Mephedrone madness, media manipulation
Scottish Socialist Youth protest drug laws
Jack Ferguson from Scottish Socialist Youth takes a look at the Mephedrone controversy and the direction of UK drug policy.
Between late 2009 and March 2010 news of a new drug craze sweeping though the UK was virtually impossible to avoid. The sudden outcry over the growing popularity of the drug Mephedrone was a moral panic, initiated by the tabloid press in an effort to create a sensational story and boost their profits.
In the run-up to the general election, this media led campaign then went on to directly influence government policy, with the drug being made illegal in record time with the support of all the major parties, including the SNP.
The net result of all this is that mephedrone as a drug has received an incredible amount of free publicity, just in time for its trade to be put exclusively in the hands of unregulated illegal dealers. The relationship of the state to its own scientific advisers has been thrown into increasing chaos, as a number of scientists and doctors have resigned from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, refusing to be used as tools of political propaganda.
A Tabloid Moral Panic
According to Stanley Cohen, author of Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972), a moral panic occurs when “[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.”
Those who start panics are known as “moral entrepreneurs”, and act to protect the existing order by targeting perceived social evils, which in many cases will be illusory, as part of a programme of creating scapegoats for social problems.
Although these social processes have operated for a long time, for example through the medieval witch hunts, the modern media presents unprecedented opportunities for creating and amplifying moral panics, and fear of their victims, such as immigrants.
The UK tabloid press is suffering from the general squeeze on profits being felt by the print newspaper industry, due to factors such as the growth in free Internet news coverage. A sure fire way to boost sales is to carry sensational stories that will grab readers’ attention, preferably with the threat of impending peril for them or their families.
Enter Mephedrone. In November last year, a 14 year old from Sussex, Gabrielle Price, died at a party. The press rapidly leapt on reports that she had taken a popular new stimulant drug, Mephedrone. The public was then barraged with a series of stories blaming Mephedrone for her death.
What was not reported was that the coroner later concluded that Gabrielle Price had died of natural causes, as a result of a pre-existing infection. Sussex Police announced there would be no investigation as there were no suspicious circumstances.
But the tabloids had already moved on to other deaths that could be speculatively related to Mephedrone. Another example is the deaths of Scunthorpe teenagers Louis Wainwright and Nicholas Smith. Again, claims were made they had taken the drug. It was not until weeks after the government had in fact banned it that toxicology reports revealed that neither had any trace of Mephedrone in their blood.
There have now been calls for an inquiry into the role of Humberside Police in heightening the concerns about Mephedrone, after they claimed in a press conference that the deaths were “linked to m-cat,” and that anyone who had taken the drug “should attend hospital as a matter of urgency.”
Indeed, it was not hard to find figures of authority keen to participate in the crusade against Mephedrone. Another prominent story was the claim made in The Sun that because it wasn’t illegal teachers were “confiscating Mephedrone in school and then having to hand it back at the end of the day.” This story was based entirely on a misquote from head teacher Mike Stewart from Torquay.
Consider this story for a moment: a teacher finds a pupil in possession of a white powder, but then takes their word for it that the powder is Mephedrone and therefore legal, and hands it back. It’s patently ridiculous. In fact, what would actually happen is obvious: the school would phone the Police.
Devon and Cornwall Police felt it necessary to issue a press release affirming that if they seized a white powder, they would hold on to it. They even went so far as to say that if the substance was found to be Mephedrone, they would still destroy it rather than give it back.
Even the name of the drug was something largely created by the tabloids. When originally being branded for sale as a legal high, it was dubbed M-Cat because it was also known scientifically as 4-methylmethcathinone. At the time it was discussed as to whether to call it Miaow, a name that was rejected. However, the name Miaow, or Meow, was added to the list of street names on Wikipedia, a page that obviously became a main source of information for journalists. After being dubbed Meow Meow by The Sun, the name took off. However, this terminology only came into general use because of its propagation by The Sun and other papers.
These stories grew into a tabloid campaign, demanding government action. As MPs prepared to contest the most closely fought general election in decades, intense pressure was applied. The response showed the utter inability of the mainstream parties to understand evidence and take decisions based on harm reduction. All parties capitulated to an agenda that was ultimately driven by the profit margins of News Corporation, Trinity Mirror and the Northern & Shell Empire of pornographer turned newspaper baron Richard Desmond.
In a Scottish context, a special mention should be reserved for the role of the SNP. Perceived by many in Scotland as outside the politics of the Westminster big three, and in some way more progressive. However, their response to the Mephedrone affair revealed the deep streak of social conservatism that attracts figures like millionaire homophobe Brian Souter to the party.
SNP MSP Fergus Ewing trumpeted his role in pushing the UK government to act, and Alex Salmond made headlines by claiming the Scottish government would act before Westminster, a piece of complete spin since drugs are a reserved issue not within the powers of the Scottish Parliament.
The government vs. scientists
Among the last acts passed by New Labour while still in power was to ban Mephedrone on March 29th. By law, the government is required to take advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) before it can ban a substance. The council was rushed into producing a report, at short notice and under pressure, which would endorse government policy.
The relationship between government and scientific advice has now reached crisis point. In 2008, the government reclassified cannabis as a class B, rather than a class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act. This was on the basis of a media campaign claiming that “most” cannabis on sale was now so-called “super-skunk”, and that solid evidence existed to link this to a growth in mental health problems and Schizophrenia. The ACMD effectively debunked these pseudo-scientific claims, and advised the government not to re-classify. This advice was ignored.
The chairman of the ACMD, Professor David Nutt, criticised this move. Then, in 2009, he published a paper in the medical journal The Lancet, which demonstrated that the risks associated with taking Ecstasy were less than those from participating in horse riding, calling into question its classification as a class A drug, putting it in the same category as heroin.
Professor Nutt’s arguments were based on solid scientific examination of the evidence relating to different drugs, their impact on individuals and society, and how best to reduce harm. The government’s position, on the other hand, was based on political calculations related to the pressure brought to bear by corporate media empires upon them.
For dissenting from government policy, Professor Nutt was fired as ACMD chairman in 2009. This move was incredibly controversial, and sparked a crisis within the body that would culminate in a wave of resignations from the council in protest about the government’s relationship with its own scientists. Two fellow members of the council resigned very quickly after he was sacked, and others were to follow.
Dr Polly Taylor resigned from the council in the immediate run up to the Mephedrone ban, in protest at new guidelines issued by the government on how it should function. The guidelines state that advice offered by scientists to the government “must not undermine mutual trust.” This was taken by many to mean that scientists must tell the government what they want to hear, and not undermine government policy. Dr Taylor stated in her resignation letter:
“I feel that there is little more we can do to describe the importance of ensuring that advice is not subjected to a desire to please Ministers or the mood of the day’s press.”
Dr Taylor’s resignation left the council technically inquorate, but the government still pushed on with the Mephedrone ban, taking legal advice to make sure they could proceed despite the need for a more proper scientific assessment. To date, there has been scant scientific study of Mephedrone, and little can be stated about it with certainty. In a sensible world, the government would have waited until it could get a full scientific assessment, and make a decision on the best way to handle mephedrone derived from the evidence.
Instead, the remaining ACMD members were pressured into producing a basic report on a very short timescale to act as a fig leaf on government policy. That policy was to allow the tabloid moral panic to dictate the legal handling of Mephedrone.
In the aftermath of the ban, another council member, Eric Carlin, resigned. Carlin spoke of how he had joined the council hoping to use his expertise in harm reduction for young people to influence government policy. Instead, he had found himself a part of a politicised process that paid little heed to science. In his resignation letter he wrote:
“We had little or no discussion about how our recommendation to classify this drug would be likely to impact on young people’s behaviour. Our decision was unduly based on media and political pressure. The report was tabled to the whole council for the first time on Monday [March 29th, the day of the ban]; the Chair came to brief you before the whole Council had even discussed all of the report. In fact, I still haven’t seen the final version . . .
We need to review our entire approach to drugs, dumping the idea that legally-sanctioned punishments for drug users should constitute a main part of the armoury in helping to solve our country’s drug problems. We need to stop harming people who need help and support.
At the end of last year, I decided not to resign over the sacking of David Nutt, preferring instead to see how things panned out and to hope that the ACMD could develop a work programme which would help prevent and reduce harm, particularly to young people. I have no confidence that this will now happen, largely though not totally due to the lack of logic of the context within which the Council is constrained to operate by the Misuse of Drugs Act. As well as being extremely unhappy with how the ACMD operates, I am not prepared to continue to be part of a body which, as its main activity, works to facilitate the potential criminalisation of increasing numbers of young people . . .
The latter process [the ACMD’s rush to produce a report justifying the decision to ban Mephedrone] has left me deeply concerned, intellectually insulted and morally compromised. I contributed little to the discussion on Monday, confused and disillusioned that our focus was not on what we should recommend to understand and influence young people’s behaviour so as to prevent and/or reduce harm. Rather, we made a decision to ban this, the currently most publicly demonised drug, based mainly on its chemical similarities to other Class B substances. If that was the main criterion, how could one not agree with the decision? The problem is that the context of and rationale for our decision-making it a nonsense. What next? How many more new drugs are we going to ban, without an adequate evidence base about the impact of banning on young people’s behaviour re-use of drugs? Do we just keep on going? Rather than banning each new drug that comes along, we need to shift resources into social research about young people’s behaviours, how to influence them and investment in interventions to support demand reduction . . .
I’ve just been working with some young people who, honestly and seriously, told me that Cannabis, with all its risks, made them feel better about themselves, more able to assess their personal agency, manage their lives and feel more hopeful about the future. My current feeling is that the ACMD, with our focus on chemistry and legality, doesn’t contribute anything towards reducing the countless harms young people like these experience on a daily basis, including though not limited to harms from drug use. Moreover, we are colluding in the sustenance of a system which may in fact disadvantage even further some of the most disadvantaged people in our society.”
Carlin’s words articulate a scientific, evidence-based approach to drugs policy, based on reality as well as empathy with drugs users. It is entirely compatible with the policies advocated by the SSP for 10 years, but could not be further away of the approach of both the Labour and ConDem governments to drugs. They were echoed by the medical journal The Lancet, which published an editorial under the headline ‘A collapse in the integrity of scientific advice in the UK.’ It stated:
“The terms of engagement between ministers and expert advisers endorsed by [then Home Secretary] Alan Johnson have been blown apart . . . [T]he events surrounding the ACMD signal a disappointing finale to the government’s relationship with science. Politics has been allowed to contaminate scientific processes and the advice that underpins policy.”
The science of Mephedrone
Mephedrone is a synthetically produced stimulant, which is thought to have first emerged in 2007. It is based on chemical compounds found in the Khat plant, chewed throughout East Africa and in diaspora communities for its stimulant properties. Its effect on the mind is to increase alertness and give a sense of euphoria and excitement.
Reported unintended side effects have included hallucinations, nausea and rashes. However, much of this information is anecdotal. Proper scientific research into the effects of Mephedrone has yet to take place.
At the time of the Mephedrone ban the media reported that over 20 deaths had been linked to the drug in the UK. However, this figure should have been more accurately called the number of deaths attributed in the media to Mephedrone. In actual fact, toxicology reports have only linked one death to Mephedrone, where the user had not taken a cocktail of other substances as well.
Major European wide studies of the drug and its effects are currently underway. It would have easily been possible for the government to hold off in order to make a proper, evidence based decision, but this was not done on the basis of Labour’s desire not to look “soft on drugs” in the face of media pressure in the run up to the election.
It is clear that there is now a sophisticated “legal highs” industry, which involves some serious scientific work by people with knowledge of neuroscience. This is also evidenced by the fact that the smoking mixture Spice contains synthetic cannibinoid chemicals similar to those found in genuine herbal cannabis, which would have taken sophisiticated chemical equipment and knowledge to synthesise.
This industry will undoubtedly regroup after losing Mephedrone as an easily distributable legal product, and produce new synthetic alternatives. In addition, now that the market has been bombarded with publicity for Mephedrone, there’s huge interest in it. Its production will now be taken out of the hands of the relatively safe legal high industry and be put into the hands of criminal gangs, who will not hesitate to mix it with any number of unpleasant and potentially dangerous substances.
It’s clear that the government is scientifically ignorant. The whole process of classifying drugs as A, B or C is something that is arbitrarily established by the Misuse of Drugs Act, and bears very little relationship to genuine evidence. In this context, it seems impossible that the government can ever win a race to keep up with the scientifically savvy legal high industry in making substances illegal at the rate they can be synthesised. It’s time instead to look at the reasons people want to take drugs, and how to reduce harm.
The Scottish Socialist Party was virtually the only political party to take a stand against the wave of hysteria surrounding the Mephedrone moral panic. Scottish Socialist Youth took a lead in this, relentlessly exposing the lies peddled by the tabloids on our blog. On the day of the ban itself we took to the streets outside Anderston police station to publicly state our opposition to prohibition.
Scottish Socialist Youth as an organisation has consistently taken a lead in campaigning on the SSP’s pioneering drugs policies, most notably by organising annual marches demanding the legalisation of cannabis. These always attract high levels of support from young people.
This year SSY has decided, in light of the recent Mephedrone moral panic, to broaden the scope of the march to be against drugs prohibition and for a sane drugs policy in Scotland. Key demands will include the legalisation of cannabis, pharmaceutical heroin available on prescription for free to addicts, and an end to the Mephedrone ban. The march will take place in Glasgow on July 24th.
Socialists should feel proud to be part of the only political party that is willing to stand by science and evidence based harm reduction, rather than the lies of major media corporations.
The demand made by Socialists to end the prohibition of drugs in Scotland proceeds from a fundamentally different understanding of the issue from that held by successive UK governments.
It is a fact of human history that every known human society has experimented in some form with consciousness altering substances. Many scientists have suggested that periods of altered consciousness are evolutionarily normal for human beings, and may have contributed to our development as a social species.
A sane drugs policy must first of all acknowledge this, and take decisions based on the idea of reducing drugs harms rather than the fantasy of eliminating drug use. Many of the more popular illegal drugs have had their harms wildly exaggerated for political purposes. Others, such as Mephedrone, have simply not been subject to proper study.
The continuing failed regime of drug prohibition is what has given rise to the legal highs industry. The producers of these products are scientifically informed people who are deliberately trying to synthesise products that can be sold legally. The obvious way to prevent this process going further is to allow regulated, legal access to relatively harmless drugs such as cannabis or Ecstasy, who’s damage to society pales in comparison to the legal drugs alcohol and tobacco. More serious and dangerous drugs, such as heroin, should be treated as public health rather than criminal justice problems. The further criminalisation of young people via drugs prohibition is unsustainable, and causes far more harm than is necessary. This can only be ended by ending the failed war on drugs.