Is Tabloid Outrage Just Getting More People into Legal Highs?

Getting uppity about internet drugs seems kind of pointless if all you're doing is advertising them.

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May 23 2013, 7:00am


Some dried out salvia. (Image via)

The British tabloid media has a love-hate relationship with legal highs. At the same rate that the drugs are being invented by the Chinese party chemists eager to make anxiety-inducing powders available over the internet (which is stupidly quickly), the media churns out a barrage of scare stories about overdoses and hospitalised students. But while their sensationalism generates plenty of page impressions and probably helps sell the odd paper or two, the flaw is that they're providing the legal high industry with complimentary advertising space that reaches millions of potential customers every single day.

Last weekend, the Daily Mail reported that the hallucinogenic drug salvia was available on Amazon. (Don’t go looking for it now, because a) it's been removed, and b) it's a perpetual waste of time, unless you want to part with £15 you could otherwise spend on something that doesn't just hurt your lungs and make your eyes go a bit weird.) 

Luckily, everything worked out fine for the Mail editors and their outraged cloud of commenters: Amazon were exposed for who they really are – irresponsible drug pushers who care more about hospitalising teenagers than selling Kindles and other knickknacks for a profit – and forced to apologise. The Mail had performed its civic duty, Amazon had been publicly shamed, everyone had been saved. But, weirdly, interest in the legal high boomed:

As soon as the article was published (in May 2013), Google searches for "salvia amazon" shot up astronomically. Whether any of those searches led to sales of salvia is impossible to tell, but the Mail’s piece generated a significant amount of publicity for the drug. And if you're into drugs – and the Mail attracts somewhere around 100 million unique visitors a month, so I'm assuming a couple of them will be – the website's description of salvia as "more powerful than LSD", although very wrong, just may have got a few potential buyers interested.

All of which isn't particularly mind-blowing, it's kind of obvious that interest in a drug would increase after media exposure. But the graph below highlights something that is a little more surprising:

Remember the case of the supposedly drug-crazed Miami man-eater back in May 2012? The guy who was believed to have ingested the legal high mephedrone – known in America as "bath salts" – before viciously attacking a stranger, eviscerating his face and torso with his teeth and being shot dead by police? After news spread that the high (or at least the batch of it the Miami man-eater reportedly had access to) could turn you into a nasty, cannibalistic dickhead, you'd have thought that the drug's popularity might suffer. But directly after the incident on the 26th of May, and all the subsequent media hysteria, the number of people frantically hammering in the search term "bath salts buy" rose exponentially.

Once again, it's important to note that there's no way to verify that any of these searches actually led to purchases. But you'd imagine a few of the people searching out ways to buy bath salts probably ended up buying them.


A baggy of mephedrone.

The same thing happened during the initial UK mephedrone wave of 2010, bar the whole zombie thing (that seems to be exclusive to Florida). Take one Mail headline: "Mother's Warning As Yet ANOTHER Teenage Girl Dies of Suspected Meow Meow Overdose". In spite of the fact that the article described an overdose and, worse yet, called the legal high "meow meow", interest in buying the drug yet again rose thanks to the coverage.   

The final irony to emerge from the situation was that, besides calling attention to legal highs through their articles, media outlets sometimes end up hosting actual ads for the legal highs they're so vehemently against. Below is a (very small) screenshot taken on the 7th of June, 2012, after a search for "ivory wave" (another legal high) on the Mail website:

If you can't read it properly because you don't tend to carry a magnifying glass around with you at all times, the advert below the article reads, “Ivory Wave wholesale – best of bath salts, don’t miss special offers, discounts and amazing prices! Secure online shopping!” Of course, these adverts aren't controlled by the Daily Mail directly – and they seem to have since been removed from the site – but it's still a bizarre sight.

So, is all this media coverage and Google Trends data just a strange coincidence? I spoke to Stephen Rolles from Transform, one of the UK's leading drug policy think-tanks, to get some further insight into what it all means:

VICE: Hi Stephen. Tell me all about the relationship between tabloid outrage and the popularity of legal highs.
Stephen Rolles: Through publishing articles like the ones mentioned, the tabloid press is inadvertently giving free ad space to legal high companies. The articles often state the name of the drug, its effects, that it’s cheap and that it’s freely available on the internet – everything a potential consumer would need to hear to arouse their interest.

So would it be fair to say that media hysteria in fact causes an increased interest in legal highs?
I would say that's fair, yeah; it's clearly what's happened in many cases. The surge in interest immediately follows the publication of the articles. It even echoes the coverage given to ecstasy in the late 80s: as more panicked media surrounded the rave subculture, more people were introduced to it.

Is shutting down the websites an effective way of preventing the potential harm?
No. If anything, knee-jerk enforcement responses often exacerbate the problems. Once you shut down a website, consumers will simply go to one of the other myriad sites offering the product. And once a drug gets enough tabloid attention for people to demand that it be made illegal, a ban simply moves the marketplace underground, making the products even more risky as the contents, strength and purity become less reliable.

And people just come up with new stuff anyway, right?
Yeah, a new product with unknown risks will emerge to fill the vacuum created by the ban, as has happened repeatedly over the past few years. It's important to note that the media can also sometimes usefully warn about the harms of certain drugs, legal or illegal. When there are fair reports about high risk products or rogue batches, interest seems to decrease or stabilise, like in the case of the legal high "Annihilation".

Yeah, I mean maybe its name alone had something to do with that. What do you think the future of legal highs depends on?
Well, policy makers only have a couple of options: they can leave these products in the hands of unregulated websites and head shops, or they can try to ban them, which tends to make the problem worse. What's needed is a third option that allows for risky products to be evaluated and have production and sales properly regulated, which is exactly the model being developed in New Zealand. We need pragmatic market regulation rather than endless futile and counterproductive bans.

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So there you have it: it looks like tabloid campaigns to turn people off legal highs are doing the exact opposite, instead broadcasting their strength, low prices and easy accessibility, and popularising the drugs even further.  

Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephfcox

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