How to Make Drugs Better in 2014
Photo by Dana Boulos (fake gak, stunt gak, don't judge this model, it's toy gak). Graphic work by Sam Taylor.
If you thought the days of getting a criminal record for having a spliff or two in your pocket were over, think again. Here are some cases I found after spending five minutes sifting through some Welsh local papers that went to print back in March.
Darren Williams, 24, was handed a 12-month conditional discharge and £100 fine for possessing £2 worth of cannabis. Terry Davies, 21, got a six-month conditional discharge and a £100 fine after being caught, in his dad’s shed in Llanelli, with 0.8g of cannabis. Rhiannon Key, 30, was fined £180 after being found guilty of possessing £10 of cannabis outside Swansea train station. Two were unemployed. All now have criminal records. Ironically, they were forced to pay a "victim surcharge" as part of their fines. But who the victims were, the court reports never made clear.
Unfortunately, for one person, the cost of being caught with a laughable amount of weed was much higher.
A month before these three were put through the cash-gobbling court system, a coroner’s inquest in Manchester heard that 17-year-old student Edward Thornber killed himself because he had been summoned to court for possessing cannabis with a street value of 50p. Thornber, a former head boy at his school and by all appearances a fairly innocent chap, rightly presumed a narcotic criminal record would prevent him from coaching sports to American kids. The court summons was found beneath his hanging body in a local park.
No, Britain in 2013 was not exactly Mexico, where the streets are regularly littered with headless drug war corpses, nor was it China where hapless traffickers are executed each year in time for the UN’s International Drug Day. What happens here is relatively low level, but it's pernicious and it ruins lives. The best way to improve drugs in this country – after making sure they don’t kill you – is surely to make sure they don’t suck millions of British users into the criminal justice system.
Unfortunately for UK citizens who like taking drugs, drug policy in this country operates in its own special braindead gear, only reacting to extreme stimuli, like Peter Hitchens' deathly bellow. Things don’t happen fast and here’s why: Despite the huge collateral damage in terms of health and crime resulting from the status quo, politicians are shit-scared of what the conservative press and its readership will do if they change things. I mean, it took the British government 30 years to legalise giving tin foil to people who inject heroin (it encourages some to swap intravenous use for smoking heroin, a far safer method of taking the drug which also makes it easier to stop using). Meanwhile, right now, Theresa May seems hell-bent on banning khat, a drug with no proven fatalities or really, any proven dangers to a user’s health. This is a government, after all, who have routinely ignored the advice of their own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs – not just on khat but also on E, acid and weed.
So, how do we turn this dull, reactionary island into a place that takes a more mature approach to drugs? Well, much like England at this summer’s World Cup, we'll need to be taught a lesson by some of those “people” who don’t even have the decency to live here.
VICE's David Bienenstock examining the goods on Colorado's first day of legal retail marijuana sales
When drug possession laws were relaxed in Portugal and the Czech Republic, the sky did not fall in. Instead, the policies seem to be proving widely popular with the police, drug users and the general public. Meanwhile, glancing across the Atlantic, history is being made. Last month in Colorado the first batch of 348 retail marijuana licenses issued by the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division were delivered through the post in readiness for the world's first state-licensed recreational marijuana industry. It's now up and running.
Colorado will shortly be joined in legalising, taxing and regulating the production, sale and use of marijuana by the state of Washington. And, by the looks of things, perhaps even Washington DC, too – you know, the place with the White House and all the hyper-ambitious political spods who really aren’t going to make the most of it. A few thousand miles south and Uruguay has legalised the production, consumption and sale of weed, becoming the first country to do so in a move described by painfully hip stoner bible the Economist as “a change so obviously sensible, squeezing out the crooks and allowing the authorities to concentrate on graver crimes, that no other country has made it”. Backed by voters, the leaders of these states have effectively given federal US and UN anti-drug laws the royal fuck you by opting to go AWOL from the global drug war.
And Colorado and Washington are not the only states to ignore federal drug laws. So far 20 states, plus DC, have legalised marijuana for medical use, with several more – including, notably, New York – set to do so in 2014. US economists are already predicting the "green dollar" will be this year’s boom industry. California, which already reaps around $100 million in tax revenue a year from medical marijuana sales, will be watching developments in Colorado and Washington closely.
All this in the backyard of a country that, since bullying its fellow superpowers into signing the first international drug control treaty in 1912, has been the key orchestrator of the War on Drugs for the past century. Ten years ago, America was banning the UN from using the phrases "harm reduction" and "needle exchange". But look at it now. Obama is up for the ride even if he won’t admit it.
It will be interesting to see what happens way out west, but in terms of improving drugs, legalisation appears to be a promising route for Britain to go down. Firstly, it would mean you wouldn't get arrested or slung in jail for using drugs, which is a vast improvement. Because legalised drugs are subject to strict controls, they should also be clearly labelled, safer and less likely to contain nasty surprises, like mortally terrifying hallucinations or chemicals like Levamisole that eat your arsehole alive. Plus, you would be able to take them in a more open, relaxed way. On the downside – and no one likes to admit this bit – legalisation takes the edge off the forbidden, conspiratorial nature of illegal drug use that people love. If your mum can get her acid delivered alongside her copy of the Times, teenagers will no longer have a monopoly on questionably broadened horizons. Which is bad news for anyone looking for a shortcut to sixth-form cool.
Also, as the cigarette industry prepares for its own slow death over the next 20 years, it seems unlikely that they’ll miss the trick of embracing tobacco’s groovier cousin and as such we could be witnessing the birth of Marijuana Inc – an industry whose advertising would clearly be so repellently reggae-reggae, it’s almost worth reconsidering the whole legalisation thing.
A screengrab of a dealer's texts, posted at Reddit
Realistically, legalisation is not going to happen in the UK in 2014. But don’t despair. Like osmosis, the growing movement for reform on the international stage will surely seep into Britain throughout the next year. Already in 2013 there has been mounting pressure from non-liberal voices, such as the British Medical Association, a police chief constable and a Nobel Prize winning economist, calling for reform of the outdated system. And in 2014, British entrepreneurs and ministers may well cast envious glances at how much money is saved and generated in Uruguay and America. Colorado has already spent millions of dollars on building and repairing schools using the $6m annual tax gained from its medical cannabis sales, which are likely to be dwarfed by recreational sales over the next 12 months.
More importantly, there is a rising feeling, expressed many times by The Wire co-writer David Simon and within Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In, that the War on Drugs is actually a war on poor, often non-white, Americans. Sadly, last year, the drug charity Release published extensive research, which went largely unreported, that proved the same was happening in Britain. It found that black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs and twice as likely to be charged with drug possession than white people – despite drug use being lower among black people.
In 1985, Ronald Reagan announced his intention to “create a drug-free America by 1995”. The War on Drugs pretty much proved that an insane fantasy, and today, if there is a global urge for reform, it has been carried along by evidence, rather than conservative mythology. This can only benefit drug users in 2014, according to Mike Jay, author of High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture: "The obvious answer to how you improve drugs is legalisation. But if this doesn't happen, the increased public engagement in the issue is beneficial: it means that users are not so reflexively demonised. They become more culturally integrated, which is ultimately the route to safer use and less victimisation.”
In the spring, the Home Office is due to release two drug policy reports. One, carried out by Lib Dem ministers, will focus on what lessons can be learned from the way other countries deal with drugs. Insiders say that the Lib Dems have been impressed with what they've seen in Portugal, the Czech Republic and Uruguay, a view echoed by Jessica Magson, a former International Projects Manager at the Ministry of Justice. However, though Magson reckons 2014 offers a "golden opportunity" for the government to encourage town councils and police authorities to experiment with decriminalisation, obstacles remain. Namely, convincing the Tories that a change in policy wouldn't damage their tough-on-crime reputation.
The Home Office’s second report will look into how to deal with the tricky and apparently unpoliceable area of legal highs. Again, it will be looking abroad for inspiration. In 2013, New Zealand, a country blighted by a bad drug distribution network because of its remote location, and therefore packed with a plethora of nasty legal highs, took a step into no man's land with its progressive Psychoactive Substances Act. The first of its kind in the world, the act aims to license the importation, manufacture and sale of all new psychoactive products. Legal high suppliers are granted a license to sell their drugs only if they can demonstrate through testing that they are unlikely to cause significant damage to people. However, there is a feeling in Whitehall that the Home Office is more likely to go the US federal way, and push for blanket bans on all new psychoactive chemicals, regardless of their effects.
In terms of policy, John Collins, coordinator of the International Drug Policy Project at LSE, says 2014 is a turning point for global drug policy. “The choice is between maintaining the façade of the status quo, or reforming the system to reflect decades of science and evidence in this field," he says. "It’s [a choice] between evolution and irrelevance for the international system. States may well cease to bother with multilateralism and instead push ahead with unilateral policies of harm reductions, impact reductions, decriminalisation and regulatory experimentation.”
What does that mean? It means that in 2014 governments around the world have a choice: Either pull your scaredy-cat head out of your arse and deal with drugs face-to-face like an adult, or go down in a ball of narco-flames with the drug war losers.
But what about the substances themselves? I mean legalisation is cool and all, but frankly, people have been taking drugs illegally for a fair bit, ultimately it’s the high we care about, not the law. So, in 2014, will they improve? Is there a perfect drug on the horizon?
Probably not. The bad news is that drugs are getting worse and will continue to get worse in 2014. And this is largely down to the growth of the online drug market and the trade in an ever-expanding menu of new psychoactive substances and legal highs.
This scene was catapulted to front pages across the world in 2013 by the rise and fall of Silk Road – a brazen, virtual nose tweak to the War on Drugs that ridiculed prohibition like never before. Even though its alleged founder Ross Ulbricht is now teaching yoga somewhere in a US prison, as he awaits trial on charges including narcotics trafficking and murder for hire, the closure of Silk Road did not and will not mark the end of big online sites selling drugs. It was not the first and it will not be the last. Resourceful entrepreneurs will find more secure, more elusive, more efficient ways of selling drugs over the web. Barring a complete ban on the internet and chemistry, the online drug trade and the market in new drugs is here to stay. If you can’t keep drugs out of maximum-security jails, trying to extract them from the internet and the global postage system is an exercise in futility.
These days, Britain’s junk food drug market has a radioactive feel. Low purity cocaine was one thing, and in fact, often the degradation of the drug actually made it easier to stomach on ten pints of Stella, but now literally anything could be hiding in a line of white powder or a pill. Mephedrone might have made you incredibly horny and smell like cat's piss – a horrible combination – but in the early days it was reliable and it basically sparked the online drug market into life. Those days are long gone – forensic analysis of one "Rockstar" ecstasy pill last year found it contained 11 different drugs. And – even more scarily – the drugs are mutating. A packet containing two legal highs identified in Japan was found to contain a third drug that had been produced by an unexpected reaction between the original two drugs.
These days, as soon as substances are banned, other, often more dangerous substances, spring up in their place. It’s called displacement and its bad for drug users. It takes them further away from the buzz they were after in the first place. “It's been a race to the bottom, with each iteration less appealing than the last – shorter acting, worse side effects and so on,” says Mike Jay.
PMA, a more toxic substitute for MDMA in pills, was linked to 23 deaths in 2013. Synthetic cannabinoids – an endless stream of chemically tweaked, alcopop style cannabis replacements with names like Exodus Damnation and Clockwork Orange – have also been linked to a string of seizures and deaths. Billed as legal highs, although they frequently contain banned chemicals, these drugs are sold online but most commonly in head shops, petrol stations, tattoo parlours, newsagents and fish and chip shops. If the chain of ban-invent-ban-invent continues, drugs will probably just become an amorphous beige mush called "Stuff" which gives you a hyper-intense metalhead for five minutes before throwing you into the Valley of the Shadow of Death for the next three hours.
“People do not use legal highs because they think they are safe, they use them because they are legal,” says addictions psychiatrist Adam Winstock, who runs the Global Drugs Survey. “Like any other commodity, drug users tell us they want a consistent product, value for money and one that maximises pleasure and minimises harm.” One of the surefire ways of improving your drug life in 2014, then – in terms of safety and pleasure – is to avoid new psychoactive substances and legal highs. Stop being a guinea pig; legal highs are shit and very few people even know what they're taking.
A pretty amazing anti-drugs cartoon from The Sun
The hunt for the perfect drug, chiefly carried out by psychonauts because researchers don't get funded to look for positives in drugs, has been extensive. But MDMA remains pretty much the ideal high for pleasure-seeking illegal drug users. Of the 77,000 people who responded to this year’s Global Drug Survey, MDMA powder came out top of the charts in the survey’s Pleasure Index, followed by LSD, mushrooms and cannabis. MDMA is the drug that most new psychoactive substances try – and fail – to mimic.
“There will continue to be new compounds available, and most will be unexceptional,” says Harry Sumnall, Professor in Substance Use at the Centre for Public Health. Sumnall says that even if a new, highly pleasurable, low-harm substance was found, it would be demonised by the government. “A lower risk synthetic compound, with prosocial and mild hallucinogenic properties, would be popular with users, but would not be acceptable to UK lawmakers. Regardless of psychopharmacological and toxicological properties, [some] chemical induced altered states of consciousness are too dangerous in themselves to be tolerated.”
The originals, the substances most new products try to imitate – MDMA, cannabis, LSD, cocaine – are the best. But getting hold of them in this pick n' mix market is easier said than done. Which is why 2014 is the year of the friendly neighbourhood drug dealer. The drug dealer gets a bad rap. He’s been pushing smack on schoolkids since the 60s and, according to most sources, is responsible for pretty much every inner-city British shooting. But, trust me, if you want to take drugs in 2014, you need one. One you can trust not to sell you gear that’ll harm you, kill you or waste your time.
Later in the year, the Global Drug Survey will be producing a Drug Highway Code that will contain all the advice to make your drug journey as safe as possible, such as sampling small amounts, looking out for your friends and being aware of overheating and hydration levels. It's not revolutionary stuff but then it's unlikely to be until the government revolutionises its own laws to reflect the reality of modern drug use.
“The major pragmatic changes are in the hands of governments rather than drug users,” says Mike Jay. “In the meantime, drug users need to do their best to inform themselves about risk, particularly with new psychoactive substances – of course the law maximises harms by preventing suppliers of 'legal highs' from offering useful information about dosage and safety, so users have to be the adults in the room here.”
(Big, gurning adults in a room full of flashing lights.)
Cut Out N Keep Recommendations for Improving Drugs in 2014:
Drugs Should Get a Lawyer
These chemicals are grossly misrepresented. In courts around the land they are scandalously blamed for a vast range of crimes. They are exploited by celebrities as an excuse for pretty much anything and allegedly tried and rejected out of hand by young MPs. They are slandered by politicians as addictive when they are not (see: ecstasy by Alan Johnson) and lethal when they are not (see: cannabis by Gordon Brown). They badly need a brief.
Ban Studio Debates On Drugs and Stop Using Idiot Drug Users On TV
These are always terrible. They just stick the camera on two people who don’t know anything about drugs and make them argue about drugs. Every drug user who appears on a TV documentary is a dickhead with terrible clothes. This taints all drug users, effectively making drugs worse.
Ban Drug Slang, It's Useless Now Anyway
Why is everyone obsessed with drug slang? Most of the time, like "meow meow" or "woof woof", it's made up by the newspapers or TV soaps. These days it's pointless, no one knows what they are taking. Just call it all “crud”.
Bring Back Moroccan Hash, All Is Forgiven
Let’s face it, 2014 would be a lot better for cannabis smokers if they didn’t just have to choose between generic cannabis farm skunk or chemical evils like Clockwork Orange. Neither are very nice. In the early 2000s Morocco provided the bulk of our hashish, and it was fine. Then the government clamped down on the trade. Now is the time, with the Moroccan economy in need of a boost, to sample its hash.
Pick a Side in the Drug War
Either you are on Kofi Annan’s side – he wants an end to the War on Drugs – or Vladimir Putin’s side – he wants the War on Drugs to be increased to the power of ten. Take your pick.
Max Daly is the co-author of Narcomania: How Britain Got Hooked on Drugs. Follow him on Twitter: @Narcomania
Or, choose from the selection below: