Don’t talk to Frank

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the stance on the legality of recreational drugs that Left Outside has taken, and it is a view that I share.

The separation of drugs and politics is something that this country has never managed, and the problems that stem from the production, sale, and use of recreational drugs are not going to go away with the Government’s continued stubborn and misinformed approach to addressing this country’s drug “problem.”

The arguments for and against the prohibition of drugs is not something I’m going to address today. What I wish to address is a byproduct of this.

There exists a large pool of people who wish to experiment and who are less informed about their choices than they would be were drugs not illegal. By letting politics override science people are less able to make informed choices about how recreational drug use may affect them.

To illustrate this cast your eyes over an independently researched rankings table on 20 commonly used, legal and illegal substances based on factors such as dependency, physical harm and social harm; and refresh your memory by reading how the Government responds when science proves a political decision to be wrong.

A major result of this politics vs. science face off has been the recent demise of MDMA – the chemical compound used to make ecstasy pills, but in recent years, more commonly sold as a powder. The ‘word on the street’ is that control over the import of piperonylmethylketone (PMK) – A synthesized oil from the bark of the sassafras tree used as the raw material for MDMA in key rainforest regions in south-east Asia has left a lot of demand unsatisfied and caused the rise of other experimental drugs to try and fill the void.

Without spending too much time questioning the reasoning for demonizing one of the less harmful recreational drugs (other than to draw your attention to “this slightly dated study from 2000”,  and “Professor Nutt’s comments about ecstasy being less dangerous than horse riding”), I can’t help but wonder what they’re trying to achieve.

If they were really trying to “protect” the public, easily available purity testing machines for ecstasy pills would be commonplace in clubs, stories about ecstasy related deaths would have focused on how factors such as over-hydration were causing them rather than the effects of the chemical itself, and more research into experimental drugs that are becoming more widespread would be invested, rather than to demonize and illegalise them straight away.

The newest name on the scene is Mephedrone. Legally sold on many websites as a “plant food” and marked “not fit for human consumption” it can be ordered, sent via recorded delivery and consumed, legally and hassle free in a matter of a couple of days. The rise of this new drug, coupled with the demise of MDMA has lead to a huge surge in popularity before much is known about this new phenomenon.

Although it has hit the headlines with negative press, and it seems attempts to criminalize the substance are being rushed through as quickly as possible, the demand doesn’t seem to be slowing down. A point addressed by the self-proclaimed “world’s biggest dance music and clubbing magazine,” Mixmag in their interesting recent survey of drug-taking habits amongst their readers, who arguably form one of the largest pools of recreational drug users in the country.

The tagline given to Mephedrone is “The UK’s favourite new drug.” Acknowledging the issue of how little research has been done it aims to bring a bit more information to the people who are likely to be using it by taking an impartial and honest approach to reporting the results. Government advisor Les Iversen, indicating that there is “no data on toxicity that I could find,” meaning Mephedrone users have no guidance on correct dosage or safety, so surveys like this serve a real  purpose.

It understands that people are likely take it regardless of any scaremongering and that the best approach to ensure the safety of potential users is to provide them with the information to make an informed decision, not to belittle them with inaccurate scaremongering tactics – a stance that Government Ministers could learn from!

Mixmag’s results are as follows (I have tried in vain to find out how many participants were involved in the survey, but have resigned myself to taking comfort in the fact that it describes itself as the biggest survey of young people’s drug-taking habits in the world):

  • Of participants in the survey, 41.7% have tried Mephedrone, 33.6% in the previous month.
  • Of those users, 44% took Mephedrone no more than once every three months, but 14.5% used it at least weekly
  • The most common usage was between ½ and 1 gram in a session.

In researching the potentially harmful physical effects, the survey ascertained that amongst users:

  • 67% felt excessive sweating
  • 51% felt headaches
  • 43% experienced palpitations
  • 27% experienced nausea
  • 15% experienced cold or blue fingers

(For further results on other recreational drugs, flick through the issue next time you pass a WH Smiths – its luminous yellow front cover is quite hard to miss!)

By providing commendable, impartial results from people who have actually taken the drug we are able to receive a greater picture of its effects. By targeting a community with less of a stigma relating to recreational drugs use we are also able to get a more honest and accurate representation of the drugs and their effects.

If the British Government really wishes to “protect” potential drug users and eradicate the criminal issues resulting from the production and sale of illicit substances, then this surely has to be the best approach. I am not in a position to condone the safety of Mephedrone, as there is a clear lack of research regarding it. But to prohibit it before this research has been done would not offer any protection to potential users.

The rise (and likely fall) of Mephedrone may open the door to potentially more harmful research chemicals being taken recreationally. Butylone, Methylone and Methyltryptamine are all chemicals we know very little of but in the absence of Mephedrone, could also rise to prominence. We can go on banning forever, but new drugs will go one popping up like mushrooms.

Rather than condescending approaches such as the advertising campaign of Talk to Frank, which subtly demonizes drug use, more attention needs to be drawn to resources such as this Mixmag study, and websites such as the excellent Erowid who are willing to inform and educate the majority of people who want to know how certain chemicals may affect their body and state of mind.

If access to such information is denied for political purposes as opposed to health and social purposes, then we will continue to see high-profile deaths and further dangers to potential users. It is only when the policy makers decide that scaremongering, demonization and a constant barrage of propaganda doesn’t work on the majority of people who may chose to experiment with recreational drugs.

The public deserves honest and impartial advice regarding these substances so that any issues resulting from drug use can begin to be addressed, and a progressive, accurate and honest approach to the dangers of drugs can begin to be made.