Drugs are dangerous because they are illegal

Deaths from PMA, a more toxic form of ecstasy, are rising in the UK, but are almost unknown in countries that take a more pragmatic approach

A lethal ignorance: We could make drugs safer. We choose not to

Archie Bland
The Independent: March 2, 2014

The story of paramethoxyamphetamine, or PMA, is a neat parable of the war on drugs: a story of unintended consequences, a problem with viable solutions that are being ignored. Fixing this problem will not fix everything else. It is a relatively small part of the picture. But the logic that drives our response to it stands as a bottomlessly depressing symbol of the whole.

PMA has been around since the 1970s. It has some similar effects to MDMA (ecstasy), and it really came to prominence when efforts to crack down on that drug began to succeed in the mid-1990s. “It is a classic example,” says David Nutt, the former government adviser who now chairs the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. “Prohibition has led to the attempt to avoid prohibition, and therefore the production of more toxic substances.”

The purity of ecstasy tablets is often higher now than it was a few years ago. But unscrupulous dealers like the fact that PMA is cheaper, and it appears to be more prevalent than ever. There were no recorded deaths caused by PMA in the UK in 2009 or 2010; in 2011, there were five; in 2012, there were at least 17. The total for 2013 will be higher again. And yet, no one is using it on purpose. “There’s a gulf between what people are buying and what they think they are buying,” says Fiona Measham, a professor of criminology at Durham University and a leading authority on drug trends. “That gulf is growing.”

PMA is often described in newspaper headlines as “stronger” than MDMA. But it doesn’t get you higher. It’s just more toxic. What’s more, the effects of PMA take longer to come on, and a small increase can turn a relatively safe dose into a dangerous one. So people take a pill, think it’s poor quality ecstasy when they don’t feel anything after an hour, and take more to catch up. And then things go wrong.

Nicole Tomlinson was one of those who died in 2012. She had taken what she believed to be ecstasy when she was given it by her boyfriend, James Meaney; when nothing happened, they each took another two doses. Tomlinson was 19 years’ old. The couple’s child was two when she died. Last week, Meaney, 22, was sentenced to seven months in prison.

There is no question that Meaney bears a terrible responsibility for the fact that his child will grow up without a mother. But ultimately, his story is one of haplessness; on the other side of the equation is an approach so negligent that it is hard to distinguish from deliberate malice. The truth is, one simple step might have considerably reduced the chances of Nicole Tomlinson’s death, and that of many other victims of PMA: the provision of drug-testing facilities at clubs, so that researchers can find out which varieties of pill are not what they are said to be, and let people know.

This sort of scheme could be instituted this week without any legal difficulty. It is, of course, impossible to test every pill: you’d do well to operate in one or two big clubs in a particular city. But proper testing reshapes the market. It gives people the knowledge they need to make better decisions. Every headline on the Tomlinson story features the word “ecstasy”. But it wasn’t ecstasy that killed her. It was ignorance. If she had taken ecstasy, she would have been fine.

Such testing regimes run in Austria and the Netherlands. And to those involved, Britain’s resistance to a protocol with real evidence behind it seems perverse. “If we are not there, there is no information,” argues Rainer Schmid, a toxicologist and founder of Vienna’s “checkit!” project. “In Britain, it is a cynical approach, if you ask me. You know what is happening, and you say, no, we don’t want to solve it.”

The Home Office sees things differently. “We have no plans to introduce testing centres for illegal drugs,” it says. “Drugs are illegal because they are dangerous.”

(read the full article at The Independent)

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