On Legal Highs

Last year a girl died following allegedly consuming a mixture of Ketamine and Mephedrone.

A following coroner’s report established that there were no drugs in her system and that she died of broncho-pneumonia following a streptococcal A infection.

The reporting of this at the time should have been described as scandalously irresponsible by any sensible definition of the term.

Both the Daily Mail and The Sun led with the above “dishonest” headlines. Even the supposedly respectable The Telegraph claimed that “Miss Price’s death is not the first harrowing account of the devastating effect the drug can have.”

The Telegraph come closest to the truth here, but only because the coroner’s investigation revealed that Gabrielle Price’s death wasn’t the result of the drug at all.

None of the above provided a reliable source for the accusation she had been taking the drugs but they ran the story anyway. This may have been down to the loss of staff and erosion of fact checking over the last few decades, a lust for a good and simple morality tale or perhaps some cognitive bias against drugs meant that they felt they didn’t need to wait for the coroner’s evidence.

At the time I speculated that this poor reporting was down to something other than malice or propaganda. But this weekend’s papers have caused me to reconsider my position.

The Telegraph reports that Children as young as 12 are turning up at school under the influence of a “legal high” drug, teachers and health workers have warned just as The Mail reports that the death of Ben Walters at a house party in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire was the latest tragedy to be linked to the drug.

The two strands were then later combined into this story from The Daily Mail Legal but lethal: The drug snorted by school kids which is sweeping Britain.

All three stories reference Gabrielle Price’s death [1] despite it having been made clear she did not die as a result of taking the drugs discussed.

The primary source for this weekend’s stories is an article in the Times Education Supplement quoting extensively from Jeff Bower. He is Headteacher of Ben Walter’s school and has called for the drug to be made illegal.

Unfortunately for Mr Bower’s credibility he also uses the death of Gabrielle Price to back up this demand. As cited above, the coroner’s report does not back up this assertion.

The worrying inaccuracies continue. One of the prominent sources for the alleged drug taking of Ben Walters is a college friend of Ben’s who describes the drug taken.

Nobody thinks it’s dangerous because it’s legal. It’s a substitute for heroin but you can get it over the internet

The drug described is Methadone, not Mephedrone. Methedone is a substance which recovering heroin addicts take to wean themselves of the dangerous opiate, it is not related to Mephedrone.

I do not doubt for a second that she had the best of intentions but the inaccurate information given by her has been repeated unchallenged by the papers above. In an area where accuracy is paramount the reporting of this death poses more questions than it provides answers.

The true circumstances of Ben Walter’s death remain a mystery. Police have refused to comment on rumours he had taken drugs prior to his death but have confirmed that 6 people have been arrested on drug charges following his discovery alongside a seriously ill 28 year old woman who has not been named.

Needless to say it would be best to not comment on Ben Walter’s death until after a coroner’s report, but sadly there are those who wish to use his death for propaganda and given the media’s treatment of Gabrielle Price it would be dangerous to allow them.

All of this is not to deny that Mephedrone may be a dangerous drug. Its effects are certainly powerful. A pupil at Mr Bower’s Woldgate College was taken to hospital after allegedly collapsing from taking the drug during school hours.

But the efforts of The Telegraph, The Sun, The Mail, The Times Educational Supplement, Mr Bower and many others make a rational discussion of the use and abuse of Mephedrone impossible.

The tragic death of Ben Walter has been reported in Australia and in America already, and the inaccurate reporting of the Daily Mail and The Telegraph have only lost something in translation.

Those writing for the mainstream press like Howard Jacobson still pretend that they retain not only the moral high ground but a level of journalistic integrity Sunny Hundal and Anton Vowl can only aspire to. The treatment of drugs by the press show a shocking lack of integrity and accuracy.

Drugs affect everyone’s lives either directly or indirectly and it is important that they are discussed honestly. Lies, smears and misreporting are not the way to go about it, but it is what we have become used to. It is bad form to quote yourself but I think what I wrote last year is just as relevant now.

As Professor Nutt discovered it is difficult to discuss drugs in anything other than the most derisory terms. Our press have meekly followed – as well as helping to create and enforce – this rule in the articles discussed above but in doing so they have descended to out right speculation and evidence free moralising.

We need to know how dangerous Mephedrone is, but we do not, and it is becoming progressively more difficult to find out. I think it is inevitable that this drug it is going to be made illegal but also inevitable that this will only lead to it be replaced by another legal high.

How dangerous this replacement will be will again elude us, until it is replaced in turn and fades from view. It is no way to protect young people and it is certainly no way to treat grown adults, yet our press and politicians seem to think they are entitled or obliged to obscure even the most important of topics.


[1] In the last story she is referred to as Gabrielle Wood, I am not aware if she went under both names of if this is a further example of the Mail’s lax editorial standards.

UPDATE: If I’ve not made it clear above no clarification on the true circumstances of Gabrielle Price’s death has been issued by any of the papers discussed above.

I have not checked all the print editions since but there has been no clarification online.

In fact as they’ve made clear in their latest articles, they are still linking her death directly to Mephedrone in contradiction to the coroner’s own report.