Archive for the ‘Rant’ Category

Theresa May – khat(ban)woman

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

Well, Theresa May has pulled another shit idea out of her seemingly bottomless bag. Proving that she not only has no idea about the young people in this country, she has now managed to alienate the Somali, Yemeni and Ethiopian communities too. Ignoring her advisors and their indepth research, which indicates that khat use is neither significantly dangerous to meet illicit criteria, nor on the increase, the daft old bat has decided that, yes, it should definitely be illegal.

Khat (a phonetic spelling of a word that basically sounds like ‘cat’) is a plant that, when chewed over a long period of time, produces a mild stimulant effect. An integral part of the community in Somalia, Yemen and Ethiopia, it helps people working long hours stay up, and is primarily used socially.

In the communities I have worked in, there has been a small amount of problematic use, and the head of the London Somali Youth Forum claims that young people are also starting to use the drug. However, when we consider that many of the Somali, Yemeni and Ethiopian people living in this country arrived here seeking asylum after fleeing their war-torn motherlands, having witnessed some fairly grim atrocities and then landing here at possibly not the best time to be a Muslim, I don’t think we can be too hard on them for using the drug in a slightly different manner than they would have done in their homelands, where use is unproblematic.

In terms of the social context, to me it stinks of oppression and racism. It’s worse than the Americans labelling Mexicans as mentally-deranged marajuana users, worse even than them labelling black Americans as crack users – because the plot there was to over-associate a widely-used drug to criminalise a specific population. Khat, in comparison, is pretty much only used by these communities – so from where I’m standing, this is out-and-out racial oppression.

Let’s draw a comparison. Imagine that the South of England invades the North. (It can only be a matter time, really – the BBC have already started.) A civil war ensues, killing thousands and displacing many thousands more. Some pretty nasty things take place, everyone is affected – both the Northerners who see their homes and families destroyed, and the Southerners who lose their fathers and sons in the fighting. Eventually many people have no choice but to evacuate to Ireland.

Now the Irish aren’t too keen on the English, for some reason. They begrudgingly offer them asylum, but they don’t want the English to feel too at home, or too equal. So they take from them the one thing that helps them cope, the one familiarity that brings people together and unites their communities, the thing that they sit down to with family, friends and neighbours when times are hard – the good old cup of tea. The Irish make caffeine illegal. And the English cry. (I know the Irish love it too – but just humour me for the span of this brief analogy.)

Now caffeine is addictive. It can be misused. In fact, in the 80s the World Health Organisation recommended that caffeine should be banned, because of the huge number of people presenting to GPs with headaches, migraines and anxiety problems resulting from excessive use. When we are upset or tired, we tend to drink more of it. Something bad happens – sit down, I’ll put the kettle on. Something needs discussing – come on, let’s go for a coffee. Imagine the social impact we English would experience if caffeine was removed from our culture.

And, likely as not, instead of having a cuppa or meeting for a coffee, we would go to the pub. In times of trauma and displacement, we English would need each other, to remember our old lives, and to help heal the wounds of war. And without a cuppa, what would we go for..? A run? A bath? I think not – we would go for a pint.

So I am suggesting, Theresa, you silly sausage / evil Aryan witch (delete as you see fit), that this policy might not be one of your best. I can’t imagine that the Somali youth are going to take up badminton instead. And at least this is a habit they can share with their parents and get useful advice on, instead of taking up something that alienates them from their heritage and no-one has any useful information about – like MCat.

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.

The War on Drugs versus livers

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Kofi Annan has been reading my blog again. Last week I again raised my concerns about the spread of Hepatitis C, and this week he and his Global Commission on Drugs Policy have concluded that current drugs policy has resulted in a Hep C pandemic. I’m impressed he managed to pull a paper together so quickly – but then he’s probably been a follower of mine for a while if his opinions on the futility on the War on Drugs are anything to go by.

He and his posse of world leaders have this week published a report stating that current drugs policy is “repressive” and “ineffective”. Claiming that, by treating drug use as a criminal justice issue instead of a health issue, governments are breaching human rights and putting their communities at unnecessary risk, their argument about the spread of Hep C is conclusive and damning.

The report claims that those countries with the harshest drug policies, including the USA, provide the biggest deterrent to accessing health services which would reduce the chance of contracting the virus. This has led the commission to conclude that “The war on drugs is a war on common sense”.

There are some positives though (and not just the Hep C type), with Scotland being hailed as a model of good practice. Having learned about blood-bourne virus (BBV) transmission the hard way with the HIV outbreak of the 80s, Scotland’s Hepatitis C Action Plan has succeeded in reducing the numbers of those infected, both by increasing preventative measures, such as hugely increasing access to clean injecting equipment to reduce new infections, and by improving access to treatment for those who already have the virus.

The biggest win, for me, is Scotland’s eight-fold increase in Hep C treatment in prisons. Working with the War on Drugs policies, rather than against them, this idea uses the revolving door of incarceration as an intervention opportunity. Whereas, in England, it’s still nigh on impossible to even get liver function tests done for someone in prison (to enable quicker prescribing of an opiate blocker to encourage no ongoing use on release – common bloody sense, but seemingly too much trouble for prison healthcare teams, whose responsibilities end the second the individual walks out of their door), Scotland are now offering full Hep C treatment in prisons.

This is refreshing – treatment services in England are notoriously out-dated and a nightmare to negotiate. I have taken clients to appointment after appointment at hospitals, only to be told that six months drug-free is not a long enough period of stability to ensure treatment success and reduce risk of reinfection (“because drug addiction is a relapsing condition” – thanks for the positivity, guys), or that reducing alcohol use from nine cans of Special Brew a day to two cans of Carling is still not enough of a reduction in consumption. There is no evidence-base to support their criteria – in fact some Hep C services go and dish out treatment on the streets to current drinkers and injectors – but the liver specialists in big hospitals do not particularly relish being forced into changing their treatment population. They’d much rather work with people with hereditary liver conditions, or even drinkers, than IV drug users, and they gate-keep their services accordingly.

Because of the potential and significant mental health impacts of the intense treatment, reported low mood is another classic reason for being deemed ‘not appropriate for treatment’. This seems to miss that point that, for someone whose existence is miserable, repetitive and cut-throat, and who may not have anywhere to live or food in their belly, low mood is kind of a must-have. So no drug or alcohol use, never feeling down, and a stable living environment – it makes you wonder who amongst us would actually qualify for Hep C treatment. (I would fail on all counts.)

But if this public health disaster isn’t bad enough, there is a hidden population who do not seek testing or treatment, because they perceive their injecting behaviour to be healthy. Steroid users are increasing in numbers, with little or no access to safer injecting information or blood-bourne virus prevention advice. I have heard many reports of one needle being passed around four or five men in a gym toilet, meaning a high risk for all of BBV infection and bacterial infection. And given that drug users generally spend their time working out and bulking up whilst in prison – and Hep C rates amongst IV drug users are estimated at 80% in the county I work in – it doesn’t bode well for the beefcakes, who may not know that the healthy-looking, fake-tanned meathead in front of them was once a pale, scrawny smackhead.

Whilst working in a busy city-centre needle exchange several years ago, one canny gym owner used to come and get boxes of needles to distribute to his customers. Most gym owners aren’t so conscientious – they will happily sell steroids to their members, but these come without injecting advice or equipment. One gym owner in the whole of one of the biggest cities in the country. That’s a whole lot of new livers required in twenty years’ time – for those whose hearts last that long.

Anyway, for the rest of you, some quick advice – don’t share toothbrushes or razors, and use a clean piece of paper or a straw each instead of sharing a grimy twenty pound note when you’re banging cocaine up your noses in pub toilets. Hep C can be transmitted by a single invisible drop of blood, and, unlike HIV, can live outside the body for up to four weeks. It’s a feisty little beast. And livers are quite handy.

Also here’s a shout-out to the big man, KA, and all his homeboys and girls. Good work on the report, guys, and let me know if you want me to join your little commission thing – and in the meantime, peace.

Austerity gives it Greek-style

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

As most, I fear the fate of our beloved NHS under the Shithead Coalition. I have previously suggested that current Government policy (punish the poor for the mistakes of the minted) may well be leaving the door wide open to another heroin epidemic, and we already see the country flooded with novel psychoactive substances such as MCat. Well it seems that the nightmarish repeat of the 80s unravelling before our eyes in Britain is already taking place in Greece.

A new ‘cocaine of the poor’ is sweeping the poverty-stricken country. At €2 a hit, and reportedly a variant of crystal meth, ‘shisha’ sounds likely to me to be MCat by another name. Similarly, it brings aggression, violence, mental health problems, and burns users from the inside out. And as with MCat, it is cheap, easily accessible, and currently has ripe pickings of the desperate poor.

And who can blame people for wanting some escapism. With Greek youth unemployment apparently at 64% and a total of 400,000 families without any income at all (not to mention those who have jobs but aren’t getting paid, or are earning so little that they are unable to sustain their families), it is no surprise that suicides have increased by over 60%. Prostitution and homelessness have also massively increased – and I don’t know about you, but if I was reduced to living a brutal life on the streets, I think I’d prefer to be the nutter than the nutted, battered than the battered. Shisha use could be seen as a strategic line of defence.

In terms of the back-drop to the growing drug problem in Greece, I have been dipping in and out of an amazing blog (a really excellent example of why the Internet and its self-publishing is a wonderful thing) which challenges pretty much everything written in the mainstream media, and uncovers some fairly scary truths about the state of the world and those running it. The author, John Ward, writes about the ‘Troika’ – European Commission, International Monetary Fund, and European Central Bank – crippling Greece’s economy by forcing austerity measures. His comparisons between the Troika’s policies and those of the Fascists during the Second World War are genuinely frightening. John has exposed the corruption within the capitalist structures of Europe, and warns that, as in the past, ‘austerity’ can be a label given to international looting by those in power. And last time round, he says, when the Nazis stole Greek resources as part of ‘German reconstruction costs’, 40,000 Greeks starved to death.

So what does this mean for the Greek people now, and are there lessons we can learn? A new book, as reported in the Guardian this week, looks specifically at the health impact of austerity measures, and brings the tag line “Recessions can hurt, but austerity kills”. Strong words – but they are backed up with hard facts by this Yale, Oxford and Cambridge-educated expert in health economics, David Stuckler, who says that Greece is facing a public health disaster. With a reduction to the health budget of 40%, he quotes the Greek health minister, “These aren’t cuts with a scalpel, they’re cuts with a butcher’s knife”. And the cuts weren’t made under the guidance of the medical profession but by the financially-motivated Troika. They are not even representative of financial requirements being met by other countries, but are in fact much harsher than the cuts being imposed in other areas of Europe. It seems that John Ward’s shocking comparisons may be more accurate than is comfortable to acknowledge – and that the concepts of public health and indeed humanity appear to have been lost in a calculated move for money and power.

And the results for Greek health provision so far? Hospitals without surgical gloves, pharmacies without necessary medication, and seriously diminished resources to support the ever-increasing population of substance users. Stuckler has spoken to drug services in Athens to see how close they are to meeting World Health Organisation guidance that 200 clean needles should be made available for each IV drug user every year – and the current availability per person is 3. No wonder then that cases of HIV have shown a 200% increase (which is probably a conservative estimate given that testing is no doubt harder to access, and will not be helped by the increasingly desperate prostitution trade), and I dread to think of the rates of hepatitis C, venous damage and bacterial infections as people continue to use drugs without access to harm reduction advice and clean equipment.

As Professor Stuckler points out using multiple examples from history, destroying welfare, healthcare and employment programmes is never a positive move for the economy, aside from the human cost. A country that fails to invest in its people has not the strength to recover – very much like a person, there needs to be belief, hope and investment for recovery to take place. And if austerity was a treatment programme being clinically trialled, “It would have been discontinued” says Stuckler. “The evidence of its deadly side-effects – of the profound effects on economic choices on health – is overwhelming”.

So, just to bring it back home.. Cuts to public services: check. Increase in unemployment: check. Money being taken from the poor and disabled to pay for the rich: check. Increase of depression presentations (especially in the north of England where unemployment is highest and suicide is on the rise): check. Easy access to dangerous, damaging new drugs and a bumper opium crop due in from Afghanistan: check. Right then, we’re all set! Addiction is the new black, I’d get taxing the stuff if I were you, David.

Addiction is sooooo passé, darling

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

Two substantial pieces of research have recently considered people’s perceptions about drug use and how this might influence their choices. Unlike the usual, predictable drugs research, these consider two pretty interesting variables – pleasure and social class.

The first, carried out in Australia, used some fairly complex formulas to grade respondents’ socio-economic status (I’d imagine things like ‘How many kangaroos do you own?’, ‘How big is your beer fridge?’, ‘What do you throw on your barbie?’), and then correlated this with their opinions about which substances they associated with drug problems. The results were compiled into this rather lovely diagram (apologies to email subscribers if this doesn’t come through as intended, it’s worth having a look on my actual blog by clicking on the link at the bottom):

20130509-172714.jpg

As you can (hopefully) see, heroin, considered more of a problem by those further up the social ladder, has become less of a perceived problem over the last few years. Conversely, and unsurprisingly given the massive ‘P’ problem in Australia, methamphetamine has become more of a concern over the years, regardless of social class – although wierdly is still less of a worry than heroin. Concern around cannabis use seems bizarrely high, but has remained fairly stable over the whole research period, and those in higher social classes feel cannabis is significantly less problematic than those further down the scale. And alcohol and tobacco, the substances most associated with addiction and serious health problems, seem to be seen as largely unproblematic by the people questioned. But then they are Australian.

I’d love to see this piece of research replicated in Britain. I think the boundaries of socio-economic status would be more blurred here, with our very old and complex social structures, but I think we could all help the process by thinking of some potential questions: Staffie, rescue mongrel, or labrador? Aldi, Tesco, or Waitrose? Jeremy Kyle, Jeremy Clarkson or Jeremy Vine?

The second piece of research is grandly titled The Global Drugs Survey – although it’s UK data was collected from readers of Mixmag and The Guardian, so The White Middle Class Survey might have been more accurate. However, the concept was novel – using an (unvalidated) scale called the Net Pleasure Index, it looked at positive and negative experiences of each substance and how they impacted on an individual’s ability to function.

Mephedrone and ‘unknown white powders’ caused the most concern in terms of after-effects, with psychadelics and ecstacy coming out the most pleasurable overall. Those who had been caught in possession of small amounts of illicit substances had a good chance of not facing criminal charges. The role of Silk Road in shifting drug purchase trends was acknowledged.

Old Nuttbag got involved, of course, to point out that alcohol and tobacco were perceived as the most problematic by respondents. Banging the pro-drugs drum with his headline ‘The real driver behind most drug use is pleasure, not dependence’, he seemed to be missing the point that sample was biased, being a cohort of reportedly happy, healthy, educated and employed Mixmag and Guardian readers. Obviously most of them are still able to work and function, otherwise they wouldn’t be buying publications about spending all your money having fun, either wearing designer garns and sunglasses in a warehouse at midnight, or carbon-neutral eco-camping in France. And clearly, therefore, their experiences of drug use are bound to be more positive than if they had asked the same questions at a Jobcentre or a needle exchange – where the focus might have been less “hey life’s great, I’m financially stable, confident, and fulfilled in my working week, so drugs are about weekend pleasure” and more “I am dragging myself through yet another degrading fucking groundhog day and cannot wait to smash something into to me to block out the banality and misery of my own existence”.

Or had the research population been Sun readers, I would imagine the results would have been skewed somewhat differently. But then the questions might have been a bit too hard for them to understand. And it’s difficult to find time to do surveys when you’ve got to sign on, get the transit ready for the scrap run, sign bail and make it in time for Wetherspoon’s happy hour (every hour’s a happy hour at Wetherspoon’s).

So there we go – my conclusion is that both pieces of research told us more about socio-economic status than they did anything else, and that in fact problematic drug using behaviours may well be symptomatic of poverty, poor education and lack of aspiration. And if you’re white and middle-class, you will probably get off a possession charge without so much as a caution. Ground-breaking stuff.

Heroin for the poor, cannabis for the sick, and the death of an anti-capitalist dream

Friday, May 3rd, 2013

There have been some interesting additions to our previous ponderings in the news this week.

Drugs in medicine

A US collaboration between a medical research team and a centre for substance misuse research have found that cannabanoids can reduce the replication of the HIV virus in white blood cells. This may also relieve inflammation of the central nervous system, reducing symptoms of HIV-related neurocognitive disorders. The broader applications of these findings to other disorders are now being considered.

If we think back to Cancer Patients With Acid Smiles, here is another example of the US striding ahead because they are changing their angle on substances. Cannabis is no longer illegal in some American states, making it free game for medical research, and, as Professor Nutt pointed out, we are slowing down progress in tackling some of our worst illnesses by limiting the substances we consider for treatment.

By way of comparison, a prescribable Naloxone injection becomes available in the UK this week. I have been reading recent discussions on American websites about the huge problem that opiate (illicit and prescribed) overdose is causing over there, as I waved the British flag with news of the work being done in Wales where heroin users and their families have been trained to administer Naloxone. It seems, given the market launch of the product, that this life-saving product is now available to anyone over here. Hooray for harm reduction.

Afghan heroin trade continues to boom

The United Nations has apparently released data suggesting an eighteen percent growth in Afghanistan’s opium trade in the last year. As I suggested in Smacktastic Britian, this correlates nicely with the Government’s poor-battering, and we are bound to see a new wave of heroin use across the country. Maybe David Cameron should read Cameron Does Cocaine and get the bloody stuff taxable sharpish. It would certainly fit in with his other policies if he could provide an actual opiate for the (poor) people. Make it half-price on election day to keep the buggers at home. Although given that the CIA have reportedly been sending over suitcases stuffed with cash for eleven years now, maybe that trade route has already been baggsied. After all, the Americans are the originals (and the best) when it comes to using substances for social control.

Silk Road taken down by hacker

And finally, the website Silk Road was briefly closed down by hackers this week. It is thought the anonymity software Tor, which became known as ‘the dark web’ because of its uses for the grimier side of the net, is to blame for the problem, and that vulnerabilities in the system may have been exposed. This has come in the same week that the Bitcoin system has also been breached, as a software specialist illegally ‘mined’ an amount of the currency for himself. Unsurprisingly, the virtual currency continues to drop in value.

All of which is proof that, if someone is clever enough to develop a system, there will always be someone clever enough to cheat it. It saddens my socialist ideals that the person who tried to take on the banking system wasn’t superiorly intelligent (in my mind he is a masked hero called Merchant Wanker – make love, not profit), but, as we have to accept, there are vultures everywhere, and nobody likes a clever clogs.

Smacktastic Britain

Monday, April 15th, 2013

A report today indicates a record opium crop in Afghanistan this year. The farming of poppies is seeing a resurgence, particularly in areas where violence is rife and agricultural aid is sparse. It seems that large-scale producers will not only provide all the necessary ingredients, but also pay in advance. This is in addition to reports that cannabis cultivation is also seeing a dramatic rise in the country.

And who can blame them. In a country where Western interventions have caused political instability and war, why would anyone, including the UN who are tasked to monitor and reduce drug production in the country, expect the Afghani people to give a toss about what rich white people on the other side of the world choose to spend their money on? I see no lack of morality in the trade myself – they are producing a crop to meet a demand, they are earning a decent living for them and their families, in circumstances most of us can’t even imagine. The fact that other people may then choose, under their own free will, to use that crop in way a manner which may be harmful to themselves, is no concern of the farmers.

Yet the War On Drugs prohibits it, and no doubt Afghanistan will come under further fire for failing to control its most lucrative exports.

Now this year’s bumper crop, partly due to poor weather for two previous years, partly due to more farmers choosing this crop above less well-paid alternatives, is coming at a time when, as a country, we probably need it most. Britian’s poorest are being targeted by benefit cuts and room taxes; budgets for social and health care are being reduced; politicians are diverting our eyes from their significant fuck-ups and self-serving financial scams by blaming the state of the country’s finances on the poor by likening them all to Mick Philpott; the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s policies still resonating across the country following her death, the anger no less fierce than the day she lost power. It does not surprise me that there were two incidents of football violence at prominent matches over the weekend – I think the current feelings of distrust and unfairness are rising in much the same as they did in the 80s.

And, in the 80s, at a time where everyone but those at the top of the social strata battled against the system and lost, and feelings of disempowerment and displacement engulfed the country, which market flourished? Here’s a clue – it blocks out physical and emotional pain, it provides a sense of social identity, and maintaining its demands is equivalent to a full-time job. That’s right guys, strap in – heroin’s sure to make a come-back!

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