If the media analysis of "Monkey Dust" has taught us anything, it's that the UK's national broadcasters are clearly still taking notes from Brass Eye when it comes to drugs coverage.
In a special Sky News clip about the cheap cathinone stimulants said to be causing a "public health crisis" in the West Midlands, viewers were told that while the name Monkey Dust "makes it sound like a joke", up close, the drug that reportedly gives its users superhuman strength is "pretty ugly".
"The man on the top of this building was on it," says the reporter, as video plays of a man standing on the roof of a house. "Moments later, he jumped. He landed on a car and was then straight up and grappling with police. They have to cordon off the roads, bring in extra resources, two ambulance teams turn up, the fire service are put on standby […] In this ambulance, another [Monkey Dust user who] feels no pain. He's broken his arm. Bones are sticking out. But just look at how many people are needed to get him into A&E. Paramedics are even considering wearing body armour."
The BBC took a similar approach. According to its report, Monkey Dust use is at epidemic levels, turning Stoke-on-Trent's vulnerable users into zombies with superhuman strength who like biting people, leaping off buildings and running into people's homes. It quotes one observer as saying Stoke now looks like "a scene from the Night of the Living Dead".
Problem is, it turns out the footage of the man on the roof is from four years ago, and that police aren't sure which – if any – drugs he had taken. The flesh-eating thing is an urban myth from an American case in 2012, involving a man who hadn't used MDPHP – the drug being sold as "Monkey Dust" – but cannabis. There is certainly no epidemic, as the media has said, with the drug being used by a relatively small number (compared to crack and heroin) of highly socially-excluded people in the UK.
But who cares about the facts, as long as the headlines contain the five classic ingredients of a drugs scare story: 1) Drug users with superhuman strength; 2) Drug users as "zombies"; 3) Drug users as face-eating cannibals; 4) Wild quotes from police, emergency services and drug charities; and 5) A mention of an epidemic.
The media has a drug zombie obsession – played out in the US with the infamous "faces of meth" images and, more recently, the videos of opiate-dazed people slumped in the street or in cars with their kids – because the public loves it. They click on these stories like crazy. It's why virtually every regional newspaper in the UK run by the Trinity Group has reprinted the same two drug stories – a creepy one about what to do if your neighbours are smoking cannabis, and an out-of-date, debunked story about how cocaine will rot your flesh – multiple times over the last two years.
No one's in any doubt that what's happening in Stoke is a huge problem for everyone in the local community. Drug users are buying a junk stimulant far more damaging, cheaper and easier to get hold of than heroin or crack. But painting such vulnerable people as face-eating zombies who are draining public resources – as Sky News kept on telling us – does nothing to help them. All it does is divert attention from the root causes of what's happening in places such as Stoke, which are: dramatic cuts to drug treatment services, reduced methadone prescriptions and a huge scaling down of the services designed to reduce the number of people ending up on the street with only a sleeping bag, alcohol and a bag of toxic highs to shut out their pain and depression.
The Brass Eye-style coverage has not solved the Spice use problem in Manchester, which is affecting the same underclass population and was dealt with in exactly the same way by most of the mainstream media: as a kind of morbidly hilarious photo-opp.
Despite the ban on all legal highs two years ago, highly potent synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones – the Frankenstein offshoots of Spice and mephedrone – continue to be used by significant numbers of Britain's most socially excluded people. The ban has been trumped, as ever, by the huge profit margins available to those willing to supply these drugs.
"There are understandable concerns about Spice in Manchester, benzodiazepines in some Scottish towns and potent psycho-stimulants such as MDPHP in the West Midlands," says Professor Harry Sumnall, a drugs expert at Liverpool John Moores University. "But these are not drug issues that are affecting the whole of the UK. Localised responses are needed, but the expertise and intelligence is not always there, which can lead to the risk of inappropriate and sensationalist responses when local media get involved. However, what does seem to be common with all these new trends, regardless of where use is taking place, is that it is always vulnerable members of our communities who are affected the most, and, inevitably, their use of these drugs is unfortunately often used as a reason to stigmatise and isolate them even more."
All this kind of horror story coverage does – apart from providing a bit of clickbait – is further isolate an already vulnerable population. Surely it's time for the UK's biggest news providers to ditch the Brass Eye-style guide and start digging into the actual causes behind people torturing themselves with such nasty substances, rather than judging them and tut-tutting at how they're wasting everyone's valuable time.