The unregulated manufacture of illicit drugs makes it impossible for a consumer to know the true nature or composition of the substance they intend to consume. This has brought about the introduction of ‘pill testing’ or ‘harm reduction’ kits that enable users to test their drugs at home in an effort to prevent drug poisoning. While these are currently available to purchase, the question must be asked:
“Should illicit drug quality kits be provided for free on the NHS?”
Control Your High
In 2017 there were 3,756 deaths and 15,074 hospital admissions due to drug poisoning recorded in the UK, which is a 51% increase on 2005/6. Many of these were caused by the consumer being unaware of harmful substances present in the product. For example, chemicals such as PMA and NBOM that can cause death in very low doses are regularly found in ecstasy, and cutting agents levamisole and phenacetin, that cause cancer and skin necrosis, are often used in large amounts to bulk up cocaine.
Death and hospitalisation rates can be improved from the use of the kits by enabling the consumer to make an informed decision. This has been proven using testing stations at festivals, where death rates have reduced by 95% and as many as two thirds of people discarded their drugs after knowing their true content. As is found within medical ethics, we have a responsibility as a society to protect people’s autonomy as a basic human right, and true autonomy cannot be accomplished with missing information.
From a hedonistic stance, it can be argued that everyone is entitled to freedom of choice, and that the pursuit of pleasure is the most important goal of human life. Therefore, if a person wishes to increase their personal pleasure by consuming illicit drugs and this action does not hinder others from also experiencing pleasure, then this is not wrong. At-home testing kits providing access to a more informed decision enable this freedom of choice and decreases the likelihood of causing distress for another person.
Welfarism says that the best action is the one that most increases the economic well-being or welfare for the people. The knock-on effect of the availability of these kits on the NHS has the potential to be beneficial to society and public health and therefore promoting welfarism. This is true both through the reallocation of time and resources currently allotted to treating drug poisoning cases to other services, and through data collected from the distribution of the drug kits such as quantity and location of drug usage. Access to this kind of information would also allow the NHS to focus on providing support where it is needed and use resources more efficiently.
As is well backed-up back pragmatic ethics, the moral progression of our society is seeing the use of illicit drugs become more acceptable in many circles. As a result of this, care ethics and our natural instinct of benevolence to reduce harm to human beings to the best of our ability indicates that at-home testing kits should be as accessible as possible.
What a Waste!
The two core counter arguments that evolve in this debate are; how the introduction of these kits will affect existing and noncommittal users, and the associated cost impact on the NHS. Currently, existing kits are not widely available and their introduction into the NHS will significantly promote the use of illicit drugs at a cost to the UK taxpayer.
By exploring utilitarianism theory, the best action is the one that brings about the least amount of harm to all parties involved. Hence, the promotion of safe drug use by the NHS may encourage noncommittal users, who are currently hesitant, to more confidently take illicit drugs. Subsequently, this increases the number of users across the UK, which clearly violates the no-harm principle, due to the greater number of people at risk.
Although you may believe the introduction of these kits is likely to reduce the number of deaths caused by harmful substances, the rise in the number of drug users is also likely to increase the number of deaths linked to misuse. Of the 3,756 drug related deaths in 2017, two-thirds are associated to drug misuse, highlighting the limited benefit these kits will have in reducing overall drug related deaths in the UK.
The continuous change in drug composition makes accurate testing for harmful substances difficult, which could potentially hinder the kits reliability. In the perspective of a manufacturer, exploring Keenan’s virtue ethics where “an action is only right if it is an action that a virtuous person would carry out in the same circumstances” the question must be asked; is it right to provide a product that could potentially mislead consumers with severe consequences?
Employing social contract theory, one can say that an individual has the right to privacy, but also the duty not to invade the privacy of others. However, in modern day society complete anonymity is unrealistic, with various companies facing increasing public scrutiny for data scandals, such as Facebook. With this in mind, people are reluctant to share basic information, let alone inadvertently admitting to using illicit drugs, especially to a government entity that will always condemn their use.
By definition, illicit drugs are “forbidden by law”. Kant’s Categorical Imperative states that you should “always act so that you may also wish that the maxim of your action become a universal law” therefore, if breaking the law is wrong then promoting this is also wrong. For this reason, the statement “it is OK to do illicit drugs” cannot be universally applied.
Of the three million UK drug users in 2016/17, only 0.1% had a drug related death. With this miniscule chance coupled with a known and trusted dealer begs the question: Why do you even need the kit?
In your lifetime, you are 10 times more likely to die in a car crash!
As a group, we are of the opinion that the NHS should not provide illicit drug testing kits for free as they offer limited benefit to society at the expense of other areas in need of funding.