Amy Jenkins: We're all paranoid about drugs

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The Independent Online

It's a bit of a damp squib, this Andre Agassi took crystal meth story. He took it at a low point. He didn't get addicted. He didn't sink into a life of indulgence and squalor. Rather the opposite, in fact. He felt "a tide of euphoria", jumped off the sofa and had a wonderful time "tearing around my house, cleaning it from top to bottom". He'd never felt "so alive, so hopeful".

He then went on to haul his career out of the doldrums, coming back from being ranked outside the top 100 to winning several more "Slams", as they say in the business.

Agassi, pictured, is now a popular sports personality in America. He has founded a charity that helps children and found happiness with Steffi Graf. So why confess to something that happened 12 years ago? Well, it's a good way to get his new autobiography selling like crazy. How else would a sports memoir end up on the front pages? This is a sure-fire way of pulling the readers in.

It's understandable. I wouldn't mind pulling a few readers in myself. So – taking a leaf out of Agassi's soon to be best-selling book – here are my own drug confessions.

First off, you should know that I'm actually using a drug right now – at this very minute, while writing. It's a psychoactive stimulant drug. Studies have shown that heavy and prolonged use can induce panic attacks, OCD and even phobic symptoms mimicking mental diseases such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. These symptoms may afflict as many as one in 10 of the population.

What's my excuse for early morning recreational drug use? Well, I was out last night and it was one of those slow start mornings and I had a column to write. So I thought – what the hell – I'll do it. I'll have a cup of coffee.

I'm afraid there's more to confess. Last night I was out partaking of something infinitely more dangerous. What can I say in my defence? Well – it was my birthday (there's always an excuse isn't there) and it was only half a lager.

Now, I know these drugs don't come with the added frisson of illegality. But before he was sacked yesterday, the Government's drugs tsar Professor David Nutt said that we should rank drugs not according to criminal classifications but according to the harm that is done by them.

By this measure, I ingested a small amount of the drug that Nutt ranks as the fifth most harmful after cocaine, heroin, barbiturates, and methadone. The misuse of alcohol causes an estimated 22,000 premature deaths each year in the UK. (To put this into perspective, the illegal drug ecstasy kills 30 people a year. Professor Nutt notoriously compared deaths from ecstasy to the number of people killed annually in horse-riding accidents.)

Professor Nutt was chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) and his attack on the Government's decision to move cannabis back from class C to class B clearly hasn't done him any favours. He also accused former home secretary Jacqui Smith, who reclassified the drug, of "distorting and devaluing" scientific research, saying that smoking cannabis created only a "relatively small risk" of psychotic illness.

The trouble for Professor Nutt, as he surely knew, is that the criminalisation of drugs is a political issue, a moral issue, a cultural issue, a race issue, a class issue, a control issue, a generational issue – you name it. It isn't really an issue that responds well to hard factual evidence, which is why the ACMD will be ignored however insightfully it reports on the subject.

Professor Nutt reported, for example, that smokers of cannabis are 2.6 times more likely to have a psychotic-like experience than non-smokers – but that you are 20 times more likely to get lung cancer if you smoke tobacco than if you don't. These figures can be debated, but the real problem for Professor Nutt is that there is a cannabis scare on.

Julie Myerson recently wrote a much publicised book detailing her son's addiction to skunk, and she, for one, is convinced that the new kinds of hydroponically grown cannabis are worlds away from the "soft" drug that we traditionally think cannabis to be. Similarly, in Sebastian Faulks's new state-of-the-nation/slice-of-life-in-the-Noughties bestseller, A Week in December, a young privileged boy falls victim to psychosis while smoking skunk alone in his Notting Hill bedroom.

What is the world coming to? What are the young up to? This is always how the drug debate has been. The first ever anti-drugs legislation came into being during the First World War. Before that you could buy cocaine and morphine in any neighbourhood chemist. You could buy them in Harrods even.

The war, of course, was a time of great fear and uncertainty and great social upheaval. There was a scare about the Chinese in Limehouse luring young women into their opium dens. There was a scare about women coming out of the home, getting jobs, wearing uniforms – and dancing wildly in nightclubs with foreign soldiers. There was a need to co-opt young people into the serious business of war and the pursuit of capitalism. Drug legislation was and still is an attempt to control the unknown, and to allay our deepest fears about the wayward elements of society.

Wrighty's warm blanket

While TV ratings are becoming more fragmented in our digital world, BBC Radio 4 has had its best ratings for a decade. Generally, it seems, BBC radio is doing brilliantly. Radio 2 has a weekly reach of 13.6 million and Radio 4 is only a little behind that with 10.2 million. In some ways it's extraordinary that the popularity of radio should be growing when it's such an old-fashioned medium. Is there something about a recession that makes us turn to the cosily familiar – just as we might return to comfort food? Is there a kind of Blitz spirit that makes us turn to the wireless and the reassuring cadences of BBC English?

Personally I think it's possible. In fact, I think that a dose of Steve Wright in the Afternoon should be prescribed to anyone suffering from depression. There's something extraordinary about Wright, pictured, and his programme. When his show is on it's like a great blanket made of the softest lambswool has been gently wrapped round the whole country. Somehow the world he creates transports you into a Britain of reasonable, decent people quietly, good humouredly and stoically going about their business.

Steve just does it for me, I guess. For others it's Terry Wogan. He has an average weekly audience of 7.7 million and is doing better and better – just as he's about to retire and be replaced by Chris Evans. Can Evans butter the nation's morning comfort crumpet the way lilting, reassuring Wogan did? I think he's got a good chance of being a success, though. He's got that cheerful cheeky-chappy thing going for him.

Tweet what you eat and get indigestion

There's a new website called tweet what you eat. Not just a website – a weight loss tool they're calling it. Stephen Fry, the king of tweeters, has lost lots of weight using it. The idea is you sign up to Twitter, then wherever you are – out and about – you tweet whatever you've eaten. All your eat tweets are added up on your home page on the website, and at the end of the day you have your entire calorie count. Other users can cheer your weight loss along, add comments, and generally stick their nose in your business (to say nothing of your mashed potatoes).

I had a look at the website. Someone on it had eaten spinach for breakfast, then mushroom soup – at 8.20 in the morning. Most disconcerting. I can't help wondering if thinking about what you eat that much isn't going to make people more obsessed with eating. However, there is good evidence that writing down what you eat does encourage people to eat less. Awareness, as they say in the land of New Age, is everything.

Crime will no longer pay

Following a heated debate and vote in the House of Lords yesterday, legislation will soon be on the books that means that criminals will no longer be able to profit from their memoirs. The new laws are a hangover from the press furore over Gitta Sereny's book about Mary Bell, a damaged, abused and neglected child who was convicted of the murder of another child in the Sixties. Mary Bell, now grown up and rehabilitated, contributed to a new edition of Sereny's illuminating book about the case and was paid a small amount for doing so. The newspapers got hold of it and there was an "outcry" over Bell supposedly profiting from her crime.

No one wants criminals to be able to dance on their victims' graves and make money while they're about it, but it would be a terrible shame if we no longer heard from the Krays, the McVicars, the Howard Markses of this world. In most cases, criminals don't write for the money – they write to rehabilitate themselves and the world is richer in knowledge for it.

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