Archive for September, 2013

Alcohol – it’s not a drug, it’s a drink

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

I have had somewhat of an epiphany recently. In light of my self-questioning around the application of morality to the laws of the land – specifically with reference to drug use – I have started to perceive alcohol differently. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a drinker. I always have been, and so has everyone around me. This is despite losing people to alcohol. And yet we all still drink drink drink like it was going out of fashion.

I still told my clients the dangers of drinking, indeed I knew them myself, and to be fair in recent years I have generally drunk within ‘safe’ limits. But that is far as I ever thought about going – after all, it was safe, so why would I question it any further?

Recently, I have pretty much stopped drinking – because after a spell of drinking very little, I realised that, when I do drink, I feel anxious the next day. Not only on the night itself, but the day after, I misjudge things, and my perception of the world and of myself is altered. This has nothing to do with ‘safety’ – but it definitely has a lot to do with health. If, as I am starting to wonder, alcohol can significantly affect mood the day after use – and bearing in mind that many people drink every night – does this not have huge implications for the mental state of the nation?

Then I saw a news report last week about the proposed ‘drunk tanks’. The idea was that people who were incapable of being responsible for their own welfare because of excessive alcohol consumption would be put into a unit overnight and then charged for the care they received – both to protect people and to reclaim some of the money in revenue spent on policing costs. It seemed like quite a good idea for me. But the man representing the alcohol industry gave me an insight into how much they care about the damage done by alcohol consumption and what they want to do to tackle it – which was, in summary, fuck all. The well-groomed young man in expensive glasses had a seemingly endless list about why no national mandates should be passed – why this was about local services making local decisions. Which, as anyone who works in the public sector knows, means doing nothing. Because everyone is too busy, are all praying to keep their heads above water and their jobs, and are not about to stump up the cash and time to commission and implement something so huge without imperative direction from the very top.

And as I sat there, watching this nicely-spoken young gent, something happened. Before my eyes, he morphed into every heroin and crack dealer I had ever met. His shirt was ironed, his face was clean – but his justifications for the continued sale of his product, his reasonings for why the deaths and the violence and the illnesses were not his fault, made him seem to me no different from the many dealers I have challenged about their choice of product and its impacts. The truth was – he didn’t give a shit about the number of young women getting sexually assaulted. He wasn’t the least bit interested in how much use of his product cost the taxpayer each weekend in policing and health interventions. And he certainly wasn’t willing to do anything about it.

Now, fear not – I am not about to go all evangelical about alcohol use and start praying to a higher power for strength to repel the demon drink. I am still going to have a drink when I feel like it and, likely as not, will drink too much on occasions. I suppose I am just realising, for myself, another layer to my indoctrination on the matter of legal and illegal drugs. Alcohol is not ‘bad’ – just like any other drug – and of course alcohol companies are only interested in taking your money, as per the capitalist mantra, or just like any other drug dealer. But where is the logic that most drugs should be illegal while just one remains legal – and what impact does this have on perceived safety and social acceptability?

My brother recently came back to the UK, and commented after a night out, “God, I’d forgotten how the English drink”. Recent reports indicate that, in fact, much like the truth-dodging representative for the licensing industry, we as a nation also forget how we drink. A report published by Alcohol Concern found that, in 2007-8, for Brits to drink within advised limits, alcohol consumption (excluding that brought into the country duty-free and home-brewed) would need to reduce by a third. The report found that if the alcohol bought in shops was divided between every adult, we would all be consuming twenty-six units a week.

However, an even scarier report published this year in the European Journal of Public Health , found that half the alcohol consumed in England was unaccounted for. (Again, this does not include imported of home-brewed alcohol, so the actual consumption is even higher.) The report exposed the discrepancy between self-reports of alcohol consumption, and alcohol sales. So at least three quarters of the population are estimated to drink above recommended limits – and no-one is admitting to it.

Now the alcohol industry clearly know this. If this wasn’t happening, they wouldn’t be eating caviar on their yachts. And yet, despite the serious health problems associated with drinking at these levels, they continue to push the drug. They continue to fight legislation to minimise the harm it causes. And they continue to put their hands up in objection when anyone suggests maybe they could be partly responsible for this problem and, as such, should maybe put their hands in their ever-deepening pockets and contribute towards reducing some of the damage done by their product. No less ruthless that the dealers who keep selling heroin they know contains congealants, or market their stash of PMA as ecstacy.

It also makes me wonder how much sway the alcohol firms have in the Tories’ drug policies. They bring in billions in revenue – and I am sure they are none-to-happy at the idea of someone muscling in on their market share by selling cannabis or other alternative products. Yet again, I am left questioning how much of our legislation is about the welfare of the population, and how much is about rich people scratching each other’s backs..

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What’s morality got to do with drugs?

Friday, September 13th, 2013

My beliefs about the criminalisation of drug use have changed over the last few months of researching and writing this blog. Although I always supported a health agenda, I spent years working alongside criminal justice agencies and, in essence, being part of the machine that maintained the War On Drugs. Drugs caused harm – that was for sure – and whilst I insisted on working for health services and within a harm reduction agenda, I still had to contribute drug tests and pre-sentence statements to criminal justice organisations on behalf of people I didn’t really think were doing anything wrong. Besides, most of the criminal justice drugs services were part of the NHS. The whole agenda was blurred – and the lines between health and justice disappeared under the weight of morality. As we all know, drugs are bad, kids.

But let’s face it – they’re not. They’re just drugs. If it’s a moral compass we’re using, some of them, such as anaesthetic, are definitely good. But this isn’t the issue I want to discuss here – I want to showcase a couple of the best resources I have found which outline the damage caused by unquestioningly taking this legal and moral standpoint on drug use.

Count The Costs has published an Alternative World Drug Report to coincide with the UN’s Global Commission On Drugs Policy (which I wrote about in The War On Drugs versus livers, and focuses on the public health implications of socially excluding drug users). Instead of relying on self-reporting by international governments, the Alternative Report collates its own data, looking at the unintended negative consequences of the War On Drugs.

It is organised into seven main areas of damage that is caused by the continuing approach taken by drugs policies across the world:

undermining development and security, fuelling conflict
threatening public health, spreading disease and death
undermining human rights
promoting stigma and discrimination
creating crime, enriching criminals
deforestation and pollution
wasting billions on drug law enforcement

For those of you who haven’t considered some of these arguments before, or if there is a particular issue that catches your attention, do have a look at this website. It really is the best, most comprehensive single resource I have seen, and isn’t so arrogant as to presume it has the answers – it merely forces the question.

A more capsule summary of the War On Drugs is available from Peter Watt of Sheffield University, whose recent piece on the upcoming legalisation of cannabis in Uruguay identifies the main motivations behind the problems in South America, the continent most damaged by the US-driven criminalisation agenda. Uruguay is an experiment worth watching – and it seems that the countries most crippled but the War On Drugs are starting to take matters into their own hands and make some interesting moves when it comes to drug policy (as previously discussed in Santos speaks out).

A specialist in the South American drug wars, Peter also identifies the value to the US economy of perpetuating the War On Drugs, by generating the private prison industry. Quoting journalist Chris Hedges, “Poor people, especially those of colour, are worth nothing to corporations and private contractors if they are on the street. In jails and prisons, however, they each can generate corporate revenues of $30,000 to $40,000 a year”.

This sentiment is shared in Eugene Jarecki’s excellent documentary, The House I Live In, which looks at the impact of the War On Drugs on the USA’s poorest, predominantly black, communities and asks who this system is benefitting. Despite drug use being proportional across racial groups in the US, almost all those incarcerated for drug offences are black – one in three young black men spend time in prison in the US.

I hope some of you will look at these links, and that, if you find them interesting, you will share them. This is not a small problem – areas of Asia, South America and Africa are being destroyed by this nonsensical battle, where poverty is exploited by organised criminals using fear and violence – and the continents providing the target markets, North America, Australasia and Europe, are also seeing their poorest and most excluded communities injured by the trade. Drug use isn’t bad – whether it is smoking crack or having a quiet pint on a Friday, we all do it to some degree, and until the moral and criminal precursors are removed from the debate, a practical, just solution will remain evasive.

Does MCat show up on a drugs test?

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

The main question that brings strangers to my blog is – does MCat show up on drug tests? I’m going to address this to the best of knowledge now, and if anyone has anything to add or knows any different, please leave a comment to inform others. There are some resources at the bottom for people wanting more information.

MCat, or mephedrone, is so called because of its chemical compound, 4-methylmethcathinone. It is just a happy coincidence that it smells like cat urine, hence sometimes being know as meow meow. Also known as mephedrone, it was originally marketed as plant food or bath salts so people could buy it without being detected, although it was never intended to be used as such. It seems to be able to be used as safely as other illicit drugs such as ecstacy. However, long-term effects are unknown, risks dramatically increased when used with other drugs, and I can say from my experience as a drugs worker that it can also be significantly, rapidly harmful to users’ mental health. It has also been described to me by more than one seasoned drug user as “more addictive than crack”. There have been various deaths linked to the drug.

In terms of drug testing, it IS now possible to test for mephedrone. It does, of course, depend on what you have actually taken – if you have bought it from a street dealer, it could be anything, and even substances bought via the Internet are not being monitored by Trading Standards and so might not be what you think you were buying. I have had loads of people tell me they have taken MCat, with widely-varying reports of the effects, and then test positive for amphetamine or methamphetamine, which have different chemical structures. I have even found a website which claims it can test for mephedrone using its methamphetamine testing kit (although I seriously doubt the validity of this). So be aware that, whatever you think you have taken, you could still flunk a drugs test.

In short, if you are being tested by your employer, it is possible that you could fail a drugs test after taking MCat. Basic testing windows for other stimulants (cocaine, amphetamine) are around two days in the bloodstream and five days in urine, so if you haven’t used any for a week you should be clear.

However, most standard workplace drug tests still do not test for MCat. It is, of course, possible that your employer is clued-up and has bought separate MCat testing kits, or has the samples sent off to the lab for detailed testing – and an article in the Welsh press this morning highlights that employers are becoming more aware of their staff using MCat – but the testing options are expensive, and my guess is your employer is just following their drugs and alcohol policy and covering their own backsides. Some drug services do now test for mephedrone, but some don’t.

If the test is via an oral swab (where a stick with cotton wool on is pressed against your gum or cheek for two minutes) then it is possible but unlikely to test for mephedrone, as, as far as I can gather, this test is only available via confirmation test (which costs about £30 per substance). Even if the lab did look for mephedrone, only the specific and original chemical compound would be detected. So in the case that the substance being used was some derivative of the original compound (such as any of those which flooded the market when mephedrone was made illegal to skirt legislation), then even if the sample was tested for MCat, it would still give a negative result. It is also possible to test for cathinone (khat), and given that mephedrone is a synthetic cathinone I thought this might also give a positive result for MCat, but on speaking to the lab this seems unlikely, as again the test only detects the specific chemical compound.

So if your employer or drugs worker is using oral fluid testing, it is unlikely but not impossible that you will give a positive result, unless they are willing to spend the money (for example, if they are testing as part of a court order). I’m not totally sure on testing windows for MCat, but given its short action and its similarity to amphetamine and other stimulants, I would hazard a guess that it only remains in the bloodstream (and so would be detectable through oral fluid testing) for a couple of days.

In terms of urine testing, again it is possible but not likely that employers will test for mephedrone. The mainstream-marketed dip-test strips or urine pots available for bulk-buying via the Internet do not test for MCat. Again, your employer could be on-the-ball, so there’s no way of ruling it out. Drugs will show up much longer in your urine than in your bloodstream, so if you have used MCat at the weekend it will probably still be present in your urine throughout your working week.

A good idea might be to get hold of your employer’s drugs and alcohol policy, and to look at your contract to see whether testing is mandatory. If possible, also find out what method of testing is used, and possibly even the company that provide the testing. (Oral swabs or urine pots will have the name of the company displayed on the side.) You can then look on the company’s website, or ring them, and ask whether they test for mephedrone and synthetic cathinones.

And if you interested in purchasing MCat drug tests, follow this link to my more recent post, MCat Testing.

For more information about MCat, it might be worth having a look at these resources:

– An excellent documentary called Legally High looks at new psychoactive substances, where they come from, the problems with legislating them, and the spectrum of drug use per se.

– Really interesting Wiki page about MCat, which charts its history, its researched neurochemical effects, and seems to me to under-report the negative effects and risks.

Frank’s generic drugs advice that slants to the negative, but also has links to help and support.

European Monitoring Centre For Drugs’ drug profile for synthetic cathinones, including mephedrone.

– My somewhat hopeless rant about my own experiences working with MCat users as a drugs worker – lets call it an industry insight.

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