The media loves a drug scare story, even if it's probably bullshit, because fear shifts content. But unbeknown to the tabloid scaremongers, fear also shifts drugs.
So when last month the Sun spotted what appeared to be a legal highs website blatantly pushing legal highs on young festivalgoers, only weeks after the government's blanket ban on all psychoactive substances in May, it couldn't get enough of it.
The Sun told its readers about Ciao!, a website that would get hundreds of kids online to buy dangerous drugs:
'SHAMELESS dealers are still finding ways to peddle killer legal highs and have vowed to flood Glastonbury with… One dealer is openly goading the government by boasting their "little packet of goodness" has not been outlawed'
The Sun included screen shots of the unusually trendy, professional looking website, Ciao.
And the Metro went for it too.
But what the flunkies on the Sun and the Metro failed to spot, despite Ciao looking and acting like no other online legal high store in history, was that the 'business' was a spoof. When I contacted Ciao suggesting they were not what they seemed, the 'shameless dealers' confessed.
They were in fact a drug charity, the Angelus Foundation, and an ad agency, Lime, who set up the website as a novel way of providing advice about legal highs to teenagers. Anyone signing up to get free samples has in the last week been sent a package containing a message with a web address offering advice on legal highs.
But what the people behind Ciao noticed was that far from putting people off visiting the site to order drugs, the Sun and Metro stories did the exact opposite: they were great for business. Within hours, orders had shot up by 300 percent.
This is nothing new. To the drugs trade, bad publicity is good publicity, because drug scare stories make people buy the very drugs they are supposed to be scared of. Unpublished Home Office research into what teenagers thought about cocaine, carried out in 2007, two years after the Daily Mirror's COCAINE KATE front page, revealed it had tempted some to try the drug for the first time and others felt it gave improved its image.
Luckily, using Google, it's possible to pinpoint people's interest in buying drugs to specific drug scare stories over the last decade, and it looks damning for the misguided tabloids.
Between November 2009 and March 2010, the press published a constant barrage of scare stories about the new super cheap legal high stimulant mephedrone, called 'meow meow' by the press. At this time the Sun was printing an average of two stories a day on the subject and the Daily Mail, Star and Mirror weren't too far behind. There was the one about the guy who ripped off his scrotum after taking mephedrone, the 14-year-old Brighton schoolgirl and two young lads from Scunthorpe who died after taking it, the 180 pupils off sick at one school after taking it, that 90 percent of Liverpool who were 'on it' and the dealers who mixed it with crystal meth and sold to schoolkids.
Every one of these stories was bollocks. But not only were they not true, they fuelled a mephedrone epidemic among young people. Far from putting people off the new drug menace, they jumped on their computers and started to find out where they could get hold of the stuff.
Check this graph analysing the volume of Google searches for 'buy meow meow', a name for the drug that was only used by newspaper readers, between 2009 and 2010, when the scare stories were at full tilt:
It's possible using this analysis to see how individual stories got people searching for the drug. And the news is this: the more gruesome the story the more it makes people want to buy the culprit.
The two peaks at the far right of this graph showing how often people searched 'buy meow meow' on Google reveal a big rise on the same days in November 2009 the tabloids published the stories on the schoolgirl dying of the drug and the man ripping off his own scrotum.
It was as if the people of Britain thought 'I want what they're having', despite the fact the stories were 1. tragic and 2. untrue. A study carried out by Glasgow Caledonia University spotted a similar pattern. It found that web interest in buying mephedrone peaked when online news stories reported deaths from the drug (despite most of the deaths being false alarms).
And guess what happened when, on March 31, a fortnight before the mephedrone ban, the Sun published a story about a new highly deadly legal high called NRG-1: '25p a Hit and Will Kill Many More than Meow'.
At the end of March the graph goes from flatlining to Himalayan. And when in June, the Sun ran a story about another legal high, MDAI, which they'd also given a stupid name, 'Woof Woof' (the headline was admittedly very good: 'Woof Woof is the new Meow Meow') the inevitable happened on computers around Britain…
Everyone tried to buy fucking woof woof.
Fast forward to August 2014, when the national press spotted the nitrous oxide trend. Look at the graph below, showing a flurry of people jumping on their computer to search out 'laughing gas buy':
That peak represents people's reaction shortly after the Daily Mail's crazy headline: 'Hippy crack epidemic: Costing as little as £3 a hit, it's now inhaled openly on Britain's streets. But the young professionals getting high on laughing gas don't realise it's deadly'. I'm not sure if it was what the paper's editor Paul Dacre intended, but web searches for 'laughing gas buy' spiralled as a result of the efforts of his hacks.
But it gets twisted, as I said earlier. Which news story do you think prompted more people to try and buy laughing gas: one about Raheem Sterling being photographed taking laughing gas; or one about a teenager dying after taking it?
When Sterling was caught taking laughing gas and slapped over the front pages of the Sun, twice in April and June 2015, there is a moderate rise in people searching 'buy laughing gas'. But the biggest spike comes at the end of July, when 18-year-old Ally Calvert was – wrongly, it turned out – said to have been killed by it.
This nihilism shit is exactly how the hardcore end of the synthetic weed market has operated since producers started trying to outdo each other with increasingly noxious and potent products such as Vertex and Clockwork Orange; according to drug workers, when users read or hear about a brand that's hospitalised or poleaxed someone, they'll go out and buy it because they know they will get bangs for their bucks. In 2012, after intense press coverage of nine young people in Glasgow being hospitalized after taking Annihilation, online sellers could not cope with the influx of buyers and completely sold out.
The same thing happens with more dangerous, addictive substances such as the synthetic opioid fentanyl which killed Prince, and which is being increasingly used in America alongside the heroin upsurge. Between the mid 1990s and mid 2000s, a rash of highly publicised fentanyl overdoses in Illinois and New Jersey were found to have triggered others, regardless of the reported dangers, to seek out the drug for its high potency and therefore 'value for money'.
Why do people do this? Aside from the desperation that drives some people's hardcore drug-taking, Professor Harry Sumnall at Liverpool John Moores University is one of the authors of a soon-to-be published report which tried to pull apart the paradox of why drug users make apparently irrational decisions when faced with potentially harmful substances on the market. It suggests that people may do this for psychological reasons: something seen as highly risky can make people feel powerless, so they take the plunge in an attempt to 'control' it by proving to themselves that the drugs they like to take are not as harmful as they're made out to be.
It reminds me of my brother and I when we were kids. Whenever our mum put a hot dish on the dinner table, she told us: 'Don't touch, it will burn!'. We both touched it straightaway every time and laughed because it didn't burn us; it just felt really hot. It's a childish reaction to a warning, perceived as a challenge.
How, then, do you warn people about the presence of potent drugs without egging them on? In new guidance handed out by Public Health England on how to issue drug alerts, local drug teams are being advised to avoid talking about 'high purity' or 'high potency' drugs, and instead to talk about 'highly harmful doses' of drugs.
Drug expert Michael Linnell, who helped to write the guidance for the PHE, admits that the fear of people being spurred into drug use by lurid newspaper reports is unfortunately used as an excuse not to give information.
"But the point is information is a starting point for choice and informed drug use. Where you have a drug like PMA sold as ecstasy, the situation is clear: that is not what users want, so avoid the bad pill. However, as these guidelines also make clear, the pitfalls of warning people about potent MDMA: 'watch out there is really good E about!' is counterproductive, because that is exactly what they want to go out and buy."
What is for sure is that, with the young readers that the Sun and Mirror tend to attract, the shock! horror! method of drug education handed out by most of the media, is actually music to the ears of the very dealers these papers abhor.