Opinion: Drugs should be an issue of health and not punishment, says Matt Gaw

The 'Superman' pill which has been linked to three deaths in Suffolk.

The 'Superman' pill which has been linked to three deaths in Suffolk. - Credit: NFI 2014

The so-called war on drugs has been thrown into sharp and horrifying relief in Suffolk over the past month.

Lives have been lost after apparently taking what has been described as a “rogue batch” of ecstasy – a red triangular pill carrying a ‘Superman’ logo.

The deaths, two in Ipswich and another suspected case in Rendlesham, have devastated families, shocked communities and raised the profile of recreational drug-taking to levels not seen since Leah Betts tragically died in 1995.

Suffolk police are even now continuing an amnesty to try to clear the streets of the Superman pills and this weekend officers said they were working with pubs and clubs to raise awareness of the drug.

But for all the alerts, the shock and soul-searching, the only real surprise here is that this kind of tragedy has not happened before.

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Police tests on the drugs revealed that the Superman pills were not ecstasy (MDMA) – but rather PMMA, a substance that is up to ten times stronger and significantly more toxic than MDMA.

As one-time Government drugs advisor and professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, David Nutt explained to a national broadsheet, PMMA also works more slowly than MDMA meaning that those using them think they really do have a “rogue batch” and compensate with another toxic pill.

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Out of the 100 or so deaths publicly attributed to ecstasy over the last five years, the majority are believed to be down to PMMA. It’s probably fair to say that in most of these cases, people simply did not know what they were taking.

So, what is the answer? For more than 40 years the solution to the problems of addiction and recreational drugs has been prohibition – an unrelenting campaign targeting users, dealers and producers.

It is a policy that has cost millions upon millions of pounds and there is a strong argument – indeed one that is gathering increasing political and scientific support – that it has also cost millions of lives.

Before I go on, I should probably point out that by suggesting a fresh look at drugs or decriminalisation I am in no way condoning or promoting the use of substances (which will still be dangerous even when regulated), rather highlighting problems in the current system.

The emergence, or rather re-emergence, of drugs like the PMMA pills seen in Suffolk, is a case in point. Their availability and toxicity is not just down to the greed and callousness of dealers, it is directly connected to criminalisation. Quite simply, as one substance (MDMA) is banned, targeted and confiscated in bulk from those manufacturing drugs, other chemicals are used to take their place.

In some countries there is already a recognition that something has to change. Decriminalised consumption rooms, where illegal drugs are taken under the supervision of health workers to help safeguard users, are in use in Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Switzerland, Canada and Australia.

Back in the UK, Brighton – a city that annually vies for the unwanted crown of drugs-death capital – considered a similar move before deciding last year that the time was “not right” to pilot the scheme.

In a move that has perhaps more relevance to the issues that have affected Ipswich, the Netherlands, with its famously progressive (and controversial) liberal drug laws, have opened testing facilities for members of the public. Here they can test substances they are about to use without fear of prosecution. As Professor Nutt explains, this means users can check what they are putting in their body, while the state can also keep a close eye on the development of new and even more dangerous drugs.

Drugs, like it or not, have been used recreationally for generations, by all sections of society (even if people such as Bill Clinton definitely “did not inhale”).

As such, the number of testing units that would be needed in any one place would be huge. While centres in the bigger cities such as London, Manchester and Birmingham would undoubtedly help, the likelihood of having centres in less populous regions would be slim. Indeed, I wonder whether a centre would be put in Ipswich or in Oxford where 15-year-old Martha Fernback died last year after taking a pure form of MDMA.

Her mother, Anne-Marie Cockburn, said her daughter had been “a sacrificial lamb under prohibition”.

She added: “The question is: how many more Marthas have to die before we change our approach? It’s not acceptable to allow the risks to remain.”

As well as reducing risks, it is also just possible that the legalisation of drugs would allow a truly holistic approach to substance abuse that doesn’t compromise health, cause societal instability and fill up the nation’s jails. If we really are a modern, understanding society that no longer wants to see (often young and vulnerable) people dying needlessly, then it is time to treat drugs as an issue of health and not punishment.

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