Johnboy Davidson doesn’t seem like a likely leader in the fight to reduce British drug deaths. For a start, he’s called ‘“Johnboy”.
He’s a theatre technician with no professional expertise. And he lives in Australia. Despite these demographically implausible distinctions, Johnboy Davidson is doing something that the British Government refuses to do. He is the founder of a website called pillreports.com, a global database where volunteers try to identify particular kinds of tablet and give drug users due warning that their chosen high could be dangerous.
It is obviously hard to know exactly how many lives have been saved, but one thing is certain: at the moment, the British Government wouldn’t dream of putting money into anything similar. And so it is left to people like Johnboy to step in. Unfortunately, the void is too big for volunteerism to fill, and the consequences of successive governments’ refusal to deal with it look more and more like negligence with every passing week.
Over the weekend, a 15-year-old girl called Martha Fernback died, apparently after taking a pill she believed to be ecstasy. Except it wasn’t ecstasy: it was a much stronger substance, called PMA. Because it takes longer to take effect, users suspecting a dud may unwittingly overdose. In the last year, it has been linked to dozens of deaths in the UK.
In the Netherlands, on the other hand, where the utility of a site like pillreports has been transcended by government-backed testing centres, where drug users can take their pills to ensure they aren’t adulterated, not a single such fatality has been recorded.
For a clue to the wrongheadedness of our attitude to all this, look closely at the headlines relating to Martha Fernback’s death. “Ecstasy drug schoolgirl dies”; “Girl, 15, dies after taking ecstasy”; “Girl died after taking ecstasy in the park”. But none of this is true, unless you think that meths in a wine bottle should be referred to as “wine”.
As is so wearyingly, miserably, enragingly often the case in our war on drugs, it turns out that it was not the drugs that did the killing, or at least not the drugs as they would be in another sort of society; instead, it was the war.
Sensibly, South Wales Police recently issued a warning to recreational drug users about the dangers of PMA. “Users of these controlled drugs and in fact all controlled drugs should be aware that they can never be 100 per cent sure of exactly what they are taking,” said Detective Chief Inspector Andy Davies. He’s right, of course. But his observations, and the terrible case of Martha Fernback, prompt the question: if the hundreds of thousands of people who sometimes take “controlled” drugs can never be sure what they’re taking, are the drugs really “controlled” at all?