Archive for June, 2013

What do heroin and Theresa May have in common?

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

So the United Nations are fully behind The War On Drugs, it seems. A report released this week states, somewhat apologetically, "We have to admit that, globally, the demand for drugs has not been substantially reduced and that some challenges exist in the implementation of the drug control system". However, it continues to maintain that the War On Drugs is the only way forward as "the problem will not be resolved if drugs are legalized. Organized crime is highly adaptive. It will simply move to other businesses that are equally profitable and violent".

Anyone who watched Prohibition recently will question this premise. The documentary tracks the careers of various criminal gangs, who went from scraping a living together to living in the lap of luxury when alcohol prohibition provided them with a gaping gap in the market. As one interviewee recalled, small-time crooks who would previously have had the odd driving job suddenly had more work than they could cope with. The demand for the product elevated criminals to celebrities. Makes you wonder exactly which market the UN think could generate the turnover of the international drugs trade, to keep the drug barons in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.

It will come as no surprise that the report identified significant changes in drug trends. Whilst heroin and cocaine use remain stable and predictable, new psychoactive substances being manufactured in Asia are the new big thing.

You don’t say. Quite aside from my highly-informative *ahem* pieces on MCat and PMA, the search terms that lead people to my blog give us an interesting insight as to the popularity of these new substances. Of the one hundred and thirty-four search terms I am able to see (and don’t worry, there is no way of me finding out which of you searched for which..), thirty-six of those contained the words MCat, meow meow or mephedrone. So over a quarter of people coming to my blog via an internet search engines were looking for information on MCat. This in comparison to just six searches for information relating to heroin.

However, possibly more worrying is that heroin is of equal interest to a somewhat more conservative issue. One which, unlike MCat, is not spread across the front pages. Yes, that’s right – my blog keeps receiving visits from people searching for images of Theresa May’s legs. Six of the pervs have been mortally gutted when their excited searches have revealed my somewhat drab and largely unsexy blog. Still, I am proud to incite flopsie in the dirty sods – and hope that maybe they learned something about drugs policy in the meantime.

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Cannabis vending machines, coming soon to a pub near you

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m starting to think that cannabis is actually going to get decriminalised. Over the last six months, I have noticed a significant swing in the reporting of all debates around drugs, from the moral to the practicable. Particularly where cannabis is concerned, the reporting has changed from “if” to “when”. There have been changes to the social presentation of cannabis, as well as the moral and political discussions around drug use per se, and even discussions in the professional and academic arenas have started to reflect that this not only should but also might actually happen.

Yes, we know that the Tories are digging their heels in when it comes to making changes. But gigantic intra-party rifts (and an overall lack of charisma) pretty much guarantee that they won’t be getting in next time. The Lim Dems have voiced their more liberal approach to these matters, and whilst Labour have remained diplomatically quiet on the matter, the bunch of Guardian readers will not have been able to avoid the swing in public and press opinions. Plus by the time the Tories have deconstructed the NHS, the next Government will inherit a bunch of uni drop-outs instead of proper drug workers (because untrained, inexperienced workers are ever so cheap, you know), progress at tackling the issue will be reversed, and the drug problem the Tories so confidently state is currently under control (ahem) will be rearing its ugly head yet again, forcing a new course of action. And really, if the Tories actually thought about it, regulating and taxing cannabis would be an excellent capitalist move and revenue generator.

But when I take a step back and stop wrangling with the current political debate, I am in total awe of the social shift we are witnessing. If cannabis does become decriminalised and therefore a marketable product and commodity, and it becomes widely accepted that it does not cause the same level of physical and social harm as alcohol, the social laws that have existed throughout our lives so far will change.

Let’s take as an example the British institution – the public house. We can pretend that the Government has appeased the alcohol companies by giving them licenses to sell cannabis, hence reversing the demise of the good old boozer. People crowded into smoking areas outside pubs will now be passing round spliffs – a much more social activity than smoking cigarettes, and one which tends to spark discussions and create a sense of community. When these people go back into the pub they will probably feel a bit stoned (especially if they’ve already had a drink) and won’t feel like drinking as much. With less alcohol being consumed, and a more general state of relaxation taking prevalence, these punters will be feeling way too chilled out for the usual fight or sexual assault.

So there you have it – my solution to the main target for alcohol services over the last three years – if you want to reduce alcohol-related hospital admissions and A&E presentations, legalise pot. Seriously, with policies like that, I should totally work in public health.

However, what genuinely entertains me about this huge social shift is the looks on our future generations’ faces when we tell them what life was like under prohibition.

Futuristic young person (scanning screen implanted on palm): “So drugs used to be illegal?”
Old me (hopefully donning a jet pack): “They did. You could go for prison for having them in your possession.”
FYP: “What?! Seriously?! So did everyone go to prison then? Did you go to prison?”
OM: “No – we used to hide our drugs in air-tight containers called Tupperware and drive out into the countryside to take them without anyone knowing.”
FYP: “Plastic and petrol? That’s not very ecofriendly! You’d get arrested for that now.”
OM: “And the Police used to drive out into the countryside to to try and catch us.”
FYP: “That is totally wasteful of public money.”
OM: “Well think how much it cost to convict the people they caught and keep them in prison – then have to maintain them on state benefits when they were released because no-one wanted to employ a convicted drug user.”
FYP: “So if drugs were illegal, that means they weren’t taxable – so who paid for drug treatment?”
OM: “Most of the money for drug treatment came out of criminal justice and health budgets.”
FYP: “So money was taken away from catching rapists and treating cancer?! That is crazy!”
OM: “You lot don’t know you’re born. I bet you’ve never even been to a criminal’s house. You’d arrive at the dealer’s, completely shitting yourself, fearing unreportable violence, or, even worse, a Police raid, until the minute you left the dingy, fortified shit-hole, with a bag of godknowswhat, no doubt weighing less than you’d paid for.”
FYP: “Why would I have anything to do with criminals? You lot were bonkers, it’s only weed, as if I’d risk getting arrested for something so boring.”
OM: *shameful lowering of eyes at own stupidity* then *nostalgic state into space at memories of the old days when we thought drugs were cool*.

Dr Death joins the decriminalisation debate

Friday, June 14th, 2013

Some sad news – another death from PMA (para-Methoxyamphetamine). This is the fourth in Derbyshire in recent months, with two further deaths just over the border in Macclesfield, and a total of eleven deaths recently linked to the drug in the UK. This poor lass was a 24-year-old mental health worker who had been on a river party cruise in Nottingham. Later that night she started convulsing at home in Ilkeston and was dead by the time she reached hospital.

The drug, which is being sold as ecstacy, is not only very toxic, but the toxicity quickly multiplies as doses increase. Couple that with the slow onset of its effects while users are expecting the quick hit of ecstacy, and you have a scenario where people neck more thinking they have a batch of dud pills. It works in much the same way as antidepressants, by inhibiting serotonin reuptake, and so is really not a good idea for anyone on these type of medications.

It seems that only the tabloids are interested in this story. Using their impeccable ability to turn any story into a soap opera, they have named the drug ‘Dr Death’. I’m not quite sure what it has to do with Harold Shipman, or why they feel the need to anthropomorphisise a substance by turning it into an evil physician, but it sparked fury on the Mail’s comment pages. Those able to read the article then type a response missed the point that the victims thought they were taking ecstacy, with comments such as “You’d think that since the drug is called “Dr. Death” people might actually doubt whether it’s safe to take” and “The clues in the name!” (his lack of apostrophe, not mine), or the more resigned “This is what teenagers do these days” *sigh*. My personal favourite, a statement which manages to misconstrue any educated facts into Jeremy Kyle bullshit – “Ecstasy kills. Heroin kills. Crack kills. It may not kill you the first time you take it, or even the 5th but it will get them eventually, that goes without saying. So kids, please, put the common sense into action and live”. Hey kids, just say no, or Dr Death will sneak into your room at night and bum rape you TO DEATH. That goes without saying, it’s common sense. In the name of sweet baby jesus, take the aptly-named Amy Winehouse’s lead and use something safe like vodka – because it’s not a drug, it’s a drink.

In contrast, this story makes me genuinely sad. Yes, people took the drug of their own volition, and yes, drugs are illegal, but these were all young people having a good time, taking what they thought was ecstacy, which they had probably taken many times before. But the sad truth is – the deaths were completely unnecessary. If, as previously considered here, drugs were decriminalised and monitored by Trading Standards, people would know what they were taking, how much, and could even gain access to information about the interactions between the drugs they were taking, for example how PMA interacts with MDMA (which causes serotonin syndrome, leading to severe overheating and convulsions).

Or, in the Netherlands, thirty ‘drop labs’ have been commissioned, where people can take their drugs for free testing. This not only gives users access to information about what they are taking, leading some to claim that it allows them to hold dealers accountable and therefore has improved the quality of drugs being sold locally (meaning increased safety as people know what they are consuming) – but also enables national monitoring of drug trends and purity, and hence improved opportunities for harm reduction interventions. However, this approach of course will only work in a society where attitudes to drugs are more liberal, where there are testing labs in every town, and where people are organised and motivated enough to utilise the facilities. But it’s a start.

If only one of the sensible newspapers would report this story, it could be used to support the decriminalisation debate, then maybe this argument would reach people with influence and we wouldn’t have to see stories like this. I would just like to point out that I am available for freelance work…

Santos speaks out

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

While we are all whining on about the impact of drugs on our communities, and the effects on individuals, South America and Mexico continue to deal with the shocking human cost of producing and distributing cocaine, methamphetamine, cannabis and other drugs. Much like the opium situation in Afghanistan, cocaine and cannabis are cash-crops – but unlike Afghanistan, it’s not just the fluffy types at the UN wanting the curb the trade. Pressure on South American and Mexican governments from the USA to stop the export of cocaine and other drugs has meant tough penalties for those manufacturing and trafficking, because failure to adhere to these US-enforced policies means risking international relations with their closest, richest neighbours and vital trade partners. This has caused a full-on war between the authorities and organised criminals, leading to death rates that surpass most genocides. In Mexico alone, between 2006 and 2011, it is thought that around 60,000 were killed or ‘disappeared’, many of whom remain unidentified after being found in mass ‘narco-graves‘.

In an unusual (and strangely under-reported) move, Columbian president Juan Manuel Santos has this week published an article in The Guardian’s ‘Comment Is Free’, outlining the main points of a report produced by the Organisation of American States (OAS) in partnership with Oxford University. The report suggests ways in which the issue could be tackled, not from a moral perspective (ie what should happen) but from a pragmatic standpoint (what could happen). Santos states that this new set of approaches broadens the debate past the polarised ‘warriors’ and ‘legalisers’ arguments – after all, this is not Star Wars, there is no good versus evil, and neither extreme offers valid ideas to vastly improve the lives of ordinary people.

The scenarios proposed in the report, which has been released as the OAS leaders meet this week in Guatemala, involve providing better health, education and employment opportunities to offer real economic alternatives to those embroiled in drug production and trafficking and their communities; strengthening public institutions to improve the welfare of citizens; better (and, I would imagine, less hierarchical) co-operation with international partners; and redirecting budgets currently spent on international priorities (law enforcement in an attempt to stop the drugs being produced and exported) to local priorities. Clearly some of these approaches will require international support to be implemented – as long as the US and the rest of us keep pushing for the problems to be contained, the internal wars and consequential deaths will continue.

However, the headline-grabbing proposal made in the report is to look at alternatives to criminalisation, starting with the legalisation of cannabis. It seems to me that the OAS have seen an opportunity to use the current cannabis debate in the US, which has resulted in Colorado and Washington legalising the drug, cleverly to their advantage. The report suggests South America and Mexico follow suit, and so appears to be jumping on the US bandwagon. After all, it would be highly hypocritical for the US to claim that the rights they offer their citizens were not applicable to the citizens of their neighbouring countries. But it also uses the US model to politely point out that the problems the War On Drugs causes the USA might cause one or two little problems in their countries too – and they don’t just have over-run prisons and drug treatment centres, they have pits of nameless dead.

Luckily, President Santos does seem to be getting some parallel support from this side off the pond. A letter from a group of MPs and celebrities to our Government was published in The Times this week, signed not only by candyfloss-haired minted powerhouse Richard Branson, marathon-shagging squealer Sting, and you-get-loads-of-sex-how? lanky slime-ball Russell Brand, but also politicians from the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. The movement is being led by Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, whose personal stake in the matter may be the destruction of vast areas of rainforest as chemical byproducts of drug production are illegally dumped. The letter questions the validity of the War On Drugs and asks how the Government can justify their £3b a year spending on their current approach, suggesting that possibly an evidenced approach might be a better use of public money. (You know, try to see if something works before you spend our hard-earned cash implementing it. Just a thought.)

Whilst the letter does not make direct reference to the situation in America, it is yet another high-profile attack on existing drug policy – and only adds to the ever-increasing international momentum for things to change. It seems to me that we are on the cusp of the greatest social paradigm shift since the abolition of slavery. But then I am a bit of a drama queen.

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