Thursday, 1 October 2009

We're Concerned about Frank

Talk to Frank, the government sponsored drug awareness organisation, alongside the National Union of Students and Mixmag, have recently launched a campaign warning of the dangers of so called ‘legal highs’ – called, rather unintuitively, The Crazy Chemist. This campaign focuses on the dangers of currently legal drugs such as BZP (an amphetamine-like drug), GBL (similar in chemistry and effect to GHB) and Spice-type products (herbal smoking mixes sprayed with synthetic cannabis mimicking chemicals).

This is if course, a run-up to the Government’s plans to ban these three substances within the next few months. Frank raises some certainly genuine concerns about the harm that these substances can cause, but the main thrust of the campaign is to highlight that these drugs are produced in clandestine labs by dodgy chemists (so you don't know whats in them), and have little history of human use, (so we don’t know what the long term effects are).

Now warning the public, especially young people, about the dangers of drugs, both legal and illegal is very important, and something SSDP very much supports. Warnings about legal drugs are especially important, as the discrepancy in the treatment of legal and illegal drugs can lead users to think that legal drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) are safer because of their legal status.

And it is certainly true that these drugs pose unknown risks. Because the companies that produce them are entirely unregulated, they often lie about the contents of their products, or are dishonest about the doses or effects. Should their products be used and cause an adverse reaction, it would be very difficult to hold the producers of these drugs to account, because they market their products ostensibly not for human consumption – instead implying they should be used as incense, as room odoriser, or even laughably as plant food. However none of these concerns will be addressed by banning the products.

When these drugs are banned one of two things will happen. The first possibility is that these substances go underground and start to be produced on the black market. We unfortunately have extensive global organised crime networks to the value of $300 billion that already specialise in producing and distributing illegal drugs. Synthetic cannibinoids particularly could see a rise as a more profitable (and dangerous) alternative to cannabis production – it could well be easier and cheaper to produce synthetic cannabis extracts in small labs, as opposed to growing herbal cannabis in vast grow-ops, and the finished product would be much easier to move in a clandestine fashion.

The other possibility is that they will vanish entirely. On the surface this sounds like a positive thing, however the demand for these products will still exist and this will lead to users either buying their drugs on the black market, or switching to a new generation of untested and potentially dangerous legal drugs. Unfortunately for those trying to regulate drugs, there are literally hundreds of possible chemicals, natural or synthetic, that could potentially be used and abused recreationally.

Either way, users will still be getting their drugs from crazy chemists. The only way to drive these dangerous criminals out of the drugs business is to regulate it. Produce drugs in government monitored laboratories. Test their purity. Launch extensive studies into the harm they cause. Sell them in licensed venues with mandatory ID checks for anyone who wants to come in. Place heavy taxes on their production and invest the revenues in extensive education campaigns to warn people that they are dangerous, and treatment programs for those who experience problems with their health or with addiction. What won't help is giving the crazy chemists an even greater market share.

So why are we concerned about Frank and this campaign? Frank claims to be an independent source of information on drugs. If they run campaigns to support government policy, then this seriously calls into question this claimed independence. Educating drug users is very hard - they are by definition a marginalised part of society that is difficult to reach with education campaigns. By getting so directly involved in politics, Frank is certain to alienate this group from its information even further, and make the very important message on the dangers of drugs much harder to get across.

Obligatory Disclaimer: The opinions posted are those of the poster, and not of SSDP