This week, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) fired the latest salvo in the Government’s increasingly farcical response to the manufactured panic around ‘designer drugs’- in other words substances that are created and marketed specifically to get around existing drug laws.
The ‘designer drugs’ story has all the ingredients of the best tabloid moral panics- an external threat to demonise (count how many of the sensationalist news items mentioned ‘South-East Asian laboratories’), an ’insidious’ technology that has changed society (They bought this filth ONLINE?!?!) and, of course, us feckless, wayward young people, simultaneously victim and villain, falling prey to evil Chinese megachemists cos we’d rather get mwi than get a haircut. Or something like that.
It’s a pretty neat package for establishment figures, both in the media and the state- it sells papers, provides an easy way for the government to look TOUGH ON CRIME, and provides a nice ideological smokescreen for increasing police powers. When the establishment stumbles on a win-win situation like that, the truth often gets lost (or callously exploited, depends on your point of view) somewhere in between hyperbolic headlines and self-serving ‘get tough’ schemes. As we’ve reported here before, the whole mephedrone scare was triggered by um, police getting the name of a drug wrong.
However, government have come to realise that, by their very nature, trying to legislate against designer drugs is basically a fuckin nightmare. Take the near-inconceivable chemical complexity of the human brain, throw in millions of people determined to take drugs and willing to pay for it, then add the internet, and you’ll see that it’s just too cheap, easy and profitable to create and sell new drugs for legislators to keep up.
Which brings me to the ACMD’s proposed solution. The chair of the ACMD, Les Iversen, has recommended that we adopt American-style ‘analogue’ laws, which would make any substance ‘substantially similar’ to a banned drug automatically subject to the same penalties. Sound like a neat catch-all solution to a thorny legal problem? Well, not quite.
For one thing, the American analogue law is horribly vague, with literally no grounding in medicine or chemistry. The wording is so ambiguous that some critics
What our artist thinks designer drugs might do.
have suggested that it technically renders naturally occurring neurochemicals illegal- for example dopamine, which plays a crucial function in every human brain and is synthesised as a medicine, is arguably ‘substantially similar’ to speed or meth. In the absence of any actual science, the decision on what counts as an ‘analogue’ falls to subjective and socially-determined factors like the class and status of users, how the drug is marketed, and the ‘perceived’ effects (as both scientists and drug users will tell you, how drug effects are experienced is largely dependent on ‘set and setting’- factors like where and with whom you take the drugs and what you expect from them. In other words, perceived effects are largely determined by the previously mentioned social factors.)
What this means in practice is that police and courts make these decisions based on profiles of users and the reasons they take drugs, leading to increased criminalisation and persecution of already-marginalised groups like young people and the very poor. When examined closely, analogue laws present a picture that pretty much gives the lie to the idea that drug laws exist to reduce harm to society, rather suggesting that they’re drug laws for drug law’s sake, seeking to criminalise certain forms of drug use as part of a moral crusade against the social norms of ‘deviant’ sections of society. One Colorado judge ruled that the Analogue Act was ‘unconstitutionally vague’ and that it ‘provides neither fair warning nor effective safeguards against arbitrary enforcement’. A cynical person might suggest that that’s kind of the point.
Now, I personally think it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that the UK will adopt analogue laws. For one thing, they run contrary to the common law principle that you have the right to know beforehand what is illegal and what isn’t. For another, the vague wording makes them notoriously hard to get a conviction under. However the interesting point is that this profoundly unscientific suggestion came from the ACMD, supposedly the body that advises the government on drug science. So how did the independent academic body that once pressured the Thatcher government into setting up needle exchanges, despite the powerfully anti-drug message of coked-up 80s Tories, become an unscientific front for legitimising the War on Drugs?
Just sayin like...
The process arguably began in 2004 under the Blair government. New Labour, as we know all too well, kind of has a thing for manufacturing evidence to support their policies, and the ACMD’s role as, well, people who’re supposed to tell the truth, represented a bit of an obstacle to that. In the wake of the invasion of Iraq, the massively unpopular Labour Government was searching for a nice headline-grabbing distraction that would cast them in a good light, and they landed on the scourge of people giggling and seeing pretty patterns in wallpaper. At that time, although the active ingredient of magic mushrooms was illegal, the law did not prohibit the sale or possession of mushrooms themselves. Labour decided, bastards that they are, that it would be a good idea to launch a crackdown on mushroom use and unilaterally made them a Class A drug without consulting the ACMD. This decision was, in fact, illegal, as the Misuse of Drugs Act that established the ACMD states that they must be consulted on any changes in drug policy.
Heartened by the positive headlines this gathered them, they next decided to contradict ACMD recommendations again, and whipped up a ridiculous media frenzy about so-called ‘super-skunk’, mad dangerous weed that makes you go mental and die. Having manufactured this public health scare, they then stepped in to appear responsible and public-minded and reversed the earlier decision to downgrade cannabis to a Class-C drug. Again without consulting the ACMD, again illegally. This was accompanied by a police crackdown, sniffer dogs on the London underground, and a massively disproportionate rate of conviction for young black men.
By this time it was becoming clear that there had been a cultural shift in government, and that the independent drugs advisory body was basically considered a bit too independent. When the former chairman of the ACMD, David Nutt, presented extensive scientific evidence to the government that Ecstasy and MDMA don’t do sufficient social or medical harm to warrant Class-A status they went one step further than simply ignoring his recommendations and sacked him for causing them embarrassment. This was followed by mass resignations of most of the experienced scientists on the ACMD, outraged at the way their professional integrity had been compromised.
Those who did not resign were promoted, and the rest replaced with more compliant figures. The process of eroding the ACMD was now complete. First illegally stripped of its role in forming drug policy, it gradually morphed into a useful propaganda tool for shifting debate rightwards, by making unscientific, reactionary, crackpot suggestions such as those of the last week. This means a further step away from real science forming our society’s attitude to drugs, which in turn means more needless drug deaths, more addiction and ruined lives, more costly and pointless imprisonment, more police repression and racial profiling.
But, just as we saw with mephedrone, you shouldn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.