The End of Zero-Tolerance Approach to Drugs in Licensed Premises?

21 May 2018


By Matt Lewin

A report published in March by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, Durham University, The Loop and Volte Face has called for drug safety testing services in nightlife districts and for an end to “zero tolerance” drugs policies in licensed premises.

Many licensed premises are required, as a condition of their licence or operating schedule, to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on drugs:

We operate a zero-tolerance policy on drugs and anyone who we (in our sole opinion) suspect of taking, dealing or asking for drugs will be searched and ejected from the Club. In instances where drugs are found, customers will be detained, and the matter will be reported to the police.” (Ministry of Sound Club Terms of Entry)

The report argues that zero tolerance policies can prevent premises from effectively promoting the safety of their customers – for instance by providing information about how to avoid or reduce drug-related harm or caring for vulnerable customers found in possession of drugs. Instead, the report advocates a more pragmatic approach which recognises that, despite best efforts, drugs regularly find their way into licensed premises, which puts customers at risk of harm: the “Three Ps“.

This approach, which draws inspiration from the government’s counter-terrorism policy, prioritises: preventing drugs from entering the premises; pursuing those suspected of supplying drugs in the premises; and protecting the public from drug-related harm.

Crucially, the report argues that the Three Ps can effectively promote the licensing objectives by preventing (more serious drug-related) crime and disorder and promoting public safety.
The report also makes three other recommendations with the overall objective of “harm reduction” and which promote the safety and welfare of all those involved in the night time economy – not only customers but also staff, performers and law enforcement:

  • Drug safety testing in a neutral venue (i.e. not within the licensed premises itself) in nightlife districts
  • An independent information campaign to reduce drug-related harm
  • Training for staff in how to respond effectively to drug use in the night time economy

The authors carried out interviews with stakeholders and experts from across the night time economy. Philip Kolvin QC and Matt Lewin, members of Cornerstone Barristers’ licensing team, were interviewed for the report.

What does this mean for licence holders?

Adoption of the “Three Ps”, in substitution for a “zero-tolerance” approach, might be what your premises needs to more effectively look after your customers.

The key message of the report is that all of their recommendations can be put into action within the existing framework of the Licensing Act 2003 and that there is no need to change the law. However, many licensing authorities require, in their statements of licensing policy, the adoption of a “zero tolerance” approach to illegal drug use in licensed premises.

Having said that, not all do. For instance, Policy 18 of the London Borough of Islington’s recently-adopted statement says:

The Licensing Authority is committed to ensuring that, where appropriate, the design and management of licenced venues maximises the safety of customers, performers and staff. The Licensing Authority will normally expect the submission of a drug policy as part of the operating schedule for applications for new premises licences and for variations to existing licences for nightclubs and similar premises.”

Even if your licensing authority’s statement is not so supportive, exceptions can always be made to reflect the circumstances of a particular licensed premises.

What is clear is that any move away from zero tolerance requires the backing of the licensing authority and the police. The report contains useful evidence and persuasive arguments which you might find helpful in your discussions with those authorities.

A more detailed analysis, co-authored with Dr Henry Fisher and Professor Fiona Measham, will be published in the July issue of the Journal of Licensing.