News today about the tragic deaths of two teenagers:
Toxicology tests have shown that two teenagers whose deaths were linked to mephedrone had not taken the drug.
The deaths of Louis Wainwright, 18, and Nicholas Smith, 19, in March 2010 sparked concern about the synthetic stimulant, which was then legal.
The Labour government banned the so-called "legal high" in April, making it a Class B drug alongside amphetamines and cannabis.
At the time, you could have been forgiven for thinking there was no doubt about what killed the pair:
Not a sniff of doubt about it back then: MEOW MEOW KILLS. The Sun couldn't resist a bit of kneejerkery and roared BAN DRUG NOW. Luckily for all drug-fearing parents everywhere, the then-Labour administration knew its masters at the Sun were right, and hastily ensured a ban did take place.
Which isn't to say that mephedrone is entirely safe, or should be put in a bag with a lolly like a Sherbet Dip-Dab, or anything; it's just that, as I thought at the time, sometimes it's best to wait and see before blundering in to making conclusions and driving up a moral panic - particularly if you're a massive newspaper with millions of readers, some of whom will actually believe what you say, and you're not entirely sure, and not all the facts are known.
The deaths are still as tragic as they were, whatever the cause. And before the inquest is concluded, we still don't know the exact circumstances. But I wonder if the Sun or Monday's Metro will give equal prominence to the real cause of death, if it's established not to be something that chimes in with a moral panic agenda.
I don't wonder actually.
You'll remember how, when a couple of people's deaths (through drinking, methadone and mephedrone) happened, the Mail were quick to blame... mephedrone.
And when the number of crimes proceeded against in Nottinghamshire vaguely linked to Facebook went up from three to six, the Mail panicked about... Facebook.
So when half of all violent crimes are linked to alcohol, the Mail blames... Labour.
Obviously. The most tenuous of evidence linking Facebook to crime is greedily gobbled up; the inconclusive links from mephedrone to deaths is reported as 'playing Russian roulette'; but solid links between alcohol and crime? That must be Labour's fault, then. And oh look, it's election time, well that's quite handy, isn't it?
Now I'm not saying that so-called '24-hour drinking' - a myth that doesn't seem to exist anywhere except in the minds of pearl-clutching Mail readers and journos - has been a spectacular success. And if there's evidence it's doing harm, then I'm happy to be swayed. But this article from James 'the relationship between what I claim to be telling you and reality is pretty' Slack is nothing of the sort.
A secret Government report has revealed the mayhem caused by Labour's disastrous 24-hour drinking policy.
Ministers hoped the introduction of round-the- clock licensing would reduce violence and lead to the creation of a 'relaxed, continental cafe style culture' on the nation's streets.
But the leaked report reveals that nearly half - 47 per cent - of all violent crimes are cited as alcohol-related by victims.
OK, so what you might be expecting now is a comparison between figures after '24-hour drinking' and before. To see if things have improved or deteriorated. Surely. Otherwise you couldn't possibly claim it was 'Labour's disastrous 24-hour drinking policy', could you?
Well, you could, of course, if you're Slack. And besides, it's not a Mail story because they give a shit about crime victims; it's that horrible, dirty public sector pay that's the problem!
In a further embarrassment for ministers, a second study revealed the cost of policing Labour's late-night drinking economy is adding £100million to the police overtime bill.
Which would appear to be a fail, but it's only a fail if you assume crime has gone up - which Slack does, and which the 'secret' dossier may well say for all I know, but there's no evidence in the article if it does. Might we be prepared to pay for more police overtime if crime was less? Do we really want to go back to 'chucking-out-time' and being forced to go to a shit nightclub if you want to drink past 11.01pm?
Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said: 'It's now clear that behind the scenes the Government has finally realised what everyone else knows - that our town and city centres have taken a real turn for the worse as a result of Labour's 24-hour drinking laws - and that alcohol is now a major cause of crime and antisocial behaviour.
'So why have they done so little to get to grips with the problem? We really do need new leadership if we are to fight back against crime.'
You'll forgive me for not giving a shit about what Chris Grayling has to say about anything. Long before he got caught out over the weekend, he'd been rebuked in Parliament for misleading use of figures. But his quote up there is a wearying taste of what we've got coming up in the election: it says nothing, it adds nothing, it's a simple piece of poo-throwing. They're bad, we'll be different. No how or why; just they're bad, we'll be different.
If there is a secret report that says relaxed drinking laws have made things worse, then let's see it. But we don't see it. We get James Slack saying that he's seen it, and that it does say that, without providing any proof. For all I know it might say "Yes, we fucked up" in big capital letters on the front cover. But I would have expected, if it did contain such an admission of culpability, at least a quote saying that, rather than a figure about crime with no relationship to what the situation was like before, or anything like that.
But then this isn't about what's really to blame. When you can slightly link mephedrone, go big on it; say it's Russian roulette and deadly. When you can slightly link Facebook to crime, go big on it, and call things the 'Facebook murder', say Facebook ruined your children's lives, say all of that. When alcohol is linked to violent crime, don't blame alcohol - blame Labour. It's election time, and that's what we're going to get.
The moral panic over mephedrone, or meow meow, or Clarky's Cat, or Slip Me On The Thigh With A Big Banana, or whatever you want to call it, continues.
This comes after the deaths of two men were trumpeted by our friends in the screamsheets as being definitely due to the deadly meow meow - yet still the final reports on the deaths have yet to be concluded. In the meantime, a dozen or so people will probably have died from taking heroin, their deaths and the misery for their families going largely unreported. But who cares? Who cares when there's a new bogeyman to scare the kids?
The Evening Standard did an interview with the Government's former drugs adviser Professor David Nutt the other day which I found pretty interesting. It began:
When two teenage boys and a 24-year-old woman die and a new - and, at present, legal - drug called mephedrone is the prime suspect in their deaths, parents inevitably panic.
So the last thing they want to hear is that, in fact, alcohol is probably more dangerous than meow meow, as mephedrone is nicknamed, and is certainly more harmful than a host of other recreational drugs, such as LSD, magic mushrooms, cannabis and ecstasy.
But this is the grim warning from fellow parent Professor David Nutt, the former government drugs adviser.
"For me, as a father with four children, aged 18 to 26, the drug that I know could kill my kids is alcohol. It is the drug that has caused the most damage to my kids' generation and I think we have got to be honest about that," says Nutt, sitting in a modest meeting room at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) - the independent charity, he jokes, "which is responsible for all this".
And it concluded:
These kinds of arguments prompt Nutt to suggest that "some sort of regulated use for MDMA or mephedrone where people, maybe in clubs, could have access to small amounts, safe amounts under guidance" would be better than the current system of banning drugs and forcing them onto the black market.
Presumably, if that is how Nutt feels, then he wouldn't object to his own children trying mephedrone in controlled doses. "If I found my children were taking mephedrone I would do as I always do and tell them the truth," he says.
He has the same attitude with all drugs. "I would say: 'If you get on to heroin, you are at real risk of dying. Heroin, crack and crystal meth are the drugs you really want to avoid and it would be very distressing for me to know you were taking those'. With alcohol I'd say: 'I know you drink but whatever you drink, try to do it in a way where you don't put yourself at harm'. And with other drugs: 'If you are going to use them, just be aware that the harm of criminalisation may actually be more dangerous than the drugs themselves'."
Does this candidness about drugs extend to his own experiences? "I've never tried it [mephedrone] and I've never tried MDMA. I've hardly used any drugs, I'm a bit weedy really. I'm an old man from a different generation. I hardly even smoked cannabis because I get wheezy, but I'm not against people smoking [cannabis]. And I do drink."
As the Government and Professor Nutt have found, the truth sometimes hurts. But there's far more to lose if people shy away from it.
A pity, then, that the headline was:
Because that really isn't quite what David Nutt was saying. I don't think he was suggesting that clubs handed out wraps of mephedrone as you walked through the doors; or if he was then I've got things a little bit wrong.
You might say, oh, but that's the line, isn't it? Can't have a story without a line. But I'd say: how about you treat your readers as if they have something other than cotton wool in that void between their ears, and you imagine they might be able to read what you've got to say without putting a trashy misleading headline like that on the top? Because you know what happens. When one does it, they all do it. And here's the Daily Star:
Though that has been superseded today with a slightly different headline, the slightly less sensational but altogether less grammatical:
Ah well. But the story is still the same, and the implication is the same: This man is saying that clubs should just just hand out mephedrone, like it's sweets. But it's not quite that clear-cut. Adults having access to mephedrone (presumably for sale) in a controlled environment is not the same as that bloke in the gents toilets with the aftershaves and packets of chewing gum handing you a packet of mephedrone with a cheeky wink. It's really not the same thing at all.
But that's how it works. Professor Nutt could have spoken eloquently for a day and a half about the dangers of alcohol or heroin, and the relative risks of mephedrone and other more panicked about substances, and the headline would still have been HE WANTS MEPHEDRONE HANDED OUT IN CLUBS. It's not just the search for the 'line', it's something else on top of that, too, I think; a need to be sensational in the midst of all this panic, to try and ride the wave of hysteria.
A lot of people, unfortunately, will have done just what the Star did: take the headline as the story, when it wasn't like that at all. Can't we have a reasoned discussion on these things? Must it always be a BAN in one pan of the scales or HANDED OUT in the other? Is there really nothing in between for a mature society like ours? Not if you read a lot of what's in the papers, there isn't.
How dangerous is meow meow? One thing's for sure: we won't be finding out by opening a newspaper. Now that two deaths have been linked to it, it's time for a bit of panic-porn. Imagine if swine flu and Facebook had sex and produced a runty child that went around killing people: that's the kind of treatment that meow meow's getting right now. Evil! Danger! Terror! Dead children! Aaargh!
Were they 'killed by meow meow', as those headlines boldly state? Well...
Police said they believed the drug, also known as "meow meow" or m-cat,contributed to the deaths of Louis Wainwright, 18, and Nicholas Smith, 19. They died on Monday after a night out drinking in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire.
It depends on whether you think 'contributed to someone's death' is the same as 'killed'. Or whether you think that matters. Or whether you don't give a shit, so long as you flog some scary newspapers to ramp up the panic and take your readers round that ghost train one more time.
Of course it brings to mind that all-time classic
episode of Brass Eye in which all kinds of celebrities were all too keen to come forward and make bizarre claims for how a huge fluorescent yellow drug called 'cake' could affect your 'Shatner's Bassoon'. Meow meow, as we are doomed to call it now, is real enough; but how dangerous is it really? Does it just contribute to people's deaths when combined with other activities, legal or otherwise - in which case, why isn't that message which could save lives coming ahead of all the BAN IT NOW, WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!! hysteria?
No. We're not grown-up enough in this country to have a reasonable debate about drugs, and the screamiest parts of our press aren't grown-up enough to describe what may well be a complicated situation without yelling the loudest to call for things to be banned, or to warn that things are killers when they may not necessarily be in all circumstances. In Britain, we are trapped in a classroom with Mr Mackey: Drugs are bad, and that's that.
Professor David Nutt is one person who tried to talk reasonably about drugs a while ago as an expert adviser by the Government, and was swiftly jettisoned as his expert advice, expert advice though it was, wasn't the expert advice they wanted to hear. All of a sudden it was "Ooer, he's a bit of a Nutt innit? Do you see?!" and he was doomed. It didn't fit the narrative. He wasn't screeching dire warnings about kids playing Russian Roulette with their very lives. He tried a pharmacological, rather than hysterical, approach. Which failed.
Poor old David Nutt, previously lambasted by Jacqui Smith for daring to imagine a world in which all drugs weren't entirely evil things which kill you as soon as you look at them, tried to hold up his cocktail umbrella against the tsunami recently in the Guardian, before this latest incident:
Is mephedrone harmful? Because its use is so recent there is relatively little evidence on this point, but from its pharmacology we could not make the assumption that it would be completely safe, especially at high doses. Users report effects such as a faster heart rate as one would expect from a stimulant. In the UK, there have been scare stories of mephedrone deaths, but so far none has been proven, though mephedrone was involved in the death of a Swedish teenager in 2008.
The link in that quote from the Nutt piece is broken, but it once went to a story saying that meow meow was "The deadly drug that's cheap, as easy to order as a pizza... and totally legal" - a story in the Daily Mail, I bet you are somewhat unadjacent to the feeling of being surprised to hear.
Because this new panic-porn has been some time coming. There were previous false alarms with meow meow being linked to deaths, but now it is being described as a possible contributory factor - or the thing that definitely killed these people, depending on how frightening you want to make it sound. Earlier this month, Metro confidently reported on how 180 children had been sick off school because of meow meow, although you could see that it wasn't really that clear cut from their own story:
It's not clear how they know - but quick! Make them panic! 180 kids off school! Definitely! We're not sure which school or where, or how they know, or what's going on, or whether it's really 180 kids or just the same kids taking it again and again, but PANIC! Panic now! Panic as if your lives depend on it!
It may, of course, be the case that there really is something dangerous in meow meow, and it'd be foolish to imagine that all the fears weren't founded at all. But how do we know that? And what do we really know? We know that the police think it might be a factor. What does the science say? No-one's referring to science when they talk about this story; they're talking about SCARED PARENTS and ANGRY POLICE and the evil lethal drugs that can kill you, and have definitely killed these people.
I can only see this getting more intense because it's in everyone's interests that it does. The Government will be delighted: they can portray themselves as arbiters and protectors ahead of an election, and ban this sick filth from our streets. All politicians will want to join the snowballing panic before it passes them by, so won't dissent. The cops can make themselves look like diligent protectors, also, seizing these perfectly legal drugs in order to protect us from ourselves. And the press have got a new scare story - our children being killed off by a lethal drug. It's a perfect storm.
I was quite surprised this week. Ordinarily, when someone famous dies, it only takes about five minutes for the tabloid attack squad to move in, decide it was their fault and rip apart their life for no reason whatsoever. But Stephen Gately's death seemed to catch the hatemongers on the hop.
Until today. Here's Jan Moir:
Why there was nothing 'natural' about Stephen Gately's death
...except that he died of natural causes, you mean? Jan, though, has recognised her tardiness in sticking the boot into the fresh corpse of Gateley; she's now doing it in advance to other celebrities who might die soon:
Robbie, Amy, Kate, Whitney, Britney; we all know who they are. And we are not being ghoulish to anticipate, or to be mentally braced for, their bad end: a long night, a mysterious stranger, an odd set of circumstances that herald a sudden death.
No, it's not ghoulish at all to expect someone else's death, Jan. You tell yourself that. You cackling witch.
A founder member of Ireland's first boy band, he was the group's co-lead singer, even though he could barely carry a tune in a Louis Vuitton trunk.
He was the Posh Spice of Boyzone, a popular but largely decorous addition.
Keep going, Jan, I don't think you've been unpleasant enough yet. How about turning into Quincy and deciding you know better than the coroner?
Even before the post-mortem and toxicology reports were released by the Spanish authorities, the Gatelys' lawyer reiterated that they believed his sudden death was due to natural causes.
But, hang on a minute. Something is terribly wrong with the way this incident has been shaped and spun into nothing more than an unfortunate mishap on a holiday weekend, like a broken teacup in the rented cottage.
What killed him then, Jan? Being gay?
Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural one. Let us be absolutely clear about this. All that has been established so far is that Stephen Gately was not murdered.
Er, no, dying from fluid on the lungs is natural and unfortunately does happen to people with congenital heart conditions. It's rare, but it does happen all the time - just not to celebrities. That's probably why Moir doesn't know.
After a night of clubbing, Cowles and Gately took a young Bulgarian man back to their apartment. It is not disrespectful to assume that a game of canasta with 25-year-old Georgi Dochev was not what was on the cards.
Ah, I see. Yes, they were gay, therefore they obviously had sex with him. If that's what you think, Jan, don't be shy. If all gay people are by their very nature promiscuous then just pop up and say it, Jan. No-one will think the less of you. Because no-one could think any less of you.
Gately's family have always maintained that drugs were not involved in the singer's death, but it has just been revealed that he at least smoked cannabis on the night he died.
Nevertheless, his mother is still insisting that her son died from a previously undetected heart condition that has plagued the family.
BECAUSE HE DID, YOU FLAMING FUCKWIT. Tell you what, you do a few years of medical training, order a second postmortem, you carve up the corpse, then you come out with your half-baked "one spliff killed him" bullshit. Otherwise, maybe the people who do it for a living know that they might be talking about...?
For Jan, though, it's not about the one spliff which killed Gately. It's the fact he was gay.
Gay activists are always calling for tolerance and understanding about same-sex relationships, arguing that they are just the same as heterosexual marriages. Not everyone, they say, is like George Michael.
Of course, in many cases this may be true. Yet the recent death of Kevin McGee, the former husband of Little Britain star Matt Lucas, and now the dubious events of Gately's last night raise troubling questions about what happened.
What the fuck do you mean by that? Kevin McGee killed himself after battling with drug addiction - it wasn't anything to do with his civil partnership as that had long since broken up. Is Jan Moir really trying to link drug use with being gay? Or saying that civil partnerships will lead to death? Or what is she trying to do?
Whatever it is, it's more seedy and disgusting than what she claims is to blame for Stephen Gately's death. Someone as decent and ordinary as Gately dies, yet Jan Moir lives. It's just not fair.
I'm a libertarian at heart. By which I don't mean "I'm one of those people who calls himself a libertarian to mask and justify his inherent racism", or "I'm one of those people who calls himself a libertarian because 'extremely right wing' doesn't sound as good" or anything like that. No, I mean libertarian in the sense that it used to be used before the so-called politically incorrect brigade turned it into a confusing term that can just as easily mean "free thinker" or "total arsehole": essentially, that adults should be allowed, as much as possible, to do whatever they like, so long as it doesn't do harm to other people.
I find it wearyingly disappointing, then, to read about the Government's plan to outlaw 'legal highs' with the wafer-thin justification that some people somewhere have died after taking them (not necessarily from taking them). I imagine that even if no-one had ever died after taking them, they would still be cracked down upon: because it's not a crackdown on danger, or risk, or people hurting themselves, but a crackdown on the kind of unregulated recreation (or, as you might call it, 'fun') which the state disapproves of. So if you take a lot of these drugs you might die? It's the same with water, or carrots*, or anything. Too much of anything isn't good for you. Banning it doesn't make the situation any better, either.
But this Government, as every other Government has or will do, wears the Mr Mackey hat when it comes to drugs, and simply says they're bad, mmkay. It was the same when a drugs expert told Jacqui Smith something which went against this logic - something she didn't want to hear, which led her to put her fingers in her ears and screech that drugs were definitely evil and killed you, and that was the Government's position, no matter what anyone else might say.
Not that the Tories are very much better, despite many Tories claiming to be 'libertarians' of a sort. David Cameron's plan to cure all the problems of alcohol by making it more expensive - rich people who can afford more expensive booze of course never cause any problems whatsoever, for example smashing up restaurants and then chucking some money at the owners to get it fixed up; whereas the poor are vermin who can't be trusted and who therefore must be forced to pay more - was mooted some time ago, and I said then it wouldn't work. Now it's turned up again and it's fairly obvious which groups are being targeted:
Such tax changes would mean a four-pack of extra-strong lager such as Carlsberg Special Brew costing an extra £1.30, a bottle of powerful cider an extra £1.25 and a bottle of alcopop an extra 50p. But duty on low alcohol products would be slashed.
So there you have it. A tax on poor alcoholics, essentially, street drinkers rather than anyone else. Are they really the ones causing the most trouble with booze - really? Or are they just the easiest to target because they don't complain, because they're easy to villainise, because it's simple to make out that they're the problem, rather than the pint-and-a-punchup types out in town centres every weekend?
And yet if our masters looked at the evidence, and kept a sliver of an open mind, they might like to reconsider. Take this story the other day which means that kneejerk censorship and film classification legislation is completely worthless. Has anyone been harmed in the few days since this was found out? No. Has anyone been damaged by a rudey video? No. Was anyone harmed before that? No. Are we living in a scary hinterland where there are no laws protecting us from watching things in our own homes through our own choice, and in which we might unwittingly, because we're so frail and vulnerable, do serious damage to ourselves? No.
But that doesn't matter. It never matters. Drugs are bad. Booze is bad. We must be stopped from ourselves. We must be told what to do. Don't anyone think the Nanny State is going to vanish in a puff of smoke when the 'libertarian' Tories get into power, because it's not. It's going to be here for a very long time to come.
* I saw this in an episode of Casualty once. So it must be true.
Clever old Jacqui Smith. In trouble for using a sneaky little shortcut to land yourself a great big stack of cash? Then simply shout some nonsense about drugs to placate the tabloids, and hey presto, it's all melted away like those last few flakes of winter snow.
You have to admire Smith's bloodymindedness and the sheer brio of the woman for saying to herself: "Well, here's an expert who knows a lot about drugs. Instead of listening to what he says to say and wondering whether he might be right or not, given that he's an expert and I'm just a career politician, I think I should just completely ignore what he says because it isn't what I want to hear."
Professor David Nutt, let's remember, said that taking ecstasy was about as dangerous as riding a horse, in terms of the number of people it killed. Was it really such a stupid analogy to make? After all, horseriding is certainly something that has the potential to be dangerous; people know that no matter what precautions they take, they run the risk of being thrown or falling off, or just plain bad luck leaving them injured or worse. Is it a million million miles away from the truth to consider that people who take ecstasy know that there's the possibility of a bad reaction, even a fatal one, no matter which precautions they take? In both cases, surely, the thrill and enjoyment of the activity - which harms no-one and nothing else (unless you happen to be wearing a red coat and chasing a fox across fields to its death while you're riding) - is considered to be worth the (relatively low) risk by those who do it.
She said she had told him he had gone beyond his role as head of the Advisory Council on Drugs Misuse.
By, er, advising about the misuse of drugs? If he's not allowed to do that, then what on earth can he do? Isn't that kind of the point of the advisory council, to give advice? No...?
Speaking during Home Office questions in the House of Commons, Ms Smith said: "I've spoken to him this morning about his comments. I've told him that I was surprised and profoundly disappointed by the article reported."
Why disappointed? Because he didn't say what she wanted him to say? If he'd gone against the evidence and the sum total of his experience and expertise in the field, and said something he didn't agree with at all, yet which she agreed with, I take it she would have been happier...?
"For me that makes light of a serious problem, trivialises the dangers of drugs, shows insensitivity to the families of victims of ecstasy and sends the wrong message to young people about the dangers of drugs."
Hang on though. See what Jacqui's done there - attempted to link ecstasy with all other drugs - including the genuinely dangerous ones like heroin, which kills about 1,000 people a year. Prof Nutt never said all drugs were OK. He was saying that ecstasy was different from other drugs and like other activities - perhaps trying to attempt a mature approach to the idea of drugs, a context-based approach, an approach that doesn't blindly scream "EVIL!" and run away into a corner for fear of the poor little babies who are slaughtered by such filth.
But then one fears that such an approach would be a little too sophisticated for the tabloids (and even grown-up papers), and for politicians like Smith. Yes, some people do die taking ecstasy. Many, many more do not. The vast majority do not. It might be an inconvenient fact, but it's a fact nonetheless. Sure, Jacqui can try and make it seem more dangerous than it actually is, but it isn't. And experts are there to attempt to advise and inform, not just back you up in your moral crusades when you're under a bit of heat for a few grand you've just trousered from Team Taxpayer.