The sudden death of a teenage son is tragedy enough for a family. To see his face used by the media to crank up public fears about the latest "killer drug" only amplifies and elongates the grief, especially if your son's death has nothing to do with taking drugs.
This is what happened to the family of 18-year-old Ally Calvert, who happened to die in the midst of a summertime media frenzy over nitrous oxide, a relatively harmless drug that newspapers have bizarrely labeled "hippy crack". Police briefed journalists that Ally – who collapsed after leaving a friend's birthday party in Bexley, South London in July – had probably died after taking nitrous oxide. The story was plastered over every national newspaper, casting Ally as the latest victim of the new drug scourge.
But as his friends – who set up a Facebook page protesting against the police's version of events – knew all along, Ally suffered from a rare heart condition, which was later found by a post mortem to be the real cause of his death. Last week, Met Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe met with and apologised to Ally's family for the "upset caused by the statements we made about Alistair's death".
In the drug war, like any other, disinformation swarms. Fiction parades as fact. And because drugs are such an intoxicating topic for the media, they'll print virtually anything, especially if it's given credence by the police. Despite the sensitivity around a loss of life, Ally's death is not the first time the police have fucked it up.
During the height of the mephedrone panic in March of 2010, the police were behind a tabloid story about 180 pupils being off sick from a Leicestershire school after snorting the drug. A week later, a police officer declared that two Scunthorpe teenagers had died after taking mephedrone. As a result of the inaccurate media hype, the government rushed to ban mephedrone. However, in the months after the ban, it was found the Scunthorpe lads had taken the heroin substitute methadone, not mephedrone, and the story about the 180 school kids was dismissed by Leicestershire Council as completely untrue.
The police are also partial to a good drug scare story, however far fetched it might be. In 2007, Oxfordshire Police Force alerted 80 schools about how drug dealers were peddling a new product called Strawberry Quik, a pink, strawberry-scented child-friendly crystal meth that was being sold to school kids as popping candy. Like the equally stupid Blue Star Tattoo myth of a decade earlier, where dealers were supposedly manufacturing LSD-soaked children's run-on tattoos, it turned out to be complete bullshit.
It's not just British police who like to spread a bit of narco-bollocks. Last Halloween, police in Colorado released a video advising parents to sift through their kids' sweets because drug fiends were planning on putting cannabis-laced gummy bears into children's trick-or-treat bags. This story went viral, despite there being no evidence of it being true.
Likewise, when 31-year-old Rudy Eugene chewed the face off a homeless man in the middle of a Miami street in May of 2012, it was widely claimed he had been driven to do this after using "bath salts" (an American term for mephedrone). Unsurprisingly, the rumour's source was a police officer. The bath salt zombie story turned out to be baseless, but someone made a bad film about it anyway.
The blunders can get quite Cake-esque. Like this, from an official statement to the media from Northamptonshire Police in 2012, claiming that the odour from cannabis plants causes cancer:
"Police are warning that when cannabis plants reach the final stages of maturity the odour they release has carcinogenic properties… Officers who deal with the plants use ventilation masks and protective suits, and people who have plants in their home, especially anyone with young children, may be exposing their family to a health risk."
Is there a sinister agenda at play here? Are police deliberately spreading propaganda about drugs just because they're illegal and they want to reduce demand?
No, says Pete, a senior drugs detective who asked to have his surname withheld. He says cops are mainly just ignorant of the truth about drugs. "Most police officers' views on drugs are based on myths from the 1970s," he tells me. "They get their information from newspapers like everyone else. If you told the average copper that dealers were making LSD tattoos for kids, they'd believe you. There are maybe four or five police officers in each force who understand drugs. Most police officers see drugs the same way they see society, in a very black and white, good and evil way. If you use drugs, you are thick. If you sell them, you are evil. All drugs are addictive. There's no motive behind this disinformation; it's just a total lack of knowledge."
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Of course, it's in the police's interests to rail against drugs. They are illegal, after all. Police officers see the nasty side of drug abuse – the damage it causes and the crime associated with addiction and selling. But there is a feeling among many police officers – apart from those caught using or dealing them, presumably – that drugs are not just illegal, they are deeply immoral and need stamping out of existence.
You only have to look at the highest-ranking police officer in the country, Met Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, to get a flavour of how our drug laws would look if the police were in charge. He's suggested that every working adult in Britain, especially teachers, should face routine, mandatory drug testing. One of his predecessors in the job, Sir Ian Blair, had some equally Big Brother style ideas. In 2005, he said that police would be raiding middle class dinner parties across the country, looking for people taking cocaine.
The cat and mouse game of hunting down drug dealers means that when police get a result, they need to make it count, both in terms of making a media splash and in their pursuit of the longest sentences possible for drug dealers in court. This can result in some deliberate exaggeration: police have a reputation for inflating the street value of a drug haul and of bumping up the seniority level of a nicked dealer. One court case in 2010 saw police trying to convince a judge, unsuccessfully, that a 16-year-old crack dealer from Peckham with learning difficulties was some sort of drug kingpin.
"For decades, police have exaggerated the value of seizures and pushed offenders as far up the drug dealing tree as they can," says a spokesman for drug charity Release. "It looks good in the media, increases the sentence and justifies the expense of surveillance and raids."
He told me the police tend to give a "street price" value for seizures because it looks far better to say in the media "we seized £20,000 of drugs in a raid" than "we seized two kilos of skunk-type cannabis worth £8,000 wholesale". He said it's common to see import-purity cocaine seizures inflated to make the price what it might be if the drug was cut six or seven times. So a kilo, worth £40,000, becomes close to £250,000.
Cannabis cultivation cases are the cause of the biggest over-egging, he says: "Plants are often projected beyond their yield capacities and then broken down into single unit deals and multiplied by the number of crops in a year. Therefore, something as relatively minor as 20 plants may get projected as 50g per plant, which is a kilo, or £10,000 in "street value", and three crops per year gives £30,000."
By giving out misleading information, perpetuating age-old myths and exaggerating drug busts, what the police are doing, willingly or not, is pernicious. Not only are they adding to the hail of confusion around the subject, which is part of the problem, they are playing into the hands of an institution with a far worse track record of propaganda on drugs: the right-wing British press.
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