Don’t Believe The Hype

This is the original copy I wrote for an article in Issue 11 of Liberation (ISSN 1353-372X) published in February 1996. The published version was cut for reasons of space rather than quality I’m told!

I have not changed anything, even any original typos. Nowadays, over 21 years later, I would obviously have changed some of the nomenclature but I still stand by the conclusions.

“Don’t Believe The Hype!”

At the turn of the year, and in a blaze of publicity, the Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth launched his ‘Scotland Against Drugs’ initiative words:

“The drugs epidemic is a scourge as terrible as any medieval plague. Let us, as a nation, make a New Year resolution that the year in which we will turn back the tide of drug abuse threatening our civilisation. Our aim is nothing less than to back Scotland from the drug culture and liberate a generation.” (Quoted in Scotland on Sunday: 07 January 1996)

This effort, which includes the leaders of all the main political parties, follows the recent publicity surrounding Operation Eagle in Strathclyde, and the massive publicity surrounding the death of Leah Betts. As lan Bell wrote in The Observer: “If publicity cured anything, there would be no drugs problem…” (04 June’ 1995).’The problem I see with such initiatives and publicity is that they show up what is wrong with the establishment view of drugs and drug problems – and will do nothing to ‘turn back the tide’.

The politicians, the police and the media are addicted, it seems, to a moral panic in relation to drugs, and it has been going on for a number of years. During this time the failure of establishment attempts at reducing  drug use has been clear enough for all to see, but yet, the flow of mis-conceived campaigns continues.

It is assumed that the problems with drug abuse begin with young people taking soft drugs such as cannabis, and leads to them becoming addicted to, and eventually being killed by harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Along the way these social misfits pay for their habits by resorting to criminal activity, and the only way to deal with the problem is custodial sentences and cold turkey treatment to get them over their problem. In this same vein comes the view of prevention: messages are to be stark and brutal – ‘take drugs and you will end up like this, or you will die, so Just Say No”.

The police have, it seems to be strict on all drug criminals because they are all the same, just at different stages on the slippery slope. It doesn’t matter if you get caught with an eighth of an ounce of hash or eighty kilos of heroin, it’s just one big drugs problem. The latest panic about ecstasy is to be handled in the same way.

Forsyth’s SAD campaign follows along these lines. A video has been produced entitled “Think Twice – Drugs Can KILL” and it features amongst others. Chart Bite’s Ewan Macleod who holds up a pill and says: “This is an ecstasy tablet, it’s hard to believe that something this small can actually kill you.” After this we see a flood of teeny pop idols explaining about being offered drugs and (funnily enough) just saying no.

This video and this campaign fail completely to address a wide number of issues in this area. I wish to bring some of these to your attention but space prevents great detail.


In terms of moral panic, ecstasy is the latest fix to be desired by the media, and anything bad that can be used for a headline will be quickly snapped-up.

Methyl-dioxy-methyl-amphetamine (or MDMA) the chemical name for ecstasy is a class A drug, it is illegal to posses, give away or sell, and is said to^ caused a number of deaths in recent years at raves and other events young people. The current scare is based upon the death at her 18th party “of Essex “school-girl, Leah Betts after she took an ecstasy tablet. Betts ended up in a coma and on the front pages before her death, her picture is now featured in billboard advertisements with the caption “Just one Ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts” part of an honest reaction from her parents to warn others of the possible dangers.

However, in actual fact, Leah Betts was killed, not by ecstasy, but by water intoxification. It seems as though she knew enough to know that if you take ecstasy you should take some water (about a pint an hour), but not enough to know that this advice is for those who take ecstasy at raves, when they lose lots of body water through sweating – as proved by the deaths at Hanger 13 in Ayr from dehydration, as the venue had 1300-1500 crammed into an area designed for 700, with no chill-out rooms, and the water cut-off.

As Sharkey has written, Betts’ parents have made a ‘World in Action’ programme in which they interview leading psychiatrist and neuro-pharmacologist, Dr Karl Jansen. He says that the apparent dangers of ecstasy have been exaggerated, and calculates that the risk of death from taking MDMA is one in 6.8 million. He draws attention to the death rate in the USA from taking asprin of 750 per year, and that ecstasy deaths are outnumbered greatly by deaths from speed or amphetamines taken in a similar rave context. Dr Jansen states that you are five times more likely to die on a skiing holiday in Switzerland than you are from taking ecstasy. He concludes that: “The scientific truth… is that the overwhelming majority of MDMA doses consumed is unlikely to have adverse, life-threatening effects”. (Guardian 26 January 1996)

In the same Guardian report, Sharkey points out another irony ecstasy tablets are consumed, they are containing less MIMA: that as more “When Ecstasy first started to be sold in raves, buyers were almost certain to get pure WMA…But…the chances of finding pure MDMA on sale in British clubs are now virtually nil” (ibid).

The survey which this story is based upon found that a number of tablets purchased at raves contained ketamine, -which is “a tranquilliser and anaesthetic which can produce horrific hallucinations, loss of” feeling and movement in the limbs, and even coma” (ibid). To me, this establishes a far greater concern than ecstasy per se, namely, that rather than buying MDMA, young people could be buying various tablets with different chemical compounds in them and their only common link being the price paid for them.

It was the concern of dangerous additives that prompted the Dutch authorities to set up special testing centres so that when you buy an ecstasy tablet you can have a detailed chemical analysis carried out on it to find out its ingredients. Alternatively, at raves, there are desks where a more simple check for MDMA can be made. The result has been a dramatic increase in the quality of ecstasy being bought. It is thus no wonder then that in the past eight years, the Netherlands has only seen three deaths from ecstasy related illness.

However, this causes a problem in this country as the source of most of the ecstasy here is the Netherlands, one has to ask, if the quality ecstasy is over there, what’s coming over here? If it is the cheaper chemical cousins that are being concocted, and it is non-MDMA substances that cause the damage, what will the future hold?

As the current attempts at reducing ecstasy use are failing, and the tabloid media continues to ignore the facts and tell their readers them, it is no wonder that some such as Sting, have called for ecstasy to be legalised, in order to control quality. Judging by the reaction to his call – this demand will fall on deaf ears.

Less radical solutions can be more effective, and more immediate – we only need to introduce the same testing techniques used by the Dutch – an imperative based upon the facts, but an impossibility based upon the attitudes of the establishment. The problem will likely only get worse.


Of all the recreational drugs, cannabis has been consistently the most widely used: “Cannabis, once the drug of the demi-monde, has penetrated every part of British life, reaching institutions as conservative as the Bar, the medical profession, the armed forces and the police. Cannabis use can now be depicted in popular culture almost without comment” (The Observer 30 April 1995).

As I’ve stated, the establishment views cannabis as the first step on the way towards hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin. As a result, it is justified for the police to pursue all drug criminals because if you can stop someone from smoking cannabis, then they won’t go onto harder drugs.

This view, however, is coming more and more into question, and many people wish to see changes in legislation, or at the very least, a sea-change in the attitudes of the establishment towards cannabis and its use.

In evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee investigation into drug abuse in Scotland, Professor Martin Plant argued against the slippery-slope notion, stating quite clearly that: “the overwhelming majority of people who use cannabis do not use other illicit drugs” (Minutes of Evidence p 138). He argued also that whilst “probably 99 per cent of [people with a heroin problem] at some earlier stage in their lives smoked cannabis [they also] used alcohol, used roast potatoes, used cornflakes, used gripe water, watched television and did a thousand other things” (ibid).

Labour MP Tony Banks has also ridiculed the idea of the slippery slope: “The argument that cannabis use automatically takes users on to harder drugs is as credible as the notion that a glass of sherry is an invitation to meths drinking” (paraphrased in The Herald: 17 January 1996).

Another line of argument concerns supply namely, if you want to get drugs, you have to step into the criminal world to get them. Ruthless dealers can then introduce naive youngsters to harder drugs and thus create a new generation of addicts. Some use this line of thought as an argument for legalising cannabis in order to break the soft/hard drug link, whilst others say that legalising will only lead to increased use of hard drugs.

One way of evaluating both claims is to look at the situation in the Netherlands where the authorities decided to tolerate the use of soft drugs in 1974. The police forces have found a benefit in the move of soft drug use from a criminal to a non-criminal environment, crucially: “during the past 15 years the number of people that occasionally use soft drugs has increased but, on the other hand, the number of hard-drug addicts has dropped. This is proof for me that the stepping-stone theory does not work in the Netherlands because we have tried to separate soft and hard drugs completely” (Inspector JJ Crynns who is responsible for policing Amsterdam’s red-light district, quoted in The Herald: 27 January 1994).

Academics in the Netherlands also follow this line: Maria Lap of the Dutch Institute on Alcohol and Drugs said in the same Herald article: “It’s nonsense to say that if you legalise drugs more people will use them. On the contrary you can limit things far better through regulation than you can through the ‘war on drugs’ which isn’t working.”

Similarly, in another part of his evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee, Professor Martin Plant said: “I think there is always a risk that a minority of people will get into drug problems. Even if cannabis vanished off the face of the planet today I think we would still get people getting into the same kind of problems with the other drugs. I think cannabis, to a large extent, is a red herring.” (op cit)

Some Hard-Drug Issues

Our tabloid media-shaped images of hard drugs usually involve addicts, beyond help, who fall victim to their habits and plunge into a downward spiral of crime, decay and death. Here again, our images clash with reality. A variety of international studies which includes research carried out in Scotland in to cocaine use, show that in actual fact: “A period of experimentation followed by reduced use, and in most cases cessation, is by far the most common pattern, followed closely by a ‘career’ of moderate but regular use with occasional binges. This pattern also tends towards reduced and abstinence while in an exceptional 2% of lifetime users the outcome is compulsive use with personal or social harm.” (Herald 13 October 1994).

This research, carried out in Scotland, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and the USA shows “unequivocally that controlled use of cocaine is the norm” was published in the journal ‘Addiction Research’ and it does much to portray virtually the opposite to average impressions of cocaine use, with its implications that: “Compulsive, destructive use is rare; Escalation is only one pattern and often the reverse occurs; Moderate use without harmful effects is possible; controlled use is the norm; Little or no ham results to most users; Most users are not different from non-users; Most users are law-abiding apart from their drug related behaviour; and. There are public-health based alternatives to abstinence and repression” (Herald 13 October 1994).

The surveys were carried out amongst real people in real communities as opposed to dealing merely with prisoners and addicts in treatment. The findings were so alien to conventional myth that attempts were made to suppress the findings – another part in the world-wide overreaction to cocaine.

In Scotland, the hard drug debate surrounds heroin and the treatment of former addicts as some favour the prescribing of methadone as an alternative to heroin and part of a harm-reducing programme, whilst others believe that the only way to beat drugs is to go for complete abstinence (the cold turkey treatment).

The critics include Maxie Richards from Glasgow who has taken addicts into her house to get them off drugs. She states that we need a completely drug-free society, as harm-reduction only leads to methadone escaping into the black market where it can be abused by other people. (It is reported that some methadone users consume their prescriptions at source before throwing-up and selling their vomit to other addicts, before getting another supply of heroin).

People such as Richards see the way forward as being the channelling of resources a-way from harm-reduction into a drug-free approach. She wrote in Scotland on Sunday: “First, we need education centres all over Scotland to explain what drugs can do to your body. Then we need a network of detoxification and rehabilitation centres across the country…a good model is the privately-run Castle Craig…a therapeutic community, which helps people get off drugs for good. We need about 50 more like it.” (Scotland on Sunday: 07 January 1996)

In contrast to this. Professor John Davies (who co-edits Addiction Research) told the Scottish Affairs Committee: “We did a follow-up study on heroin users over the course of a year and we found that averaged over the year heavy chronic methadone users use on something like 230 days of the year, two out of three compared with your average smoker who smokes every day. To some extent the habit becomes self-limiting and every three months you reach a level of intake at which point you get very bad value for money and some users will voluntarily stop at that point…”  (Minutes of Evidence p l43, my emphasis)

In Glasgow, Dr Laurence Gruer, the Health Board’s HIV and Addictions co-ordinator favours the use of methadone and points to the reduction of injectors in Glasgow as a result of the city’s efforts. He also points to the fact that the actual numbers of regular hard-drug users is nowhere near as big as many think: “There aren’t that many people who are dependent on drugs” (SoS: op cit).

Gruer sees the way ahead as involving a radical rethink of how the law treats drug-users, favouring an approach within the present powers of the courts of treatment being a mandatory part of any custodial sentence, as well as having community service orders which require users to get treatment in order to stay out of jail.

Throughout this article the nature and role of drugs education and enforcement strategies has been implicit, below, I consider them more explicitly.

Education and Enforcement – Misinformation and Hypocrisy

In the middle of 1995, Strathclyde Police launched Operation Eagle, a two stage attack on drugs, which would see Chief Constable Leslie Sharp retire in a blaze of publicity and no doubt, media kudos upon its conclusion at the end of the year.

The first component involved ‘education’ and other initiatives aimed at getting young people on a different route and one which did not involve drugs. These initiatives saw the provision of drug awareness schemes and sports and leisure activities. During this time, information was gathered for the second stage of the operation, which saw a 90 day crackdown on anyone involved in or suspected of being involved in drug dealing.

At the time, Sharp was quoted as saying: “Somehow the young people’s casual attitude towards the use of a range of controlled drugs must be diverted and that will require a culture change for many of our young people…I believe we should stop dithering and agonising over the question of legalising, decriminalising or relaxing anti-drugs controls and get on with doing the job of doing something positive about the drugs’ problems.”

These were fighting words and it is perhaps still too early to make a definitive judgement on the effects on Operation Eagle, however, when the final report was made on the 8th of December last year, the clampdown had resulted in the arrest of 6,000 users and dealers, and the seizure of £6m worth of drugs. Despite this, the same month saw a record number of drugs deaths in Strathclyde – 102.

Many people doubt that Operation Eagle will lead to any great change. At the outset of the initiative, lan Bell wrote in The Observer that it demonstrated the possibility that the drugs problem had got out of control in some areas, and also that, with the deaths in mind: “The temptation to act, even if you have no answer, is irresistible when so many are dying.” (04 June 1995)

Bell was also not impressed at the sporting etc events staged as an alternative to smack. The whole targeting strategy of Operation Eagle is also questioned by him: “…this is a policeman determined to be seen as tough on drugs all drugs. Though his resources are limited, he proposes to ‘target’ even cannabis, partly because of the persistent police belief that hash leads to heroin…The reasoning here is far from clear. Cannabis dealers and heroin dealers are, in the main, distinct species. Waste time and resources in catching one and you risk the other’s escape.” (ibid)

Operation Eagle seems to be yet another moral panic-driven attempt at getting headlines, and is symptomatic of the establishment view on drugs. It is very difficult to disagree with Bell when he states: “…it is the nature of the existing legislation that makes Operation Eagle desperately mis-conceived. With drugs, it is the law that has created the crime wave. Desirable substances are rendered illegal, therefore scarce, therefore expensive. Yet lucrative illegality is just another way of describing organised crime.” (ibid)

Operation Eagle may indeed get a few of the minnows in the drugs game, but it will not get rid of the problem, the legal approach we have seen has failed to work, and never can work, especially when the drugs that are the biggest killers – alcohol and tobacco – are legal.

Last year in Strathclyde 102 people died from the misuse of illegal drugs, but the figure ignores the thousands who died as a result of consuming legal drugs. Why is the common term ‘drugs’ one which ignores tobacco and alcohol? An example came very recently during a special drugs feature on ‘Reporting Scotland’ shown on 06 February 1996. A former drug addict named George was described as being “drug-free” yet he was smoking a”cigarette! How can it be the case that alcohol and nicotine (pound for pound the most substance known to mankind) are legal when they kill thousands yearly, but yet soft drugs which kill no-one and even hard drugs which kill relatively few in comparison to the big two, are illegal? Is it “something to do with taxation?

The Scottish Affairs Committee found that around 85 per cent of police time involving drugs offences was taken up by cannabis offences and this is deemed necessary by some, yet we tolerate tobacco which kills more people than all other drugs put together and multiplied by ten! In giving evidence to the Committee, Professor Martin Plant explained this situation: “…if a space traveller was to arrive in our midst at the moment I think that person or being would probably be perplexed by the fact that alcohol and tobacco are legal and socially condoned and esteemed and on the other hand some illicit drugs are treated in quite a different way. I do not think any illicit drug could possibly be as dangerous, for example, as tobacco is…” (Minutes of Evidence p 131)

The view that society takes of alcohol and tobacco is precisely the view that many young people take about cannabis and ecstasy. The credibility of the criminal justice and educational messages about drugs is surely low for young people when they see alcohol and tobacco causing a great deal more harm than cannabis and ecstasy, with the former legal, and the latter illegal.

The educational message is blunted further by its distance from the experience of young people in their daily lives – an experience of safe and controlled drug use. The sad thing about SAD is that it is yet again, a bunch of grey suits and snappy soundbites saying, “Just Say No!” the problem is that many young people are saying yes!

The trend of experimentation of drugs amongst the young is that it is on the increase, as research into drug use amongst school pupils in north-west England has shown: “More than half (51 per cent) of more than 700 young people in north-west England, questioned over three years between the ages of 14 and 16 had tried drugs. Many more, 76 per cent, had been offered drugs…half of those, now aged 17, who had not tried drugs expected to do so within the next year.” (Guardian: 25 July 1995)

Professor Howard Parker of Manchester University, who headed the project which carried out the research for the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence said: “Over the next few years, and certainly in urban areas, non drug-trying adolescents will be a minority group. In one sense they will be the deviants.” (ibid)

The report of the findings compared young people’s experience of drugs as like a form of consumption, and called for a radical rethink of policing and educational attitudes; as the en masse criminalising of otherwise law abiding people would do little for a legal system already held in low regard by the young. It seems however, that with initiatives such as SAD, it will simply be a case of business as usual.

The tabloid media’s desire for a constant feeding of the drugs moral panic together with the government’s attitude will do nothing, especially as it is just a rehash of Just Say No, I repeat, young people are saying yes.

Nowadays, the exact words “Just Say No” do not see the billboards, but their spirit hangs around like a bad smell. I have a number of memories of the 80s campaigns of ‘Just Say No’, “Heroin Screws You Up’, along with ‘Drugs are for Mugs’ which was plastered all over a bus. Two characters stand out in all of this: Nancy Reagan and Zammo from Grange Hill.

Nancy I recall, addressing thousands of America’s youth with the “Just Say No” bandwagon in full swing. Just Say No was also the title of a song recorded by the cast of Grange Hill to coincide with a storyline which saw Zammo get in with the wrong” sort of boys who just happened to be working class, and soon enough he was a junkie, as demonstrated when the police come to get him. The hapless Zammo is reduced to lapping up some spilled white powder from the floor, like a dog grabbing at scraps on the floor. It was a time also of “Choose Life – Not Drugs” it was a time exactly like now, as young people are choosing life with drugs and saying no to the establishment campaigns.

Professor John Davies sums up the inadequacy of this whole approach from the authorities: “I do not think the drug problem is going to go away. I do not think the Esther Rantzen style thing ‘Just Say No to Drugs’ is going to work. I think that it is a funny message. One of the things I am crazy about is model aeroplanes. If somebody comes up to me and says, “Just Say No to model aeroplanes” I am going to say, “What on earth are you talking about?” If instead of that I am very keen on drugs and drugs are my hobby and somebody comes along and says, “Just Say No” it is like somebody saying, “Just Say No to holidays in Majorca.” It does not actually mean anything. I do not think a war on drugs is going to be won. I do not think you can win a war on drugs.” (Minutes of Evidence p 144)

A Real Tragedy

Much of what is wrong about the current approach can be seen in the case of Leah Betts. More and better education on drugs may have stopped her from gulping down gallons of water as an antidote to ecstasy. if the media had ran headlines with the real story about ecstasy in a youth/user friendly manner, then we would perhaps not have seen Helen Cousins falling into a coma having drunk seven litres of water after she took ecstasy two months following Betts’ death.

Natasha Walter points to the showing of pictures of Betts in a coma on the front pages and on billboards as yet another use of women to show vulnerability (usually of other women, but in this case, of the young). She asks if the same coverage would have been given to Leah Betts had she not died, but rather, wished to tell young people about drugs? Whilst Sharkey notes that: “Nobody asked whether the death [of Betts] would have received such widespread attention had it not involved a pretty, white teenage girl. By contrast, the death of 18-year-old Andreas Bouzis…at-a rave in south London went almost unnoticed.” (Guardian 26 January 1996)

The media seems only to be playing a game and is awaiting its next sacrificial lamb so that the bandwagon can go on. All the time more headlines reflect more drug use by more people. Greater numbers of younger people are controlled drug use as a norm, and certainly do not see themselves as addicts with any problem. It seems a bit strange calling it a war against when it seems like a poorly funded war against youth culture. Perhaps the government is not really too bothered about our already disenfranchised youth getting out of their faces. It simply means that those without a voice be too drugged up to notice the hell that late 20th century capitalism is, and as a result the revolution is put back another few years and the establishment is secure in their position for a while longer.

What We Really Need

Our intention and guiding principle must be one of youth empowerment, and to enable young people to make well informed choices about their lifestyle, and drug use is no exception. Instead of wasting time chasing the thousands with a wee deal of cannabis in their possession, the police should be out targeting the hard-drug pushers. We should not be putting lives at risk by failing to ensure adequate quality control in drugs such as ecstasy, at the very least we should see testing bays at raves, and rid ourselves of the low quality imports that threaten young lives.

Resources must be used, not in futile campaigns like ‘Just Say No’, instead they should go into projects like Edinburgh’s Crew 2000, designed specifically to ensure the city’s youth can make informed decisions about drugs. Education must be impartial and give information on both the highs and lows of drug taking, an activity carried out because it is enjoyed. The media has a crucial role in maturing the debate and taking it out of the gutter. The facts about drugs must be reported, rather than simplistic headlines.

Drug taking amongst young people is here and here to stay, we cannot simply •wish it away. We must ensure that if and when people decide to consume recreational drugs, they can do so safely. At the very least this means the decriminalising of cannabis, and a tolerance of ecstasy for personal consumption. As in the Netherlands we must make a distinction between hard and soft drugs, it is in my opinion a price worth paying of increasing soft drug use, in order to get hard-drug use down. The longer we wait to introduce such measures, the longer will resources be wasted and lives wrecked or lost. Resources must also be channelled into drug research, so that all who consume drugs can have information on what the consequences of drug taking really are, as well information on the best forms of treatment for addiction.

However, we must not blindly jump ahead with the legalisation of drugs at least in the short and medium tern, there is no framework in place to handle such a major change, we must take things a step at a time, ensuring that education and empowerment is underway before legalisation can be considered.

Let us show young people that society gives a damn for them, and that it can actually do’ something for them rather than alienating them and their culture. Let us make drug experimentation safe instead of criminal and dangerous. If drugs are only a form of escapism, them only radical social and economic and political change will be of any tangible benefit. In any case we must empower our youth, and trust them with their own lives.

The drugs moral panic is a scourge as terrible as any medieval plague.Let us, as a nation, make a New Year resolution that 1996 is the year in which TO will turn back the tide of stupidity and liberate our young people from the criminalising of their culture and future.


Robert Macmillan 11 February 1996