Vice UK has partnered with The Royal Society for Public Health and drug testing organisation The Loop to launch a drug safety campaign targeted at young people during festival season, a campaign rooted in better drug education which aims to fill the gap left by the ‘out of touch’ government and its ‘unrealistic’ prohibition agenda.
But the millennial-focused media company, which recently ran a week of programming dedicated to weed, ‘Weed Week’, doesn’t believe that the media bears any of the responsibility for the surge of young people using drugs in the UK and the consequent rise in drug-related deaths, which reached record levels in 2015.
In fact, the UK now takes more drugs and in higher quantities than anywhere else in Europe. According to a poll of British 16 to 24-year-olds conducted by Vice and YouGov, the results of which were released today (14 July), over one third of young people who have taken illegal drugs admitted that they have gone to school, college or work “high". One in five (20%) think they could get cocaine delivered to their house within 45 minutes or less.
Vice’s UK editor Jamie Clifton believes the main driving force for a lot of young people trying drugs is “peer pressure” - the way it has been “for decades” - which is in no way influenced by the growing number of articles available online about drugs and their, at times, positive effects.
“There have always been drugs in the media, I don't think there has been an increase. There has probably been an increase in reporting the bad side of it, ‘spice’ for example has been reported everywhere because there is an epidemic going on. I don’t think that would inspire anyone to use drugs,” he said.
Clifton affirms that Vice never condones or trivialises drug use; rather it reflects the reality of young people. Weed Week, for example, contained a mix of people talking about the bad experience of smoking marijuana and people who suffer mental health issues from it.
“Any positive stories would have been from the perspective of weed users,” he added.
Likewise, nothing in the ‘Safe Sesh’ campaign - which includes an editorial series, seven original short films, and a series of motion graphics animations to be distributed across Instagram Stories and Snapchat - condones drug use. Instead the campaign is focused on ‘harm reduction’.
“What the articles are saying to drug users is; if you use drugs these are the steps you can take to keep yourself safe. There is not enough messaging out there telling young people how to stay safe, so we are trying to fill that gap,” said Clifton.
The concerning rise of drug-related deaths is chiefly due to a lack of education in safe drug use, believes Vice, given the government’s hard stance on such issues. The government’s line is that the safest way to take drugs is to just not take them at all, while there are no open discussions or official safe guides to drug use as this is seen by officials as endorsing the use of drugs.
So strict is this stance, that is wasn’t until recently that drug testing organisation The Loop was permitted into festivals to allow attendees to test the safety of the ingredients within their drugs.
Jamie Clifton, editor at Vice, said the government’s prohibition line is “unrealistic” and distances it further from young people. According to its YouGov poll, nearly two thirds (62%) of young people believe that the government’s current policies towards illegal drugs are ineffective
“It doesn’t apply to many young people and their reality of how they use drugs,” he said. “It is important for an organisation like Vice which has that trust of young people to get behind the messaging and take it to a larger audience.”
Vice hopes that the campaign will not only act as an education tool, but that down the road it will affect policy. Which is why it has been timed to launch on the same day as the UK Home Office releases its new drugs strategy.
The campaign takes leanings from Vice’s playful tone, with posters emblazoned with slogans such as ‘It’s Paul from Potters Bar, not Pablo Escobar’, ‘Always Practice Safe Sesh’ and ‘Double drop, the night’s a flop’. Clifton said the tone Vice adopts and its ability to talk to its readers about drugs in an open, honest and realistic way, is something the company has “always been proud of”.
“I don’t think fear mongering is the way to go. You have to acknowledge that a lot of people use drugs and have an absolutely fine time. But there are cases where that isn’t the case, and there is an increase in hospitalisation, death and drug-related mental health issues and that also has to be acknowledged. Being honest, realistic and pragmatic is hopefully the best way to engage people because hopefully they will realise you are telling the truth and will listen,” he said.
The campaign materials will live in a dedicated ‘Safe Sesh’ hub on Vice.com, providing a permanent, searchable resource for young people looking for information on drugs.
The drug safety messaging will be rolled out at festivals, universities and clubs over the summer, directing festival-goers at Lovebox Festival, Boomtown and Secret Garden Party to test their drugs with The Loop.
Clifton also hopes the campaign will expand to feature on the company’s TV channel, Viceland, post-festival season.
Shirley Cramer, chief executive, Royal Society for Public Health, said: “Protecting the public from harm must be at the heart of UK drug policy. However, the continuing criminalisation of people who use drugs has helped perpetuate the most unsafe forms of use, exacerbated unnecessary risks, and discouraged people from engaging with drug support services if and when their use becomes problematic.
“Giving young people frank, open and honest advice that reflects the reality of modern drug use is not only sensible but necessary. We believe a pragmatic harm reduction approach is the only way to tackle the rise in deaths from illegal drugs in the UK, and this is why Vice’s latest drug safety campaign has our support.”