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Khat has been banned. Here’s why this terrifies me

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I have in front of me a 96-page report, published in January. Here is a quote from page 3, the summary:

The overwhelming majority of Council members consider that khat should not be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs
Act 1971

Yesterday, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that khat will be banned, saying that the risks of the plant’s consumption “could have been understated.”

Oh, look. Here we go again.

This is not the first time that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has been ignored. In fact, it often seems that the sole purpose of this group of independent doctors, scientists and sociologists is to prepare lengthy reports on what the Government isn’t going to do. The Council was set up to provide Government decision-makers with the necessary expert input in order to calculate the risk potential of both new and existing recreational substances – but the number of times the Government has now rejected its recommendations borders on the ludicrous.

Since the end of the last Labour government, we’ve seen case after case of such dismissals. The Council’s recommendation that cannabis should remain a Class C substance led to – uh – its reclassification to Class B. Its suggestions outlining why psylocibin mushrooms should not be upped to Class A similarly led to exactly the opposite happening. MDMA should be Class B, it said, while more extensive research into mephedrone should be conducted before a ban is considered. The pills remained Class A and the powder was bumped to Class B before a single piece of research into its risk potential had been conducted.

And, of course, former Council Chair, Professor David Nutt, left the Council after publishing a report that suggested alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than ecstasy and cannabis. Nutt says he was sacked – the Government’s angle was always that he resigned. Either way, this is all starting to look a little bit silly: the experts are repeatedly being told, by the non-experts, that they are wrong, that they have misunderstood, that they have underestimated the harms that these drugs can cause. Trouble is, the non-experts have the final say.

Not only does yesterday’s banning of khat seem ridiculous in light of this rich history of rejected reports, it’s also particularly worrying. Khat is a mild stimulant, a plant whose leaves are often chewed, which induces similar effects to a cup of coffee. From it, you can get things like cathinone, and from there you can get things like mephedrone, much like cocaine is derived from the coca plant and heroin from poppies. But in plant form, it’s not all that bad.

This isn’t the issue. The issue is its widespread use, going back hundreds if not thousands of years, in a number of communities around the world. In Somalian, Ethiopian and Yemeni cultures, it’s been a staple of life for as long as people can remember. Just as we love nothing more than a pint of lager on a Friday night, so these communities indulge in a spot of khat. It is the way things are.

It is believed that khat poses certain health risks, just as anything does in excess. It certainly has the potential for dependence – this has been demonstrated. In rare cases it’s been linked with liver failure, and heart disease, and – in slightly less rare cases – with oral cancers. Its mortality rate is still, in the scheme of things, extraordinarily low: Tobacco and alcohol remain riskier by an enormous degree. But, if we’re honest, it probably isn’t entirely benign.

We don’t ban alcohol and tobacco, and the Government has always shied away from explicitly stating why, but presumably it is because these are historical Western institutions, protected like a religious right, and the prospect of getting rid of them is intimidating. There would be an uproar, outcries, probably rioting. It is acknowledged that these substances are a part of our culture, for better or for worse – so we gently discourage their over-use, while still utilising them to generate huge sums of money for the tax man.

Khat isn’t as popular here. It’s rarely used by British people, who prefer to get their equivalent fix from coffee or Coca-Cola. There is not a mass market for this product, so it can’t be used as a financial buffer, and the number of people who would be incensed by its ban are relatively small in these lands.

But the fact remains that certain communities within our country are now being told that the thing they have done for hundreds if not thousands of years, for generation after generation, is no longer permitted. The worrying effect of all this is that communities that have been using this substance for as long as people can remember, many of whom are addicted to it, are suddenly being robbed of their fix. There has been no mention of any support systems being set up, but May has been quick to point out the risks of the UK being used as a hub for khat trafficking to countries where it is already illegal, its use allegedly – but as yet unprovenly – being used to find terrorism. These are troubling parallels to draw.

And this is happening even though the experts in the AMDC overwhelmingly agreed that it should remain legal. Even though they said there has been no evidence, across decades of research, to suggest that khat poses a significant enough societal or medical risk to become a classified substance. Even though they have suggested integrating with these communities to arrive at mutually agreeable solutions to the problem. Even though they are the experts, advising the law-makers. Nope, say the law-makers. We don’t agree with you. We think you are wrong.

Here’s an idea: maybe they’re not wrong. Maybe, when you get experts in, who year after year tell you that you are doing things incorrectly, you should start to listen. Maybe, when you sack people for disagreeing with you, and their replacements continue to disagree with you, some alarm bells might start to ring.

Or maybe, just maybe, the AMDC functions as a convenient public relations department: a useless filtering system that nevertheless shows that the Government is doing something to understand the real issues behind our substance dependency problems. Look, they spoke to experts! They’re doing things by the book! Except no, they’re not. Because this isn’t how it works at all.

When the Government proposed a Class-A restriction on psylocibin mushrooms, it approached the AMDC with far too little time to produce a full report. According to Nutt, the Government had already made up its mind. Provisionally the Council told the Government that it was very unlikely that they would recommend magic mushrooms should be made Class A. The Government, he alleges, thanked them for their time, then immediately passed legislature that made them among the most illegal things to have on your person.

The AMDC is not a board of experts to be consulted. The AMDC is a board of experts whom the Government hopes will give weight to the decisions they have already made. But, as drug after drug is banned against the Council’s recommendations, to less of an uproar and more of a mild groan, but in ways that could seriously damage certain migrant communities within our proudly multicultural nation, one has to wonder: when will people really sit up and pay attention?

We hope there will be close attention paid to the ACMD‘s further recommendations, which all have our unanimous support. It is essential that communities be supported and given the appropriate resource and environment within which they can manage issues e.g. to support integration and address inequalities of health … Our recommendations are based on a rigorous and systematic process of evidence gathering and subsequent analysis of what was submitted and presented to the ACMD. We would welcome discussing our findings with you.

Khat: A review of its potential harms to the individual and socities within the UK
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, January 2013

B.C. police refuse to reveal which drugs are deadly

A tweet from Ben Goldacre pointed me in the direction of something considerably alarming. In an absolutely extraordinary example of disregard for public health, the British Columbia police have refused to disclose important information about potentially lethal adulterated ecstasy tablets, on the grounds that they feel it would make taking other ecstasy tablets seem more acceptable.

Despite a series of deaths linked with PMMA – a highly dangerous chemical that’s been infrequently used to adulterate ecstasy tablets for a while now – police in Vancouver say that they are reluctant to reveal what the seized and tested adulterated tablets look like, because they don’t want users to think they are sanctioning other pills.

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Ecstasy, or hysteria? Part 3: Of course, the tabloids

It was today, when searching the Internet for any reports of what actually killed two men in Ayrshire earlier this year, that I instead discovered some new reports of ecstasy deaths. (Incidentally, those toxicology reports remain elusive, which – pure speculation, of course – would suggest to me that there was no evidence that ecstasy killed them at all.)

This time the stories – which I somehow hadn’t picked up on over the past few days – relate to two deaths at London’s Alexandra Palace, which has recently played host to a series of dance events. As well as the two fatalities, 20 further people were alleged to have been admitted to hospital, one of whom was critically ill.

It is ecstasy that takes the blame. And yet there is no evidence, it seems, that ecstasy was taken.

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Independently stupid: The ‘Mano 10’ nonsense continues

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.

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The Metro invents new killer drug

Perhaps The Metro would like to explain this article, which purports to expose a “new danger drug” that’s brutally murdering our kids as we speak.

The article reports that “teenagers are risking death by taking a new drug that is sold for as little as 50p a pill.” It’s called Mano 10, says the piece, and it has effects that are – quite bizarrely and contradictorily – similar to both heroin and amphetamines.

However, the drug is in fact not new. The pills marked ‘Mano 10’ are a brand of diazepam – more commonly known by its most prominent brand name, Valium.

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Ecstasy, or hysteria? – part 2: some clarifications

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Yesterday I ranted for quite a while about the BBC’s coverage of two men’s deaths in Scotland – deaths that occurred after they took what police say was ecstasy “six time stronger” than “normal”.

It was piss-poor coverage of what could well be a non-story, or could well be about something far more troubling than ecstasy – but it wasn’t the only example of such reporting, nor was it even the worst (the tabloids, predictably, were more full-on in blaming MDMA for the evils of the world).

Since I wrote that post my blog’s traffic spectacularly soared into the thousands (thank you very much to those who linked it in article comments threads and the like), so I thought it sensible to do a quick follow-up post to address a few points that have been raised by people since I published the original post yesterday.

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Ecstasy, or hysteria? – On the BBC’s drugs reporting

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I’ve added a lengthy clarification to this post. Click here to read it.

It’s become a bit of a cliché to say the BBC’s reporting is going downhill, but that’s because – well – it is. And one of the trends seems to be an over-reliance on bad science, when the faintest drop of research, consultation or common bloody sense would reveal to a particular journalist or section editor that the words they’re writing down are bound to be inaccurate.

Increasingly, the media – and not just the tabloids – are enjoying fighting a bit of a war against drugs. There are several key commentators who are keen to stress how much the situation is exacerbated by the press, but on the whole reporters seem unprepared to rest on science and sensibility, instead opting for reactionary statements with no balance whatsoever.

It happened with the mephedrone scare, the government eventually backed into a corner where it could choose to accept scientific statements from medical and pharmacological professionals, or go with the Daily Mail, which it ultimately decided to — banning not just mephedrone, but all related substances, even rushing through legislation which allowed them to bypass the usual regulations with regards to drug classification. Want to know the grand total of published, peer-reviewed pieces of research into the effects of mephedrone at the time the classification ruling was passed? Pretty sure it was zero. Please correct me if I’m wrong. Certainly the other drugs outlawed in April 2010 were banned based on no evidence whatsoever.

Anyway, today, the BBC has run this extraordinarily alarmist headline:

Super-strength ecstasy warning after Ayrshire deaths

Basically, two men die after two separate nights out in Ayrshire, after taking what police suspect was ecstasy that’s “six times stronger than normal.” The article is careful not to misreport anything as such – the quotes seem genuine, and there’s certainly nothing that’s outright fabricated by the journalist himself. However, ask any specialist on the subject and they would explain to you why the article is hysterically misleading — even though police probably did issue a warning that “ecstasy tablets six times stronger than normal have been sold in the west of Scotland.”

Here’s why it’s bullshit.

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