Johann Hari: Drugs, royals, and the lousy laws being rushed through

All that happens with prohibition is the market is taken over by armed criminals

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:39

Can you feel the election fever yet? Me neither. Britain seems to be stricken instead with election swine flu. A few of us are sweating and vomiting – Brown and Cameron, mainly – while everyone else is refusing to touch infected election-surfaces and hoping it will pass us over.

There are days when this screw-them-all sourness seems apt. In this final dissolute week before parliament is dissolved, the main parties have come together to push through two changes to the law that will harm Britain – and they have done it while putting on their serious, superior statesman-faces. One is a huge gift to Britain's armed criminal gangs; and the other deliberately exempts one reactionary super-rich family from basic democratic checks.

Almost everything you have heard about the drug "Meow-Meow" is fake – including its name. Here's the reality. Since late 2007, some young people have been using a party drug called mephedrone, which you can snort or wrap in rolling-paper and swallow. It gives you a quick euphoric ecstasy-style high, and then passes from your system. It's become pretty popular, with 33 per cent of clubbers using it, according to a study for Mixmag magazine.

This is part of a very old story: in every phase of our existence, in every culture, human beings have sought out different ways to get off our faces. In his book The Chemical Muse, Dr D C A Hillman documents how the ancient philosophers who formed the basis of Western thought were getting mashed up all the time – including when they wrote their classics. The urge for chemical intoxication is very deep – and has at some point driven everyone from Barack Obama to David Cameron.

Yet you have been told that this drug is a new and unique menace. It has killed 27 people in Britain, makes teenagers try to "rip off their scrotum", and a ban will stop the harm it causes. Each of these claims is false.

The first mephedrone death was reported last November, when a 14-year-old girl called Gabrielle Price died in Brighton after apparently taking the drug. Immediately, there were calls for a ban. Three weeks later, the autopsy found the drug had nothing to do with her death: she was killed by "broncho-pneumonia which resulted from a streptococcal A infection". But the campaign didn't pause. They were now identifying deaths from mephedrone everywhere – mainly among clubbers who had taken a huge cocktail of different drugs washed down with alcohol. In truth, one death has been found to be caused by the drug. That's one. This makes jmephedrone somewhat less dangerous than peanuts, which kill 10 people a year by causing an allergic reaction.

What about the drug's other effects? The excellent New Scientist magazine tracked down the origins of The Sun's claim that it made a teenager "try to rip off his testicles", which rapidly became an established fact in news reports. They discovered it was based on a claim that circulated on internet chatrooms, and had been written as a joke. The drug isn't even called "Meow-Meow" by anyone: that term was randomly inserted into Wikipedia just before the hysteria broke, and picked up by journalists.

Of course mephedrone could turn out to have dangerous long-term effects we haven't picked up on yet. That's true of all new medicines too, from SSRIs to new breast cancer drugs. But let's assume – for the sake of argument, in the face of the evidence – that the worst fears are true, and this drug will cause long-term harm. The people demanding a ban act as if there's a simple equation here: it causes damage, so ban it and the damage will stop. But the evidence shows this is not how prohibition works. In practice it doesn't stop people using the drug – but it does add a whole new tsunami of harm on top.

Let's start with an easy parallel. Alcohol currently causes the death of 40,000 people a year – which is around 39,999 more than mephedrone. Like most Brits, I know people who have been broken by booze, and never came back. If harm is reason enough for a ban, the case is a slam-dunk for criminalising alcohol. But we don't. Why? Because we have a mature understanding – based on history – that when you criminalise a hugely popular recreational drug, people don't stop buying it and selling it. No: all that happens is that the market is taken over by armed criminal gangs, who sell a stronger and more adulterated version of the drug, and kill to control their patch.

So what will happen in a fortnight when the ban comes into effect? It'll still be on sale to anyone who wants it. We can't even keep drugs out of our prisons, where we have an armed, guarded perimeter: Policy Exchange just found 85 per cent of prisoners can get any drug they want. Use won't fall: ketamine was criminalised in 2006, and the same number of people use it every weekend now, according to the British Crime Survey. (Indeed, it may even increase. Portugal had a higher level of drug use – especially among the young – before 2001, when it decriminalised personal possession of all drugs.)

But what will certainly happen is an early Christmas for criminal gangs. They are about to be handed a big new market – and they will buy a lot of guns to protect it. In Guernsey they criminalised mephedrone last year, and gangsters there – who find it hard to get guns – have been guarding their mephedrone patches with samurai swords. It's the logic of prohibition, in shiny silver.

And all for what? So a few right-wing newspapers and a few politicians – Labour and Conservative – can pose as Tough on Crime, while unleashing a wave of Real Armed Crime. In the name of safety from our own natural impulses, they will make us all less safe on our streets.

The same cross-party cabal is also rushing before the election to enact another pernicious legal change. There is only one group of people anywhere in Britain who are automatically placed above and beyond the Freedom of Information Act, so you and I have no right to know how they are affecting policy. They are determined by birth. Their surname is Windsor. But concerned citizens have nonetheless been able to get some information about these people, to whom we pay tens of millions a year, by requesting to see the exchanges between Charles Windsor and ministers.

This is how we know he has been demanding NHS funds be used for junk science like homeopathy, trying to cancel building projects he personally finds ugly, and trying to thwart real and potentially life-saving science like nanotechnology research.

Now ministers are moving to hide these demands from the public forever by changing the law to make even these communications permanently secret. How will he act behind an even stronger veil of secrecy? Former ministers like Nicholas Ridley have described how Windsor would "scream" at him and "throw" papers if he – an elected politician – didn't accept his royal demands. Soon, we will be even less likely to find out about this abuse of democracy.

When the main parties band together to pursue such foolish policies, it's easy to turn off (and reach for the mephedrone). But there's another way. There are terrific groups campaigning against these policies – and virtually every bad policy out there. On drugs, the Transform Drug Policy Foundation campaigns for a sane strategy of taking drugs back from the armed gangs and legally regulating them. On the Windsor family, Republic campaigns for Britain to finally select our head of state by voting lines, not blood-lines.

So before the nausea-inducing election begins, it's worth stopping for a second, and remembering this is how most political change happens. Not primarily by choosing between parties bunched in the middle, but by ordinary citizens banding together by setting up or joining or volunteering for groups like this, and demanding better policies, even if it takes decades for them to finally be accepted in Westminster.

If this election feels like a bout of swine flu, remember there's a batch of Tamiflu waiting on the shelf – becoming a diligent, committed campaigner for political sanity yourself, all year round.

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