So, a couple of vibrant young men have just died in Scunthorpe, North East England, after a night out of heavy drinking during which one of the substances they consumed happened to be mephedrone, legally available on the Internet and known by a number of affectionate nicknames, my fave being “bubbles”, and with an effect remarkably similar to proper MDMA, such as is hard to get these days. Its official use is, I think, as “plant food.”
I took some for the first time this past New Year’s Eve and found it to be lovely and sparkly and that it filled me with good feelings towards my fellow human. I didn’t take a large dose, nor drink excessively and felt no bad after-effects (unless staying up all night laughing with friends and having a lovely walk home the next morning along the beach followed by an enormous lunch and a peaceful nap could be considered a bad after-effect). I’m certain that the vast majority of people have an experience comparable to mine.
Naturally a “serious inquiry” is now under way, here in the UK, with the likely outcome that yet another fun, cheap and legal way to get high gets criminalized, driven underground, and forced further – therefore – into a domain where many more people are many more times likely to make tragic mistakes, due to lack of information. I can’t work out how to fund a study into this but I’m convinced that more people end up doing the totally reprehensible in every way yet seemingly acceptable drug cocaine each time one of these substances goes underground, as it’s actually easier to score charlie in the street than get mephedrone over the Web, for instance. Plus no credit card trail.
I’m so sick to death of this alarmist and over-reactionary approach to enacting serious substance control laws that affect far many more people’s lives in the long run than the unregulated explorations of a few currently do!
For if what was not a crime today suddenly becomes one tomorrow, then in the process, particular individuals also transmogrify overnight into the criminals that they weren’t yesterday. Looking at the results of the criminalization approach to other relatively benign substances thus far leaves little to the imagination in terms of what to expect from more prohibition: more incarceration; more drug-war orphans; more criminal records; less personal responsibility and therefore less personal freedom. Two guys died yet thousands could now spend years in jail. Without trying to minimize the tragic loss of life, I still don’t think this is the right equation.
Although it may not immediately seem relevant, I cannot help but think of this story unless in tandem with another recent news item relating to crazy laws against nature and the tricksy ways in which they can transform regular people into outlaws.
I hope it did not escape your notice, but if so, please do your own research into the tale of the hive tenders of New York, a breed I was happy to learn even existed; maverick locavores in the middle of the rotten apple, determined to house their honey-bees atop their brownstone apartments in the midst of the soot and smoke of the big city. Like secret gardeners, these renegades unleashed their little pollinating aeronauts into the wounded skyline of New York, there to spawn many a dainty blossom amongst the detritus, returning to concoct a home-spun elixir once reserved for the gods.
Yet until recently, Manhattan-based enthusiasts of the essential and ancient art of apiary were subject to massive fines if found to be in violation of something colloquially known as the “wild and dangerous animals act”. Well thank Potnia (the Minoan-Mycenean “Pure Mother Bee”) that common sense has won out in this case, and that as of March 17, 2010, the beekeepers of New York need no longer fear threat of prosecution. As a Diana, who equates with the Greek Artemis, and whose priestesses were also called “bees” in honour of this divine nectar that was offered at her altar, I can definitely dig that ruling.
We know that the honeybee is in decline and that we need to have local populations of bees to pollinate native species, to make honey that naturally wards off allergies and has a thousand medicinal properties, not to mention being delicious on toast, and yet, until a few days ago, urban apiarists in NYC were regarded not as ecologists who are performing a vital public service, but as dangerous criminals along the lines of, oh I don’t know, people who grow cannabis, for example?
And let’s talk about industrial hemp while we’re adjacent to the subject – the most renewable and flexible and energy efficient crop on the planet, current mass production of which is stymied due to the prohibition against its THC-generating cousin. Yes kids, you can still get banged up in jail for growing that most useful of all fibres, (that could feed, house, clothe and power the world, simultaneously ending deforestation and reliance on fossil fuels), in many countries, led by the USA, despite it having no psychoactive properties (as if that was a reason in the first place). Guilt by association I guess. Or does it have something to do with the industrialists behind the cotton, oil, paper, industries and those whose business prospers in times of food shortage..?
How many years will it be before it becomes obvious to the legal mainstream that prohibiting intoxicating plants is as ludicrous as trying to stop urban people making honey?
How many more will it be before the realization occurs that banning any intoxicating substance – whether organic or otherwise – without clear and incontrovertible evidence as to its disproportionately lethal health effects, is similarly regarded as an embarrassing blemish in the history of civil liberties?
How long before governments realize that there are things they cannot and should not try to control?
When will my desire to experience altered states of consciousness be on that list?
More to the point: when will the masses realize that these types of legislation are not protective but restrictive and born of a desire to control and manipulate. The Scunthorpe deaths, sadly, will be used to try to bolster a government position of paternalistic “caring”, when what is really needed is informed support for the individual who chooses to try something a little more exciting than a pint of Guinness down at the pub.
I once thought of writing a children’s book about this subject, a silly and entertaining tale with a serious message, un hommage á the brilliant Dr. Seuss. I later realized that my publisher would probably run into problems if it could be suggested that they’d been pushing a “pro-drug” allegory on helpless school children. So I’ll just tell you about it here instead.
My story would be called Concerning the Illegality of Wind and it would centre on a charming but troubled village, with a suitably wacky yet meaningful name like Zephryopolis, that happened to be built on the very, very, uppermost tip top, of a ridiculously high hill that sprang out of the flat landscape in the middle of The-Valley-of-Absolutely-and-Utterly-Nowhere, but only a little ways away from the Coast of Forever, with a desert to one side and with one-quarter of everything else about the land sloping sharply downward to meet the Sea. A little like the Glastonbury Tor in appearance but of course on a larger scale and with the shore on one side; large enough to contain a small but diverse population.
The only way you could get down from Zephyropolis to the Valley below and then farther afield to the Big-and-Only town nearby was by riding on a funicular tram which the residents frequently had to do for reasons which will soon become clear.
Because you see the thing about this town was that despite its general loveliness, the conviviality of its inhabitants and the usual good weather to be had there, it would on occasion, and at several times per year regardless of the season, be subject to the most terrible havoc wrought by foul and windy weather. The funicular was most well-used as there was always an abundance of incidents necessitating a trip down the hill to retrieve some item or other that had quite simply been blown away.
There were hurricanes, there were dust devils (or willy-willys), there were samiels and samooms, mesocyclones and haboobs, skysweepers, sumatras, bull’s eye squalls, mistrals, chinooks, santa anas, yamaoroshiis, and basically every other type of combination of both anabatic and katabetic wind; a combination most unusual but explainable, just, by the fact that Zephyropolis was on a flat plateau of what would otherwise have been the apex of a polyhedron pyramidal mountain that on one side was exposed to sun and featured a treeless landscape leading down to the Valley, with another – the leeside – leading down to a large lake and being quite in shadow (Shadow Lake), while the third rolled out into the Endless Sand Dunes and the fourth ended quite abruptly at a jagged border of white cliffs that shattered into the Sea. And because of all this plus the particular longitudinal and latitudinal orientation of Zephyropolis, which was in the very most exact corner of the earth where all the crosswinds blew in, shook hands, and had a little dance before they changed directions, it should hardly be necessary to mention that it was an exceedingly windy place indeed.
So, as mentioned before, all the types of winds met there, valley, sea, desert, and mountain, and as some winds prefer winter, whereas others are summer born and so on, the result was the absence of any season at all that did not have wind nor the disruptions that it would accordingly trigger.
The story would go on. Lots of nice pictures. And so and thus….
The problem was that during the ceremonial observance of many occasions, whether ones marking great events in officialdom (such as the consecrating of the Hopeless Wishing Stone) or those simply recognizing the eternally quotidian celebrations that define humanity, for better or worse (like weddings and funerals); during these formal and very, how shall I say, requiring-of-a-dignified-attitude (there’s a word in German for it) sorts of traditional rituals a sudden and untoward dislocation of proceedings could not be counted on NOT to occur in the form of an unexpected gust of wind!
Up would go the bridal petticoats! Off would fly the mayoral cap! Spiraling away into the howling eddies of the lake below would spin the gold embossed diplomas of a hundred graduates!
And so on.
So basically, things in the town get so that nobody can take anything seriously any more, and it’s all because of this goddamn wind. Everybody is always cracking up during solemn occasions and the vicar’s knickers are known to one and all.
And so the people whose job it is to tell everybody else what to do, do then see it as fit to pass a proclamation; and if it hadn’t been blown away by a naughty breeze and you were able to see it now you would see that in it it says that it hereby declares that the wind shall herewith be forbade from between such and such to whenever and so forth and that no such insolence blah blah shall heretofore be tolerated so help us god.
And it was duly stamped and hallowed and kissed with wax and made into a statue and erected in the town and given its own day of the week and everybody gathered in the square at the top of Zephyropolis to swear it into law so help us god and it was a public holiday and nobody had to go to work and everyone came out dressed in their nicest, gauziest clothes and planning to eat pink candy floss on sticks.
Well I don’t need to drag it out – I’m sure you can guess what happens next.
At the very highest most ceremonial moment of all, with pomp and circumstance positively percolating out from everywhere, and everyone most devout and determined to play their part in enacting this decree, well what but here comes a cheeky little sirocco, all sly and dusty and with news of the desert, and with a warm whip of its scorpion-inspired tail, it playfully whisks the proclamation scroll, with its golden edges and most fine calligraphic dedications and signatures, right out of the hands of the mayor, passes it off to a tempestuous sea breeze on its way to Africa who twirls it off in the direction of the cliffs and the crashing waves, tears it into a thousand shreds and scatters them in a million directions. Just for fun.
I’m far too lazy to continue the narrative at length just now – although the right inspired illustrator could probably get me to finish the job – but basically what happens is that the town has now got to figure out how to enforce this law!
Once you’ve told the wind not to blow, how on earth do you get it to obey, and what do you do if it doesn’t? And what about the people who insist on having fun in it? What to do about them?
In the story I imagine some children who defy the curfew that says they mustn’t go out into the wind because it’s ever so bad for them and will probably turn them into all sorts of deviants, but they know that’s a load of crap and so they sneak out of their houses taking some hangers and sheets and bits of string, old ribbons, odd socks and left-over tinsel, popcorn, shreds of taffeta and crumpled wrapping paper from last year’s birthday presents, and they spend all afternoon in their secret cave making home-made kites that they then take shyly outside, letting the wind pull their make-shift masterpieces aloft as they run down the hill; the raggedy streamers arcing and swooping behind them and making their arms ache with the effort to hold on, until they tumble down and collapse in a heap at the bottom of the hill, all breathless with exhilaration and exhausted by delight and of course they don’t get home until well after midnight (the funicular having been closed on account of wind.)
For this they are severely beaten.
Others in the town, alchemists and visionaries, have worked out that the wind is a powerful source of free energy, miraculous in its limitlessness and available to all. They invent a wonderful and perfectly clean machine that harnesses its infinite power and collectively make the happy announcement that this means that no one ever has to pay another energy bill in all their lives and we can stop digging up the earth to take out the dirty muck that fires the power station that chokes the air and makes the wind thick with poisons.
Rather than appeasing the powers-that-be (who also happen to own the local power station) this upsets them even more, and the alchemists and visionaries are thrown in jail and the children who dared to fly kites are put into a reform school where they are taught to do as they are told and stop staring out the window for godssakes.
But the question remains – how to capture the wind? How to stop it from being so wild and unpredictable; how to punish it for upsetting the mayor’s wife’s perfect coiffure; how to continue making people pay for the energy the wind would give for free?
The Committee for Restrictions Upon the Wind then tries to build a jail and they even think that they have put all the wind inside, but it just blows through the roof and goes laughing away into the heavens, taking everybody’s criminal record with it and dispersing the pages of offenses against the state amongst the clouds from where it will fall down to be collected by starlings looking for nest-building materials, although they generally prefer fragrant petals.
Then they erect a wall around the town of Zephyropolis, so that the wind cannot get in, but a tornado comes and flings away the bricks so they go clattering down the sides of the mountain and into the Sea where they are ground into tiny particles that form the sandy beaches of far-away islands.
But they still can’t stop the wind from being the wind and they can’t stop some people from wanting to run around in it.
It goes on and on and I guess the mark of a true storyteller is that I’d be bothered to take the tale to its conclusion but I guess I’m more interested in the point which is: you cannot contain nature and you cannot curb human curiosity, and if you enact laws which attempt to do either you are not only doomed to fail, but you are working for the wrong side.
Life is full of danger and some of the most exhilarating and life-affirming of those dangers are those which confront our very mortality. We must always be allowed to take these on by choice; risk ideally always being tempered by maximum information upon which to base one’s decision.
Shackleton didn’t try to reach Antarctica because he thought a hot dinner would be awaiting him there. He knew he might die, and others with him, but they took the best information they had and tried to accomplish a feat of geographical exploration that people would call him fool for even thinking about.
There are the heroic deaths, and survivals, that willingly embrace the possibility of perishing, and then there are the more mundane mishaps in which the possibility of danger and the ensuing disaster seem horribly disproportionate.
Last year, the talented and endearing actress Natasha Richardson died after sustaining a head injury in what would have seemed to be a perfectly controlled environment in which to take a reasonable risk: skiing at an exclusive resort with trained instructors.
Nonetheless, some slight error in judgment – a missed assessment of the seriousness of what seemed a minor injury, the unsuspected lethal potential of this delayed reaction – resulted in her untimely and tragic death.
Should we ban skiing? Insist that people do not have the right to refuse medical attention? Perhaps someone should lose their job, or the resort close that particular room down, never more to be used…
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO PREVENT THIS KIND OF TRAGEDY FROM HAPPENING AGAIN?
Nothing much, I’m afraid.
Now if I were to flatter myself that significant numbers of anyone were actually to be reading this blog, I might imagine I would now get a barrage of irate mail from people projecting their misplaced grief on to me and asking how I can possibly compare wasters dying from druggy misadventures to the blameless Ms. Richardson meeting her premature end upon the slopes. Surely there is no parallel.
The parallel is this: Natasha Richardson knew, presumably, if the odds were on or against misadventure. She had the best gear, the most attentive instructors, the ideal conditions and was in tip top health. Nevertheless – accidents happen, and one did and the world was deprived of one Natasha Richardson, who I understand to have been the loveliest of human beings.
The fact she was an amateur skier is also, in a sense, immaterial, because I have known world-class competitive surfers to have been pummeled into oblivion by the same sea they worshipped. It’s just…well, what it is – life.
The thing is to at least be prepared and then who is at fault when freaky tragedy strikes?
But can we also say that the 2 young men of Scunthorpe, recently deceased, were likewise kitted out with the correct information about possible interactions with alcohol and other drugs, the ideal dosage, the aftercare, and other precautionary pieces of advice such as recommendations against being alone when ingesting or coming down from unfamiliar drug experiences? As my friends are surely bored of hearing me say: almost every fatal overdose I’ve ever known happened when the person was all by themselves. In the cases where other people were present, they did not seek outside help soon enough because they were themselves either afraid of the authorities or misinformed about the symptoms of an adverse reaction.
So can we honestly say that these regular young guys were in the most informed and well equipped position from which to take this risk? Isn’t it quite possible that the right information would have meant they would have been in a better position to avoid using alcohol excessively, the probable cause for their lapsing into irreversible unconsciousness? Perhaps as intelligent “cosmonauts” they would have elected a sober “minder” to observe the effects of a new drug, as my friends and I have certainly done for one another on occasion.
Perhaps they might have even decided not to try the experience altogether.
Or perhaps they would have done so anyway, taken all the best precautions, not abused alcohol and, like the unfortunate yet amply prepared Ms Richardson, have met an untimely end even so.
I haven’t seen the toxicology report and so I don’t know what the final word will be on the cause of death, but I seriously doubt, in my heart of hearts, that these two young men – with no known genetic connection – both accidentally died of taking recommended dosages of mephedrone in optimal circumstances. Either they both had underlying conditions, which would be a spooky coincidence, or much more likely, the cause is to be found in interactions with other substances, almost certainly high levels of alcohol, that is known to combine with mephedrone and many other substances to produce far more toxic hybrids. All of this was exacerbated by a failure to monitor symptoms and isolation from other conscious adults.
I just wish that when these horrific accidents happen that the attitude was: how can we educate people to make sure this kind of thing never happens again? And not: how can we make sure little baby Johnny never comes across a pack of matches ever again?
It’s what they’ve dubbed the “nanny state” here in the UK, as applied to things like Draconian health and safety laws that seem to take for granted that you’re too stupid to participate in a Kindergarten egg-and-spoon race without losing a limb (and then holding the school liable), but the term could just as aptly be applied to drug laws and ESPECIALLY premature attempts to restrict new substances on the scene before they are even properly understood. As any drug law reformer knows, getting a substance taken off the schedule is a lot harder than getting it put on.
If you dig a little deeper into most drug deaths, and with no intended disrespect to the families of the recently deceased in Scunthorpe, it is usually the case that there is some other attendant factor, some factor that could perhaps have been avoided in a climate of harm reduction rather than drug prohibition and legally enforced abstinence.
Take the highly publicized case of Anna Wood, back in 1995; an Australian schoolgirl-next-door who died after an evening of dancing and taking ecstasy, the latter of which was blamed for her death and which spawned the “moral panic” of that decade, as popularized in dentist waiting-room staple People magazine.
As it turns out, and if you closely read the coroner’s report, the actual cause of death was water poisoning which is caused by over-ingestion of water. The MDMA was a secondary effect, but also one that, perhaps paradoxically, does directly relate to the compulsion to hyper-hydrate that was the true mortal factor.
Two things stand out here:
1) in a harm reduction climate, the potential user would be informed about the possible side-effects, such as dry mouth, to be associated with MDMA ingestion, and warned not to over-hydrate. Why do you think you used to see all those ravers with lollipops hanging out of their mouths? They’re trying to keep saliva production going so they don’t OD on Evian, get it?
2) in a societal climate where fear of legal repercussions did not overwhelm the need to call for medical help, the girl would have been brought to hospital much sooner. This was as much as admitted in the accounts of the friends who basically let her slowly die rather than call her parents or an ambulance until it was too late.
Yet instead of the systemic approach to dealing with intoxicating substances coming under scrutiny, instead of examining counter-productive “moral attitudes”, instead of opening a debate around how parents can talk to their kids about drugs beyond parroting tired Nancy Reagan-era clichés of “just say no”, the innocuous substance itself – without morality, chemically devoid of good or evil – is demonized, the poor girl’s high school photo is used on an anti-drug badge and the crying family are trotted out to rail against the devil and call for more prohibition, more institutional bodies to tell us what to do to protect us from ourselves.
One of the only intelligent voices in this debate is the recently fired-for-being-too-sensible Doctor Nutt (I know, I know), former head of the UK Drugs Advisory Council. When he dared to question governmental drug law policy and pointed out, quite rightly, the disproportionately tiny risks posed by things like MDMA as compared to alcohol he was rewarded with unemployment, ostracism, and unkind jokes about his last name.
Free from government constraints, he is now the chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, which will be apparently at liberty to tell the truth regarding the existence (or not) of the various risk factors associated with various recreational drugs, and ways to minimize such as there may be. I hope to be in touch with him soon and offer my assistance as a researcher/writer/analyst in any capacity that would help propel his sane voice above the incoherent babble of nonsense that currently passes for drug law debate.
His latest suggestion, imperfect but progressive, is to introduce a new Class into the schedule. Currently (here in the UK) there are Class A, B, and C drugs, which attempt to corral various substances into risk groups.
The categories as they exist now are quite evidently stupid and equate heroin with magic mushrooms (both Class A), while cannabis is somehow lumped into Class B with Ritalin (which they give to hyperactive children don’t forget) and meanwhile, ketamine, which has killed a lot more of my acquaintances than any of those things, is down there in Class C (where cannabis used to hang out) along with GHB, which incidentally used to be sold as a weight-loss supplement in health food stores back in the 1990s, despite having been initially synthesized as a treatment for narcolepsy. Fat narcoleptics lost weight, and felt really, really good while doing it, and thus a market was born. Unfortunately, information about negative interactions with alcohol was also implicitly suppressed by the prohibition culture, and it was these unintended consequences that ultimately led to the accidental abuse, and then commercial banning and scheduling of the substance.
Leaving a demolishing critique of the inherent absurdities of the present classification system to the side for one minute, I support Dr. Nutt’s proposition that a new class is added: Class D, which is for the purposes of monitoring and observing what happens with a particular recreational substance, age-restricting it perhaps, regulating the quality and dosage that is sold on the open market, but not criminalizing its possession or sale until such time as it has been demonstrably proven to be a major public health hazard.
With logical suggestions like this, it’s no wonder he was kicked out of government, but what a shame it is that ideas like this are considered outlandish and even wicked by some.
The parents of one of the dead boys from Scunthorpe are now, predictably, spearheading a campaign to halt the sale of “bubbles”. They were quoted as saying that they believed their son thought the drug was safe and that’s why he did it and that if it would have been illegal he wouldn’t have done it and wouldn’t be dead.
I don’t think so.
I believe that Louis Wainwright and Nicholas Smith, late of Scunthorpe, would have been better served by a governmental drug policy that seeks to inform, rather than prohibit; that gives the best possible data and advice, with prolonging health and awareness always being foremost in the mind. One that does not bow to “moral” codes that end up restricting access to potentially life-saving information simply because of judgments about those who dare to experiment with altered states of consciousness.
Getting high is not, in and of itself, a public health concern. It becomes so when the culture of moral abstinences stymies that of legitimate research, logical risk assessments, and the awareness of safety precautions and legal penalties. When people are simply told to “say no” they are simultaneously being deprived of the information that could see them taking responsible safety measures. Ignorance is blinding and not a virtue to uphold, whatever ones personal, religious, or ethical beliefs about the subject at hand.
Just as it is wrong for the Chinese government to block searches on “Tiananmen Square Massacre” and even wrong-er of Google to accept money to provide the filtering search infrastructure that would allow such censored results (though it seems Google may have realized the error of their ways – stay tuned…) it is equally and exactly just as wrong not to just tell people, without ideological bias: “If you take such and such at this amount, and with/without food or alcohol, this/this will happen in this/this amount of time, if you experience X it is time to seek help, if Y then OK to sleep it off, with monitoring every Z minutes” or WHATEVER!
I also believe that one of the biggest mistakes of the accepted lore of mind and mood-altering substances is the lumping together of all “drugs”. This is behind the failure of both the public health authorities and the various addiction treatments such as 12 step programs to recognize that some substances are potentially useful, while others are tilted towards the destructive. Personally I would class the “entheogens” (psychedelics in the popular parlance: mushrooms, LSD, peyote, ayahuasca, iboga, and some synthesized chemical compounds such as MDMA, DMT, etc.) in a category indicating their potentially groundbreaking effects in psychotherapy and in the treatment of alcoholism, depression, and opiate addiction, freedom from which usually requires a deep insight into the self – a common entheogenic benefit. It is harder to see the benefits of drugs like cocaine and heroin, for as different as they are in effect, they are similar in the purposelessness of the journey they take you on, which would appear to have death as its fancy and destination. Other than their medical uses as anesthetics and analgesics, and their traditional use in unprocessed form amongst the hill tribe people of, say, Afghanistan or Columbia, I cannot recommend their value for purposes of either entertainment or self-study.
But that’s another topic.
The sad truth is, that even if well prepared for their adventure by a culture that allowed them the maximum amount of information upon which to base their decision to take an unfamiliar drug, Smith and Wainwright might still have died, just like people die sometimes from bungee-jumping or sky-diving or some other seemingly unnecessary thrill-seeking pursuit, even when safety measures are supposedly in place.
The thing to remember and to gain from all this and that I believe Smith and Wainwright, and all the other curious victims of needless misadventure, would agree with is this: a culture of prohibition fosters ignorance, which makes accidents far more likely.
So while I’d leave it up to the individual whether or not they wish to jump from a high mountain into a canyon on the end of an elastic band, I’d at least try to make sure they knew how to test the equipment before they jumped.
Please let Dr Nutt you support his approach. He can be reached at:
Deaths per year per substance:
Alcohol: 9,031 (2008) (does not include alcohol related car crashes, murders, accidents)
Tobacco: 80,000 annually
Cannabis: 0 directly, estimates of 3000 in terms of related injury: lung disease, impaired judgment as associated factor in vehicle accidents, for example.
MDMA: 27 between 1994 and 1998
LSD: 0? – no statistics available (not including stupid stuff some people do when they’re high)
Mephedrone: 2 (awaiting toxicology reports, suspicion of toxic interaction with alcohol)
Office of National Statistics http://www.statistics.gov.uk/CCI/nugget.asp?ID=1091
Department of Health http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publichealth/Healthimprovement/Tobacco/DH_072647