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Thursday, 7 March, 2002, 18:17 GMT
Government denies going soft on drugs
Leah Betts
Leah Betts died after taking ecstasy on her birthday
The government has denied it is retreating from its policy on drug abuse by regarding it as inevitable in nightclubs.

The charge was made by shadow drugs minister Nick Hawkins after the Home Office published a Safer Clubbing guide, which he said was a "softening up of drugs policy".

The guide urges club owners to clamp down on dealing - but also encourages them to provide water, adequate ventilation and rest rooms in case youngsters have taken drugs.

Parents of young people who lost their lives taking illegal substances backed the initiative.

Lorna Spinks, 19, died after taking two ecstasy pills before visiting a nightclub in May last year.

If we cannot stop them from taking drugs then we must be prepared to take steps to reduce the harm that they may cause themselves

Bob Ainsworth
Drugs minister

Her father Alan said: "[The guidelines] will help to reduce the likelihood of a crisis occurring, help with its early detection and improve reaction in the critical period immediately afterwards."

Janet Betts, the mother of Leah, who died on her 18th birthday after taking ecstasy in 1995, gave the guidelines a cautious welcome.

She said some of the facilities suggested in the Home Office leaflet, like free cold water, a rest room and a first aider, "should be there anyway".

But she added: "The minute you put a fancy label on it, like 'chill-out room', or 'we have a paramedic', that club is using that to advertise the fact that they tolerate drug use, and that's what I object to."

Metal detectors

The leaflet gives clubs advice on how to prevent dealing and make the venue safer for clubbers on drugs.

It also says they should employ police-approved door staff and use metal detectors to search clubbers for weapons.

It is being interpreted as the government recognising the extent of drug-taking in clubs, and a move away from a hardline approach.

Safer Clubbing
Free water to prevent dehydration
Prevent over-crowding
Good ventilation and 'chill-out' room
Staff trained in first aid
About four million people use illicit drugs in the UK each year, according to government estimates. Ecstasy-related deaths increased from eight in 1993 to 36 in 2000.

Drugs minister Bob Ainsworth said: "If we cannot stop them from taking drugs then we must be prepared to take steps to reduce the harm that they may cause themselves."

He added: "Club owners and dance promoters have a duty to make sure that they have done everything possible to reduce the risks faced by the young people who are their paying customers."

Nick Hawkins, the Conservative spokesman, said the guide was "not welcome news to the public or to parents" while former shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe said "instead of throwing our hands up, we should be getting a lot tougher".

Chief executive of UK drugs charity DrugScope, Roger Howard said the move was "encouraging".

'Legal risk'

But while ministers were offering guidance on reducing harm, they were also introducing legislation threatening club owners with jail if they "knowingly permit" drug use on their premises, he added.

"With the threat of jail hanging over them, club owners may be dissuaded from introducing effective harm reduction measures and deaths may result," he said.

But a Home Office spokesman said the guide was written in close co-operation with the club trade - as well as local authorities and the police - and "the very fact of their involvement is evidence that it would not put club owners in breach of the law".

The guide follows comments by the Metropolitan Police's controversial Commander Brian Paddick earlier this month that targeting ecstasy users in nightclubs was a "waste of resources".

The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"Clubs will only get a license if they avoid overcrowding"

Drugs in clubs
Should there be rules on safety?
See also:

07 Mar 02 | UK
Safety on the dancefloor
03 Mar 02 | Scotland
Drug policy to be overhauled
25 Feb 02 | England
Electronic dog sniffs out drugs
14 Jan 02 | Health
Clubbers' mental health risk
09 May 01 | E-F
Ecstasy: The health dangers
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