if so for what reason is given? If they are prevented from continuing, it can be envisaged, at social gatherings in pubs, clubs and particularly at the V2003 festival, such people may want significant compensation for their large expense and time taken to get there if they are unable to go in and any "crime" is unproven. Whilst there is an argument that any person carrying illicit drugs is likely to refuse the test, the reverse cannot be legitimately taken as an assumption. There are many people who believe such large-scale and random testing is degrading, and an unnecessary invasion of their privacy and civil liberties.

The Staffordshire Police website[4] mentions the Human Rights Act 1998, which Britain is a signatory to, on its front page. With that in mind, how is it felt that this mass screening fits in with the Act and the general issue of civil liberties? Liberty[5], a leading human rights and civil liberties organisation, is "deeply worried" by this style of testing. In direct reference to the testing in Stafford over the Christmas period and beyond, their spokesperson stated:

"This is an extremely questionable use of police powers. The police cannot force someone who is not under arrest to take a drug test but they are implying they can. To then use a perfectly legitimate refusal to comply as part of the justification for suspicion is an abuse of policing powers."

Could you let me know your response to Liberty and other interested parties on this issue, and also what legal advice you have received which makes you feel confident that such testing does not adversely affect an individual's rights, including those guaranteed under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998.

Another of Liberty's accusations, that the usage of the laptop test is policing "by coercion rather than by consent", is backed up by the media reporting warnings by the police that licensed establishments in Stafford that non-cooperation with this method "could count against them when their licences are up for renewal". Details what pressure has been applied would be appreciated.

Finally I would like to raise the question of "value for money". I am afraid I do not know the details of the general costs of policing, but I understand for the cost of one laptop to utilise in this scheme, ignoring the many man-hours needed to use it and follow up its findings, you could employ at least 2 new full-time police officers a year. The division of resources within your jurisdiction may be particularly important as recent figures show that the part of the country covered by the Staffordshire Police Force has a rate of crime significantly higher than the country average, both when looking at offences as a whole and when looking only at violent crime[6].

Many thanks for reading this letter. I hope and trust you can provide some answers for me at the above address. I apologise for the length of the letter but I feel it is important to seek out comprehensive information about the test itself and how it is being done. I am sure you will agree that as wide scale use of this device is already taking place in public, with signs of future expansion, it is reasonable to assume the details I have asked for should be available in the public domain for review by the very people who will be subjected to the testing.

If you are unable to provide the information I request, I would be grateful if you could write back to me and tell me to whom I should direct my questions.

Footnotes

[1] "Revellers facing drug tests", Birmingham Post, 23 Dec 2002
"Drinkers face drug test as they enter the pub", The Telegraph, 20 Dec 2002
"Drug-screen technology used in pubs", BBC Online, 18 Dec 2002
[2] "Festival fans face laptop drug test", Sunday Times, 1 Jun 2003
[3] "Banknotes 'tainted with cocaine'", BBC Online, 4 October 2002
MSA Ltd have a website at http://www.msaltd.co.uk/
[4] http://www.staffordshire.police.uk
[5] Liberty have a website at http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk
[6] Figures taken from the report "Crime in England and Wales 2001/2002" published by the Home Office Research Development Statistics department.

The Police Replies

Your letter concerning the use of drug testing technology has been referred to me for attention. Before I reply in detail to the quests you raise, I would like to establish the reason for your interest in this area.

I can assure you that before we introduce this type of technology, we satisfy ourselves that the equipment is of the required standard and that we are acting within the law.

Yours faithfully,

Keith Walker
Crime Manager

UKCIA replied:

Re: Your reply of 23rd June to my enquiry regarding drug testing technology and its use at the VFestival.

I am not entirely sure why my reasons for asking my original questions are relevant to the reply you may give and hence I found your reply somewhat difficult to understand. Nonetheless I shall try and elaborate.

I have been following the use of this technology since December 2002, as well as the Government's statements regarding the reclassification and new policing regime proposed for cannabis, and its declared intention to tackle the dealers of the drugs which apparently cause the most harm, heroin and crack cocaine. I cannot see how this scheme fits into the stated aims of the policy regarding drugs.

I also note the police in Essex, the other site for the V Festival, have ruled out the use of this technology citing human rights concerns as well as the likely effectiveness of this approach as reasons not to use the same tactics. The use of mass screening was also ruled out for the recent Glastonbury festival.

On a personal note, as a citizen and tax-payer of this country I am liable to both be subjected to such a test myself and may be by default effectively helping fund this project.

Taking the above into consideration, I feel that I and indeed the general public deserve to know the answers to my questions, and hence I look forward to your answers to my initial query.

Many thanks for your help on this matter".

Some time passed during which we heard nothing in reply. Following CakeMedia's statement that this style of testing was no longer being planned for the V Festival we sent a reminder letter, adding on the question of why this change in plans had been made.

Re: Your reply of 23rd June to my enquiry regarding drug testing technology and its use at the VFestival.

I am still awaiting a reply for my original letter, however I wonder if you could answer a further query within your reply.

Subsequent to my initial letter, a group of drug law reform activists I am involved with have become interested about this system of drug testing, and as a group share my concerns. Together we are writing an article about this, as we believe the questions I ask are in the public interest and a concern to many people outside our group.

In order to represent all sides of the story we contacted the organisers of V Festival, who forwarded our questions to their PR company, CakeMedia. CakeMedia have given us a statement which states that Staffordshire Police now have no plans to carry out this sort of mass drug screening of attendees to the festival. Can you confirm that this is indeed the case, and if so, the reasons why this decision has been made.

In addition, does this decision mean that the mass screening of people attending pubs and clubs in Stafford has also stopped - and if not, why not?

We subsequently wrote to the Sunday Times, who wrote the original article connecting this style of mass drug testing to the V Festival to ask them to see if they could follow up this story, and help us find out whether this testing had been cancelled and elicit the details that so far had not been disclosed to us. Co-incidentally, the next day Staffordshire Police replied as follows:

There is not, and never has been any intention to "mass screen" people attending the V2003 festival at Weston Park. You rightly state in your first letter that there will be a capacity audience, which would make it impossible to carry out the type of screening you refer to.

You ask a number of questions about the technology itself. I am not a technical person so would not begin to try and explain how it works. We have purchased a drug-testing machine from a reputable supplier which is manufacture to a high specification and can be calibrated to test a wide variety of drugs. The manufacturers are confident in their produce and are prepared to attend any Court to explain the technology and its accuracy.

The use of the machine within Chase Division of Staffordshire Police has been discussed with the Crown Prosecution Service who are happy for us to use it to test for drugs.

The test itself can be compared to the breathalyser test. It is merely a screening test to indicate whether an individual has been in contact with drugs. Unlike the breathalyser, the drug test is voluntary - you do not have to subject yourself to it if you do not wish to.

On occasions we conduct operations in partnership with public houses and night clubs. In these circumstances, the police are invited in by the management of the premises to assist them in reducing the use of illegal substances. People are identified at random by the staff of the pub / club and they are invited to take a test. If an individual refuses the test, the licensee or management will decide whether to allow him/her entry. Refusal to take a test does not, in itself, give the police grounds to conduct a search.

If a test is positive, this gives the police grounds to search the person in accordance with the Misuse of Drugs Act. If the search reveals illegal substances then the person will be arrested and dealt with. If the search is negative, no further action is taken.

You will no doubt be aware of the research which reveals that the majority of crime is committed by individuals to feed a drug habit. You will also be aware that possession of controlled drugs in a criminal offence. Drug abuse destroys lives and Staffordshire Police are determined to target drug dealers who cause misery and suffering in our communities.

You may also be aware that crime in Staffordshire has been reduced by over 8% this year. I believe that the targeting of drugs dealers and drug markets has had a significant impact on this reduction.

They claimed that the mass screening was not and had never intended to be used at the V Festival, in direct contradiction of the Sunday Times article, which clearly stated: "Police plan to use the machine for the first time when the three bands play at the V2003 festival at Weston Park, Staffordshire, in August."

With regard to the policy of its use in clubs and pubs, the letter from the police also seems to differ with the original description of the policy of its use from the Daily Telegraph - "Police have warned that anyone refusing will automatically arouse suspicion and have told establishments that do not co-operate that it will be held against them when their licences come up for renewal."

UKCIA have written back to the police in order to attempt to explain these discrepancies and ask for the details of the company who sold them this machine so we can get more technical details on it. Whilst we are glad that this test is not to be used at V Festival and encouraged by the claim that refusing the test does not constitute grounds for a search, we fear that the majority of our questions and concerns have not been answered as yet.