I may have jumped the gun yesterday when I accused The Metro of making up a drug. It would seem, having browsed the ‘net a little more, that it was in fact Humberside Police’s PR department that drew up this alarmist story. The papers should get better at verifying their sources, obviously, but various rags from the local news to The Independent seem to be in on the act.
In fact, it’s The Independent that wins the award for the most ludicrous coverage of “Mano 10”, supposedly a dangerous new drug that’s hit the streets, but in fact simply a brand of diazepam that’s been imported from India. Diazepam is, of course, more widely known as Valium, and is an anti-anxiety medication commonly prescribed to patients who suffer from panic attacks or insomnia.
In low doses, it calms your nerves and relaxes your muscles (which is why it’s also prescribed to people whose muscular problems are causing them a lot of pain). In higher doses, it’s a sedative. To The Independent, it’s actually heroin, which came as a surprise to me when I read their take on the matter earlier today.
Most problematic with The Independent’s coverage isn’t the body copy itself – which is actually more reasonable than other articles I’ve seen – but the headline. Whoever wrote the article clearly has a better grasp of the situation than others – the drug is correctly labelled a benzodiazepine, and Mano is identified as an Indian pharmaceutical company, which it is – which means “Children at risk as ‘pocket money heroin’ hits the streets” is no more than an utterly contemptible, irresponsible hack trying to draw in a hysterical crowd of naive parents to whom the arrival of a new drug is, understandably, cause for massive concern.
The quote comes from the police officer at the centre of the PR campaign, Sgt. Mark Peasgood, whose uninformed ramblings are being taken as gospel by the mainstream media, while people in the know – drugs workers, doctors or anyone with the slightest knowledge of psychiatry – get completely ignored.
The Independent quotes Peasgood at more length than I’ve seen elsewhere, and his comments really are preposterous. This is a man in a position of authority who, as far as I can tell, is simply making stuff up. This drug, he says, is leading to anti-social behaviour. Because people completely lose all their senses and memory while taking it, he recounts, they’re committing crimes such as burglaries.
Now, diazepam can indeed cause amnesia when taken in higher dosages, so I’m not doubting that there has been an instance known to the police on which this has occurred. However, claiming that a sedative drug is likely to be responsible for such behaviour is stark-raving bonkers. Try blaming alcohol, cocaine or amphetamines, if you like: such chemicals lower our inhibitions and lead us to under-evaluate risk. Or blame addiction potential: once someone needs their fix, it’s surprising how far they’ll go to get it. But to say diazepam causes people to take leave of their senses and commit crimes as a direct effect? I simply don’t believe it. I would be happy to eat my words if Sgt. Peasgood could demonstrate it to be true.
Peasgood’s comments are horrendously misinformed and misinformative, but as it is not necessary for the police to understand pharmacology, one might – on a good day – be inclined to forgive them. But how about the drugs workers we should be going to for comments on such stories? In fact, we might find that one of them makes some equally baffling statements – although I’d hazard a guess that Peta Godney was supplied some dodgy information at some point along the line, because you’d hope that she would otherwise know that in diazepam there is diazepam.
“The main danger with the drug is that we just don’t know what’s in it – it could contain anything,” she says in what was presumably a press release, as every paper’s article contains the same quote. Except we do know what’s in it, because quickly Googling ‘Mano 10’ yields this as the top result.
But wait: local publication This Is Hull and East Riding contains more words from Godney – and it emerges that it’s she who came out with the lines about the drug being “similar to benzodiazepine” and and such chemicals being “anti-depressants”. Tomorrow, I fully intend to attempt to contact Godney: because if these statements are genuinely what she believes, under no influence from either the media or the police, then she should not be working in her current position, and I think people ought to know about that.
The prevailing comment that runs through this absurd media coverage is that ‘Mano 10’ is a killer drug, one that could stop our children’s breathing, leaving them dead on the ground. Except that it would appear there is no evidence for this whatsoever. Diazepam is, even for teenagers, an incredibly difficult drug to overdose on. It is safe in rather high quantities. It will knock you flat out, and you might stay that way for some time, but you will not die. There are reports of people consuming as much as two grams of diazepam – 200 of these little blue ‘Mano 10′ pills (yes, as you might have guessed, the ’10’ refers to how many milligrams are contained within). That’s a ridiculous amount to take. You would be an idiot (and a rich one at that) to do so. In fact, any more than two or three of these pills and you’d be asking for an unpleasant time. But reports of it being a killer drug are simply unfounded. They seem to be based upon nothing but a couple of hospitalisations, but in both cases it seems someone took some diazepam, passed out, and was taken there as a precautionary measure. “Frothing at the mouth” is kinda just what happens when a potent sedative knocks you out: it’s nothing to be afraid of, necessarily.
(The exception to this is if the diazepam is taken with alcohol, which can indeed be very problematic. What’s alarming is that there has been no mention anywhere of this potentially fatal contraindication. That‘s your horror story, dear media; not the diazepam itself.)
So where does this leave us? With a police department aggressively campaigning against a drug despite knowing nothing about it, and a media populace happy to print the story verbatim without any fact-checking whatsoever; and, worse, a major broadsheet newspaper whose writer clearly does understand the issue, at least somewhat, but is comfortable with running an alarmist, inaccurate headline anyway. It’s true that there’s a new science scare story every other week, and that they are quickly buried away in the archives, but this represents a massive, embarrassing failure on the part of the British press: where there was the opportunity – perhaps the need – to print a measured and accurate story about the dangers of combining prescription medications with legal drugs such as alcohol, the papers ran with the police’s PR nonsense that doesn’t make any sense. I really hope that, in the end, the ‘Mano 10’ death count stays at zero.