Friday, 2 April 2010

It didn't occur to me that drugs would be nice

Dr Max Pemberton made an appearance on BBC News this morning, after writing an article for The Telegraph on his experience with mephedrone.

The segment isn't available on iPlayer, but there was a memorable line from the good doctor, who had hitherto avoided drugs (besides alcohol and tobacco): "it didn't occur to me that drugs would be nice".

As he puts it in his Telegraph article
I'd love to be able to tell you that I had a hideous time when I took mephedrone but the truth is, I didn’t. It was a lovely feeling and I can completely understand why people would use it.
He goes on to explain his stance on illegal drugs:
My prohibition on taking drugs until this point had been because they were illegal. I think that people should be free to make choices about their lives and that, providing they are aware of the consequences, this includes doing things that might damage their health. I am not a complete puritan – I smoke and drink. But my problem with illegal drugs is the human suffering that surrounds this market. Gun crime, prostitution, murder, extortion, burglary. It ruins lives and communities, and that’s not something I want to buy into.
It is an obvious point, but one that rarely surfaces in the mainstream media: most of the problems associated with drugs are not intrinsic; they are the inevitable consequences of prohibition. Equally, those risks that are intrinsic could be much better managed if the sale and use of drugs were legal.

Pemberton expresses concern about the potential harm caused by synthetic drugs, but he recognises the futility of the current approach:
There may come a point in the future where we tire of this cat-and-mouse game and accept that there is a need for a legally sanctioned stimulant. Perhaps it will be safer in the long term to restrict the use of these substances to adults, and license their sale and enable information to be gathered about their side effects, long-term health implications, dosing and risk minimisation.
Writing for The Guardian, sacked government drugs advisor David Nutt explains the several reasons for mephedrone's popularity:
Mephedrone is sold as the pure substance, so users know what they are getting. This contrasts with current street supplies of ecstasy and speed, which are often very low quality after being cut with inactive agents and may even contain some other, more dangerous, drugs such as methylamphetamine. Another reason for its popularity is that it is legal, so can be purchased without having to make contact with drug dealers who may pressure buyers towards other drugs, and currently there is no risk of a criminal record from being caught with it. In contrast, being caught in possession of MDMA and other class A drugs means one risks up to seven years in prison, and for amphetamines [class B], five years. Users see benefits in avoiding the limitations to their careers that a prosecution for drug possession would bring. Prior to the rise of mephedrone, another stimulant known as BZP was popular, but the government has recently made this a class C drug, which may have displaced users to mephedrone.
He suggested a fourth class:
Last year, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) suggested that new drugs of uncertain harm might be put into a holding class – such as the "class D" approach adopted by New Zealand several years ago to deal with BZP with some success. Drugs in class D are allowed to be sold in limited quantities to adults, with appropriate warnings of health risks and advice on safe use. Manufacturers are licensed, provided they comply with quality control of manufacture and report sales on a regular basis.
That would certainly be an improvement on the status quo.

My own view is that prohibition is never justified. Government has a role in preventing the sale of dangerous substances to children, but adults should be free to choose their own risks. Reputable businesses have no interest in poisoning their customers, and free people will naturally seek out the safest drugs that give the desired effect.

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