After four people are suspected to have been killed by tablets that may have been thought to be ecstasy over the festive season, Michael Donmall, of the National Drug Evidence Centre at The University of Manchester writes about the dangers of keeping recreational drugs illegal and calls for controlled availability of tested products.
Recent deaths apparently due to the use of ‘Superman’ pills, have highlighted once again, the dangers of not being in possession of the facts. Users do not know what they are putting into their bodies. In this case these deaths (and others in recent years ) appear to have been caused by PMA (paramethoxymetamfetamine) in pills with a ‘Superman’ logo probably thought to be Ecstasy (MDMA or 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine). So long as drugs are illegal and unregulated, noxious and dangerous chemical compounds will emerge in the illegal market place, be sold on to an unsuspecting public, and make more and more profit for those in the production line.
This is not to say that drugs are not dangerous per se, they are or can be. But so is mountain climbing, driving, drinking alcohol and just about every form of human behaviour. Where they are well known and understood, dangers become part of the “behaviour – risk – reward” spectrum of decision making that is an essential component of living and surviving, and for which we are equipped evolutionarily as human beings. No one, unless doing so intentionally or accidentally, would walk out in front of a bus without expecting to be damaged or killed. We may make mistakes from time to time but we all know the risk.
This is not true of most street drugs. Because they are illegal, there is limited information out there for people to judge their decisions upon. In some countries testing facilities are starting to be available for users, but in many cases the chemical content of tablets may not even be known or understood by those selling them on in the chain. How bizarre! We are not even allowed to eat salad bought in a supermarket, unless it has been analysed for its calorific and nutritional content yet psychoactive substances which, by their very nature and intention, are known to change brain chemistry and consequent behaviour, are left untested and unregulated. Thank you national and most international policy makers for turning a blind eye to this danger (for our predominantly young people) while making sure that we are fully informed about salad!
Most recreational drugs are illegal and not regulated. We all know the reason – it is because we, the public, are not trusted to make our own decisions. Of course, no one wants the whole of society to wake up each morning in a hazy stupor of drug after-effects. No one wants the damage associated with excessive alcohol use (accidents, sclerosis, domestic violence, child abuse, road traffic accidents), to be repeated in the case of other psychoactive substances, but prohibition doesn’t prevent damage. All it does is to encourage illegal, dubious and dangerous production and marketing, not to mention giving people a criminal record if they are caught.
Isn’t it about time that governments treated people with respect and woke up to the facts of drug use rather than brushing these facts under the carpet? Isn’t it about time that policy recognised that people will use drugs and that they need to be supported in their decision making about one drug or another by providing clear and honest information? I suggest that what is required is controlled availability of tested products, so as to pull the rug out from under the illegal market, reduce the dangers created by opportunistic and illicit production, and allow individuals the freedom of informed choice.
Please note: these are personal views and not necessarily those of the National Drug Evidence Centre or its funders