The BBC Kills Teenagers

On Monday, a 16 year old from south London, Daniel Spargo-Mabbs, tragically died after taking ecstasy. Yesterday, the BBC’s London TV News carried extensive coverage of the boy’s funeral, focusing on the faces of crying teenagers, while solemnly reporting another drug death.

Except of course, Daniel didn’t die from taking ecstasy. If he’d taken ecstasy, he would still be alive today. His parents have been tricked into joining yet another crusade against ecstasy, just as Leah Betts‘ parents were, two decades ago. Betts wasn’t killed by ecstasy either (she died of water intoxication after drinking rapidly 7 litres), but for a decade after her death, morons would scream her name at anybody who tried to argue against the moronic criminalisation of the drug. If you read the reports carefully, you’ll see that Daniel’s post-mortem was “inconclusive”. He may have died from drinking, or from water intoxication, or from some other drug that adulterated the pill he took. But not from taking ecstasy.

Daniel is being used to orchestrate a moral panic over a safe drug, just as Leah was. It’s not hard to see who might benefit from such a panic. 9,000 people died last year after using Britain’s second-most dangerous recreational drug, alcohol. 9,000 died the year before, and the year before that. Can you name any teenager who OD’d on booze and was used by the media to highlight the dangers of drinking? No? Me neither. And yet alcohol kills around 1000 British people for every one who dies after using ecstasy.

Morons don’t understand statistics, but they understand sad stories. They remember Leah and they will remember Daniel, but the many more victims of alcohol will go to their graves unnamed.

Why this panic, and why now? Because ecstasy is at its most popular in many years. Clubbing is back, dance music is back, and ecstasy (MDMA) is back. Parents should be pleased that their kids are choosing an alternative to the killer drug, ethanol; they should be pleased that their kids are dancing rather than drinking and fighting; but the alcohol industry is seeing its revenues dented by the club scene, as it did in the 1990s, and it’s fighting back hard. Daniel is the face of their new advertising campaign. And it hasn’t cost them a penny.

The moronic BBC, and the other media outlets that deliberately mislead the public about the relative safety of drugs, should be held to account for their lies. They are pushers for the alcohol industry. They should tell the truth, and they should apologise for the many deaths that they’ve caused.

This is the truth:

People die from drinking because every competitor to alcohol is banned. The alcohol industry must be delighted; imagine if the government intervened in every market in this way.

People die from taking dodgy pills because the government refuses to regulate the recreational drugs industry, and allows pills to be sold without testing or labelling.

People die from water intoxication because the government refuses to allow teenagers to be taught how to take drugs safely.

People die from snorting dodgy cocaine because the cocaine industry too is unregulated, and the powder sold as coke in the UK is cut with various other things.

The alcohol industry kills kids. The government kills kids. The BBC kills kids. The mass media kills kids. It’s an insult to Daniel Spargo-Mabbs that he should be exploited in this way after his unnecessary death; but a multi-billion pound industry requires that teenagers continue to die.

Please sign this petition TODAY and get parliament to hold a long overdue debate.

The Moronic Ban on Khat

It will come as little surprise to British readers that the UK government is to introduce yet another pointless, damaging and downright stupid ban on another safe drug. We’ve been here many times before, and the procedure is standard.

The target this time is khat, a plant with mild stimulant properties, popular among East African communities – which, in British cities, means the ban will primarily affect Somalis. It should go without saying that the government, as ever, ignored advice from its own drugs experts, who announced in January that there was insufficient evidence of harm to society or to the users’ health.

The reason given for the ban by Home Secretary Teresa May was even more astoundingly stupid than the standard “drugs are bad” mantras usually given. She said that it wasn’t clear whether khat was being re-exported from the UK to other countries where the drug is banned. Or in other words, because states like France have already banned the substance for no apparent reason, Britain will too.

Khat is consumed in Somali cafes in London, just as another habit-forming stimulant, coffee, is drunk in Starbucks and Costa Coffee chains; except that, unlike caffeine (which is responsible for some sleep problems among its users), khat’s active ingredient quickly leaves the body after consumption, leaving no ill effects.

The main effects of the ban will be that African farmers will lose a valuable export market, and British-based East Africans will lose their stimulant of choice. A black market will of course develop, prices will rise, and some khat users will switch to other, possibly more harmful drugs.

Why do these moronic bans happen? With the Metropolitan Police already reported to be out of control, and still riddled with racism, this gives police a new excuse to pick on Somalis, just as they have long exploited cannabis prohibition to pick on West Indians. It gives a thumbs-up to the alcohol and coffee industries, who maintain their “government approved drug of choice” status.

Khat is not just a drug: just as with previously banned safe substances (far safer than tobacco and alcohol, at any rate) – cannabis, LSD, ecstasy, mushrooms and mephedrone – it represents a subculture. Like all these other drugs bans, the prohibition on khat represents the action of small-minded bullies in authority who seem to enjoy stamping out niche cultures, just as disturbed teenagers enjoy torturing animals. Bullied at school? Why not join the Home Office and get paid to attack people who seem to be enjoying life more than you? Or join the Labservative party, become a Minister, and get your revenge on the cool kids?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the New Zealand government has done something astonishing: it has introduced a sensible way to regulate recreational drugs. The policy is so blindingly obvious that the British government could never have thought of it: the drugs industry will be allowed sell substances so long as they can demonstrate they are safe. This puts the onus (and the cost) onto the drugs suppliers. In turn, users will be given the choice of safer, legal drugs, and consumption of more dangerous substances will diminish.

And while the New Zealand government shows concern for the health of its citizens, at least five British people have died from consuming pills falsely sold as ecstasy. This is the price of moronic drug laws: users cannot buy a clean supply of a safe drug, and end up taking something different instead. It’s time for drugs sanity; but sadly Britain is determined to be a follower, not a leader.

Drugs For All The Family!

With cannabis liberalisation starting to take place all over the Americas, it may be that the moronic “war on drugs” (and yes, whoever thought up that concept must have been on drugs), is finally peaking. What better time could there be to buy some weed, and have a smoke with your kids? Even small babies can join in – just make sure you blow a little smoke in their direction.

Shocked? Angry? Upset that I mentioned drugs and children in the same sentence? I was, of course joking; while I believe all drugs should be decriminalised for adult use, I equally believe that the concept of liberty applies to adults, not to children. It is right that parents, teachers and other adults should restrict childhood behaviour, for many reasons.

So why is there no outrage at the widespread use of recreational drugs by children? Sucrose, fructose, dextrose and other members of a popular family of drugs (known on the street as “sugar”) are addictive stimulants with serious health implications. Even conservatives who think that cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine should be banned often use these dangerous substances, and shockingly, even give them to small children.

Europeans became addicted to sugar centuries ago, with demand so high that the early Atlantic slave trade was driven by the need to grow more. The sugar industry grew in wealth and power, and has its claws so deep into our culture and our politics, that few politicians dare question its right to push its dangerous substance to our children.

Even the recent research that definitively linked sugar to the global epidemic of type 2 diabetes hardly caused a stir.

Only one politician has tried to make a – very modest – stand. The mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, tried to ban the sale of huge servings of sugar-rich drinks (if you haven’t been to the US, the size of drink portions on offer are astounding – at least double what you will find anywhere else). Bloomberg’s plan was struck down in court, allowing the drug pushers: Coca Cola, Pepsi, McDonald’s and the rest – to keep on selling quantities of the drug that are lethal if used long-term.

There is huge ignorance and hypocrisy here: sugar is probably more dangerous than a number of illegal drugs; yet people who would never touch these, will happily buy their kids Pepsi instead of milk or water – such is the addictive nature of sugar, and the overwhelming power of the sugar lobby to drown out any criticism in the media.

I think Bloomberg got it wrong. Just as cannabis and cocaine should be legally available for adult consumption, so should sugar. But none of these substances should be sold to children. Morons, thinking they are fighting for “liberty”, swallow the sugar industry’s propaganda just as readily as they buy the bullshit of the gun lobby.

It’s time to ban the sale of sugar to kids, along with all other potentially dangerous drugs; in a generation, adult consumption will also fall, and the apparently unstoppable “obesity epidemic” will start to fade away. But the sugar industry has been the world’s biggest drug pusher for centuries – as Bloomberg found, it will fight vigorously to defend its market.

In Praise Of Ecstasy

The UK’s Channel 4 last week televised a remarkable experiment, screened over two evenings. The channel had funded, for the first time, detailed scientific research on the effects on the brain of the drug MDMA, better known as Ecstasy. A selection of volunteers, including some well-known people, had been given an 83mg dose of the drug (or a placebo) before spending an hour and a half having their brain function analysed in an MRI scanner.

The study aimed to look at which areas of the brain were affected by the drug, and how. In particular, those behind the study, including the well known Professor David Nutt, wanted to look at possible clinical uses for MDMA, including as a treatment for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Ecstasy first became popular in the US during the 1980s, and rapidly spread around the world, primarily as a club drug. It induces a sense of happiness, well-being, and increases people’s ability to empathise with and care about other people. It’s an intensely social experience, and is far better than alcohol at creating a bond between people. It was banned in the US (for no good reason that’s ever been articulated), and then around the world – after all, global drug policy has been decided by the US for many decades.

In the UK, a well-orchestrated campaign was rolled out in the media to frighten the public into supporting a clampdown on the drug. The death of Leah Betts after taking her first pill on her 18th birthday, in 1995, created a perfect opportunity for the tabloid press to generate a moral panic. Betts’ autopsy later revealed that she’d died of water intoxication, a surprisingly common condition caused by drinking too much water and washing the sodium out of one’s system; but of course, the tabloids and politicians didn’t retract their earlier version of events. Ecstasy was falsely established in the mass imagination as a “killer drug”.

The reasons for the demonisation of relatively safe drugs such as Ecstasy are many and complex. No doubt, the alcohol industry fears the emergence of competitors and lobbies behind the scenes to ensure that alcohol remains the only government approved method of twisting reality. Our politicians too are generally ignorant on the drugs issue – or if they’re not, they’re all too aware of how they will be attacked in the press if they come out in favour of decriminalisation. But ultimately, as noted above, these decisions are made in Washington rather than London. American puritanism and control-freakery is global policy, until the day the UN finds the collective strength to say no to America.

The police also enjoy the extra powers that come from drug prohibition. I often see police with sniffer dogs pulling people out of London club queues; and you have to wonder who in the police or political hierarchy sees it as a priority to stop people dancing on Ecstasy in private venues. It gives some justification to the current police cuts, if there really are no higher priorities for policing a large city on a Friday night. Most clubbers know how to get past drug searches, so the small amounts retrieved by police and club security can only represent a tiny proportion of the total; the fact is, sniffer dogs provide easy arrests for the police, which can look good when aggregated into national crime statistics. The Home Secretary can brandish increased numbers of arrests and incarcerations, without having to make clear that no additional serious crimes have been dealt with.

In the 80s and 90s, high quality Ecstasy was easy to find, generally in pill form. Then, an EU ban on a precursor chemical made true MDMA scarce. Pills were still sold in clubs, but often containing other drugs, such as caffeine, BZP and later, mephedrone (which then in 2009 became hugely popular in its own right). True Ecstasy was hard to find. And then over the past couple of years for some reason (I’m told alternative manufacturing processes were developed), pure MDMA has burst back onto the scene. These days, MDMA is more usually sold as pure crystals than pills – probably because pills are now more distrusted after years of fakes being sold, and MDMA crystals are easy to test by taste and appearance.

Almost 30 years after Ecstasy appeared on the scene, it is more ubiquitous than ever, and being sampled by a whole new generation, either as a club drug or a bonding experience to be shared among friends at home; which highlights (yet again) the complete failure of drug prohibition. Countless millions of pounds have been spent, countless thousands of young clubbers and festival-goers harassed by police, and many thousands arrested and criminalised, pointlessly.

The Channel 4 experiment included tests on pills seized at the Glastonbury music festival. A third of pills contained no MDMA at all, while many of the remainder were adulterated with other substances. Many prohibitionists hold up this kind of study to prove the dangers of substances like MDMA; but on the contrary, this merely demonstrates the danger of prohibition. The ban on so many drugs like MDMA has simply pushed people to try increasing amounts of untried, untested substances – a recent study reported around one new recreational substance appearing on the market every week. Tabloids regularly run scare stories about new drugs, many so ill-informed and laughable that they’re reminiscent of the hilarious spoof drug “Cake”, invented by the British comedy show Brass Eye.

And it’s not as if MDMA is a dangerous substance. It has been sampled by tens of millions of people over three decades, many of them long-term users, and recorded deaths attributed to Ecstasy are so low as to be statistically insignificant. For example, in 2010, between five and 18 Ecstasy-related deaths were recorded, depending which statistics you use; and in most of these, Ecstasy was cited as a contributory factor, rather than the sole cause. Annual estimated Ecstasy use in the UK varies between half to one million. On this basis, eating salty or fatty food carries a far greater health risk than taking Ecstasy.

And even if the drug were more dangerous than it seems to be, why should people not have the right to use it? Banning everything more dangerous than Ecstasy would see an end to legal swimming, driving, eating most foods and without a doubt alcohol and tobacco. The global panic attack that has led to the banning of dozens of safe substances (as well as a few more dangerous ones) bears no sane explanation. Popular drugs are banned without thought, before scientists can get a chance to research them. The government realises that if publicly funded research gave Ecstasy the all-clear, to maintain the ban would appear ludicrous. So almost no funds go into researching substances – while the government hypocritically continues to label them as dangerous.

Many observers noticed years ago that the War on Drugs had been lost. Many ex-Presidents and police chiefs call for it to end, but only after retiring from office; the moron consensus doesn’t allow senior officials to tell the truth about drugs policy.

If you’re still in doubt, perhaps you should try MDMA for yourself – you’ll find it at the Silk Road marketplace, or perhaps via a young friend or relative. You’ll find yourself wondering why a substance far safer than alcohol, that makes people more caring and loving towards each other, is treated by the authorities as a threat to society.

Should Bolivia Ban Coke?

Cocaine
It’s The Real Thing

For half a century or more, the Great American Terrorist Roadshow has brutalised one region after another, crushing freedom (in the name of freedom), deliberately destroying economies, creating chaos, and leaving millions of dead people in its wake. Following the Roadshow’s sellout tour of South-East Asia in the 1970s, Uncle Sam turned his attention to Latin America. Whether done in the name of fighting socialism or drugs, or simply carried out in secret, US terrorism crushed democracies, propped up murderous dictators and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

In the 1990s America grew bored of killing Latinos and decided to go bully Arabs instead – no doubt, Latin Americans watched the Gringos leave with tears in their eyes. Latin America was left alone (to some extent anyway) to lick its wounds and rebuild its freedoms. Today, Latin America hosts some of the world’s most vibrant and independent democracies – and it’s hardly surprising that giving America the finger is a popular pastime among leaders in the region.

So when a Bolivian government minister announced that he would ban Coca Cola this coming December, nobody was too surprised. The suggestion is more than just a dig at America’s favourite weight-enhancer; it’s a symbolic statement on the US “War on Drugs”, which continues to terrorise and destabilise Latin American countries. Coca leaf, the raw ingredient used to make cocaine, is a traditional Bolivian product, and commonly used as a mild stimulant. The US-initiated ban on coca is an attack on the Bolivian economy, which could benefit from legal coca exports. Bizarrely, Coca Cola is the only US company which is allowed by the federal government to import coca leaves for use in Coca Cola (although it refuses to confirm or deny the use of coca in its products).

In summary: the US government bans the import of a Bolivian agricultural product, with the exception of one company, which uses that product to make a drink which is consumed by millions of Americans. It could make sense to ask why coca isn’t more generally allowed for sale in the United States – a trade that would boost the Peruvian and Bolivian economies. But sensible questions are incompatible with the Orwellian War on Drugs.

Naturally, the Bolivian idea of banning Coke (the tooth-rotting, obesity-encouraging variety) is now being downplayed as a comment “taken out of context”. A serious point has been well made, but with Latin America now perhaps the world leader in freedom and democracy, we can expect to see more serious initiatives towards ending the moronic War on Drugs – and perhaps see America turning its aggressive gaze back on the region in response.

Should Cigarette Brands Be Hidden?

Australian cigarette packaging
Australian cigarette packaging

This week, the UK government ended a consultation on whether cigarette companies should continue to be allowed to use branding and packaging to make their products more attractive. I’ve read and listened to some of the coverage, trying to decide as to whether this strategy will be effective in cutting smoking, but so far few facts have emerged from the noise of debate. Anti-smoking campaigners argue passionately for the ban, while “libertarian” free market advocates claim it will have no effect, and stifle freedom.

My heart is with the ban; the tobacco industry has proven itself to be the worst kind of scum, successfully denying any link with cancer for decades after 1950s research revealed the risks (indeed, denial of the tobacco-cancer link until the 1990s was a favourite moron argument, paralleling today’s denial of climate change). Only when huge class action suits threatened the industry’s very existence did it turn away from lying about its product’s health risks. Tobacco is by far the most dangerous of all recreational drugs, linked with an estimated 18% of all deaths in British over-35s, and 5% of all hospital admissions. My libertarian sympathies, also, aren’t aroused by the prospect of forcing the removal of branding from packaging. Liberty is for people, not corporations, and nobody is (yet) suggesting that people shouldn’t be allowed to buy or smoke tobacco (I’d strongly opposes any outright ban on tobacco sale or consumption). The idea that anyone is losing liberty by having to buy Marlboro in an olive rather than red-and-white pack is ludicrous (yet this kind of argument is a common piece of “libertarian” nonsense).

Would a branding ban reduce smoking? That seems less clear. Its advocates seem to have more passion than facts at their disposal. A comparison with the illegal part of the recreational drugs business suggests that branding isn’t a pre-requisite for product popularity. Highly popular drugs, such as MDMA (pure Ecstasy crystals) and cocaine are typically delivered in small plastic bags, or neatly folded up in a old lottery ticket. Cannabis is sold in a plastic bag or clingfilm. There are some approximations to branding: batches of Ecstasy tablets can usually be identified by size, colour, shape and stamp. Mitsubishi pills were popular a decade or so ago, and popular brands like Apple and Nike have taken over more recently. Rumours of a particularly good batch of pills would make a particular brand popular; but in a black market with no trademark protections, if “Apples” are all the rage, manufacturers will quickly begin producing fake Apples. Cannabis is “branded” based on its strain; a grower who creates a hybrid to be proud of will give it a memorable name – classics include White Widow and Orange Bud. But once the seeds are in the public domain, all brand control is lost.

Due to their illegality, cannabis, cocaine and Ecstasy can’t be effectively branded; but their popularity seems undented nonetheless. For decades (millennia in the case of cannabis), these drugs have only increased in popularity. It seems that branding, rather than increasing overall market size, simply increases the ability of corporations to control the market. To me, that seems like a bad thing – corporations create brand loyalty in order to ultimately reduce consumer choice and dominate the market.

It seems that brands contribute to the monopolisation of markets, reducing competitiveness and choice. The huge variety of recreational drugs for sale, and the endless scientific innovation in the field contrasts favourably with the increasing lack of innovation in legal markets, where corporations, having established dominance, get better returns from crushing competition than from investing in research and development. This is the classic contradiction of Capitalism; by succeeding, it dies.

On this basis, branding is the ultimate enemy of the free market. Can anyone claim that McDonalds or Budweiser have led to improved choice or quality? Brand psychology is hugely sophisticated, and we’re all susceptible, however aware we are. It’s why Brad Pitt sells more movie tickets than a brilliant, but unknown actor. It’s why in a strange city, I gravitate to Starbucks – it’s not the best coffee, but it’s familiar and I know what to expect.

Perhaps libertarians, rather than defending the right of British American Tobacco to lure us with fancy packaging, should be welcoming the tobacco experiment, and calling for its extension. In a sane world, perhaps adults would be presented with a choice of unbadged tobacco, alongside unbadged cannabis, cocaine and Ecstasy, all of which have far fewer health issues than cigarettes. Of course, we don’t live in a sane world – but it’s worth at least thinking about.

Silk Road: The Free Drugs Market Is Here

ecstasy pills
The Silk Road Giveth…

The typical retail recreational drug dealer isn’t the most ambitious of characters. The job offers a decent income, short working hours and the chance to spend all day getting high on your own supply and watching porn; no doubt the dream job for many teenage males, but a little bit sad if you reach your 30s and you’re still doing it. The skills required are minimal – find a supplier and a set of digital scales, spread the word through friends (carefully, mind) and the customers start to roll in. Thanks to the prohibition of drugs, there’s no need to provide good customer service, or a quality product. Competition is minimal, and the free market limited – customers have little choice but to come back, however bad a service or product they receive.

The stupidity of prohibition really hits home when you realise what kind of morons end up dealing drugs for a living. According to Drugscope, British “coke” is only about 26% pure when it reaches the customer, and can contain any blend of a dozen or more substances. In order to keep his prices keen and his margins high, the dealer will cut in other, cheaper (and sometimes more dangerous) drugs and fillers. The buyer has little idea what he’s actually buying – and the same applies to other drugs from heroin to hashish and pills of various types.

The official line is, of course, that prohibition exists to protect the public, but this is nonsensical. Most “drug deaths” aren’t caused by the substances that customers think they’re buying, but by the unknown substances that are sneaked in by suppliers, or uncertainty over dosages. In just one of many examples, Lancashire police warned users a few years ago that cocaine was possibly being cut with a carcinogenic substance. Cocaine itself isn’t a particularly dangerous drug (far less so than alcohol, for example), but moronic attempts at prohibition have made it into one. If this happened in any legal business, the authorities could step in; but our moronic leaders have decided that the recreational drugs trade will be run by criminals, with no regulation whatsoever.

Many recreational drug users are well-informed about the substances they choose to use, and thanks to the Internet, reliable health information (which should be provided by governments) is shared among users. Drugs deaths are extremely rare – the real killer drug, alcohol, kills ten times more people than all illegal substances combined. Alcohol is a dangerous substance used by the majority because they have no other legal drug options, and little understanding that safer substances exist. A large minority of people choose other drugs, but find trouble with sourcing clean and reliable supplies because they are illegal.

A genuine free market in recreational drugs would give users the control to buy what they want, from trusted suppliers, instead of basing their drug choices on what is legal, or easily available.

That moment has arrived. No: political leaders haven’t overcome their stupidity, corruption and cowardice, and decided to legalise, regulate and tax a drugs market; instead, technology has stepped in to fill the void. The Silk Road marketplace is a web site set up by unknown geeks and run from unknown places. It makes use of state-of-the-art technologies in encryption, anonymisation and digital currency. It allows sellers to list products, and buyers to browse, check out vendors, and purchase safely. By use of an eBay-style rating system, vendors can score suppliers by reliability and product quality. Just as with eBay, the rating of vendors allows the “wisdom of crowds” to help reliable, honest vendors to be identified.

You want ecstasy, LSD, ketamine, cocaine or diazepam? Heroin, cannabis, hashish or morphine perhaps? They’re all there, and many more. The site can’t be accessed via a regular web browser; it uses the Tor browser to route connections through multiple servers and prevent them being traced, and the Bitcoin electronic currency to allow anonymous payments. The marketplace has been around for over a year – Gawker reported on it on 1st June 2011, and it still appears to be thriving.

I’m far from being an anti-government, fundamentalist libertarian. It’s true, as the Silk Road demonstrates, that markets are often good at creating freedom in the midst of repression, and that competition tends to lead to better, cheaper products and better service. But I also believe that good regulation makes for better markets; governments have a duty (which they currently shirk) to control the quality of recreational drugs and inform customers of what they’re buying. Government negligence in refusing to regulate the drugs market destroys millions of lives, and entire countries; there should be global outrage against the “war on drugs”, but the corporate media does a great job in persuading the majority that drugs, rather than the “war on drugs”, are the real menace.

The Silk Road presents an opportunity for governments to accept that the “war on drugs” never had a hope in hell of succeeding. They could destroy the system overnight by offering their citizens legal, regulated, safe supplies of drugs. As I’ve blogged previously, they could reduce the damage caused by alcohol by offering legal alternatives. But politicians are too badly informed, or cowardly, and vested interests too powerful, so rather than do the sane thing, authorities are no doubt trying to track down and arrest the operators of the Silk Road. In the interest of liberty, and of saving yet more countries from being torn apart by the “war on drugs”, let’s hope that they fail.

Since prehistoric times, almost all human societies have used drugs. They’ll never go away; our leaders can only ensure that they are as safe – and as good – as possible. The Silk Road is a technological, market-based attack on the “war on drugs” – it may not be ideal, but it’s a step in the right direction.