30 December 2006

Suffolk Murders - Tragedy, journos and ASBOs

How the media handled death and sex
The tragic deaths of initially one woman, then a second were largely disregarded by the media. But as the number of deaths rose, so the media interest increased until Suffolk became the eye of a media storm.

The coverage of the media was, on the whole, insensitive, crass and at times downright offensive. In the face of the multiple strands of drugs, sex and death, many journalists used lurid, salacious and titillating coverage. Having sent so many journalists to Southwark, valuable police time was wasted feeding the media, even if there was no news to report.

As time went on, some media outlets started to revise their coverage, highlighting that the murdered women were, foremost, people - with families and friends who loved them and grieve for them. Some media commentators found themselves unable to do this, and could not get past the drugs and the sex-industry aspects of it. It was left to the commentators to explore the subject in more detail and to look at causes and solutions.

Inevitably, much of the editorial comment looked at how policy on drugs and/or prostitution could have made a difference. Some looked to greater prescribing of substitutes as a solution; others looked at the liberalisation of policy towards prostitution as a panacea.

In practice, there are no simple answers. As we see an increase in dual use of heroin and crack, the delivery of substitute prescribing practices is only a partial solution. Without high-quality, intensive interventions for stimulant users, many people will still find themselves engaged in dangerous activities like sex-work to fund habits.

Likewise, models of legalisation will aid those people engaged in sex work who can go 'legit.' This will primarily be those with minimal drug habits, and those in the UK legitimately. Those with the most complex problems - with violent or controlling pimps, those who have been traficked, and those with big habits, are as likely to be excluded from models of legalisation as they are now. So models of legalisation that create two-tier models cannot provide adequate protection.

There are severeal strands that need to be addressed simultanueosly. And fundamentally it requires rethinking not just of laws on drugs and prostitution, but the way we deal with perceived antisocial behaviour.

For it is the approaches to Antisocial Behaviour, as much as the dependency on drugs, that has increased the risk to people who undertake sex work. The way that the Antisocial Behaviour Act has been used effectively criminalised people engaged in prostitution - and mved people in to less visible, less safe arenas as a result.

The older prohibitions, for example on what could be considered a 'brothel' condemned people to working alone - or discretely in twos or threes.

Likewise, the restriction on the placing of cards in phone-boxes made it harder for people to advertise. Westminster council doing their bit to force people further in to the shadows!

But the provisions of the Antisocial Behaviour Act have had the most serious and far-reaching consequences. Prohibiting people from certain areas (e.g. known red-light areas) or times (e.g. after dark) or places (e.g. entering a car) or carrying items (e.g. a condom) has effectively made the trading of sex an imprisonable offence.

So the much touted Respect agenda has shown preciousl little respect for the vulnerable who are driven from the streets, away from lit areas, and in to greater risk.

For any intervention to work, we need a multi-stranded approach. Liberalisation of the laws on brothel-keeping and sex work to make small, well-run brothels wholly legal; increased tolerance of those who can't operate in such settings, to ensure that they are not further excluded and criminalised. And a full range of outreach and support services to address the multiple factors that have marginalised these people, so they can, if they wish, leave this hazardrous profession.

Dec 2006


Prosecution, Pain and Pharmaceutical Profit

There is something obscene about the prosecution of Mark and Lezley Gibson, and their associate Marcus Davies. They are being prosecuted for supply of cannabis, supplied on a not-for-profit basis, in a therapeutic form, to people suffering from symptoms of MS.

Medical trials have demonstrated that a significant number of MS sufferers derive benefit from the use of cannabis. However, there is still no easy way for people to access a legitimate preparation containing cannabis. A small number of people have been able to receive Sativex, although this is not yet licensed in the UK. The rest must endure pain, use prescribed compounds which may be physically addictive or bring unpleasant side-effects, or break the law.

While there is a clear need for a legitimate product, this seems to be slow in coming. There is a growing sense that Pharmaceutical companies see a need to get a product on to the market - but one that they can control and profit from. Rather than allow any tolerance of self-produced cannabis for medical use, anyone seeking to use cannabis will be obliged to purchase it from drug monopolies.

So the defendants from THC4MS are on the wrong end of a tale of history and capitalism which, tragically, is likely to see them sent to prison. Cannabis was accepted as having a medical use for three millenia, and it is within the last century that it has fallen from favour. To be replaced, ironically, by new, 'safer' antibiotics, sedatives and analgesics - barbiturates, benzodiazepines, chlorpromazine et al. Shortly, new forms of the drug will be patented, marketed and controlled. But those who facillitated the process - medical users who were forced to break the law in the face of state and medical intransigence - will be rewarded by imprisonment, rather than the acknowledgement they deserve.

To find out more, or if you want to make your own views known on the THC4MS case you can use the following links:
http://www.thc4ms.org/ home page

16 November 2006

Off the Grass and on the Glass

How Police and Home Office Strategy is increasing cannabis risks to young people

The ongoing police Operation Keymer has seen availability of homegrown cannabis drop to an unheard-of low. And there is growing evidence that this reduction in availability has meant new and potentially dangerous adulterants being used to bulk out dwindling stocks of herbal cannabis.

Cannabis users on UKCIA, and other young people are reporting cannabis being adulterated with bulking agents to either make low grade cannabis look like THC-rich skunk, or alternatively to increase weight.

Adulterants have included relatively low risk substances like sugar solution, or sand. But recent reports suggest an increased use of adulterants such as water-retention polymers - which may take the form of small yellow beads or (more frequently) white crystals.

Most worryingly, some users are reporting cannabis is being coated with ground glass, or sprayed with glass fibre. At this point, such rumours are apocryphal and cannot be substantiated. But there is good evidence that cannabis stocks are dropping in qualiy, prices are going up, and remaining stocks are being more widely adulterated.

Neither the Police nor Frank have raised awareness of these problems, leaving young people at high risk.

We would suggest the following harm reduction advice:

crunch test: if it's crunchy it's got adulterants such as sand or glass in it: put a small bit between teeth; if it's crunch spit it out;
rub test: rub a bit between fingers; if it's got a gritty feel - it's adulterated;
best thing to do, probably chuck it but as this isn't likely for most young people, we need to look at other strategies such as:

use in a water pipe
use pipes with screens
use a filter in place of a roach

07 November 2006

Queens Bench Ruling highlights problems of Cannabis Policy

The policing and policy towards cannabis received another blow when the Queens Bench Divisional Court refused a judicial review of a man cautioned for possession of cannabis in his own home. Norville Mondelly (The Times reported) was found in possession of cannabis when the police attended his property by mistake>

Although the aggravating factors that would normally have resulted in arrest were absence, the police initially decided to arrest under Section 8(d) (allowing premises to be used for smoking cannabis) before deciding that there was insufficient evidence to charge for this, and settling instead for a caution at the police station.

Mondelly sought to challenge this, as being contrary to the ACPO policy and guidance. But the court did not find in his favour, stressing that if the policy did constrain police action or make arrest or prosecution impossible, then such a policy would be unlawful.

The case really highlights the worthlessness of the current guidance, providing as it does no protection for individuals, who may believe that they would not be arrested for personal possession in their own home, as that is what the guidance led them to believe.

For the full Times coverage, click here

01 November 2006

Keeping tabs on the Street-count

The time for the annual street-count draws nearer. We have received emails from a number of workers with first hand experience of the count which provide evidence that local provision is adjusted on the run up to counts, to ensure numbers on the night of the count are kept low.

We are aware of one count area where the number of rough sleepers was brought down on the night of the count by the temporary opening of a shelter for a week; a rough sleeper count was brought down from fourteen to one, for the duration of the count.
Several workers are stressing that as more people are removed from city centres, or have ASBOs that restrict their access to City centres, more people are sleeping rough away from main count areas; they are certainly sleeping rough - but not necesarilly visible in street settings.

And there is a growing awareness of the number of economic migrants, and people seeking Asylum who may have had claims rejected who are now sleeping rough too. We are very aware that these groups, caught in a catch 22 where they cannot get benefit or access to many hostels, are especially vulnerable and are likely to be at risk during what looks like being a very cold winter.

If you are aware of any measures that have been used in your locality to push down the count in your locality, please write in and let us know; this may include sudden purges of rough sleepers the night of the count, emergency accommodation being opened.

We will make sure contributions are kept anonymous.

Some very selective hearing....How the Home Office, the ACMD, Science and Technology Committee and DfES all choose to hear only what they want to...

A couple of years ago, the Home Affairs Select Committee recomended that cannabis be moved from Class to Class C. The Home Office rejected many of the Home Affairs Select Committee's recomendations, such as the unequivocal "injecting rooms should be piloted without hesitation."

But, perhaps sensing youth votes or for other reasons, the Home Secretary proceeded to move
cannabis to Class C.

However, daunted by the barrage of criticism from the police and the media, David Blunkett fudged the process of reclassification, changing PACE to make posssession of Class C drugs an arrestable offence and increasing the penalties for supplying Class Cs.

In effect, although Cannabis was reclassified, all the rules about class C drugs were so altered as to make the reclassification virtually meaningless. This confusion was then reinforced by the ill-advised and unevenly ACPO guidance on policing cannabis, soon to be the subject of judicial review.

Blunkett and subsequent Home Secretaries have since come under intense pressure to revise the classification of Cannabis.

Charles Clarke was asked to consider moving cannabis back to Class B. Although his personal opinion was apparently that it should be moved back, he instead put the matter in the hands of the ACMD, and asked if, in light of 'new' research evidence of its impact on mental health, cannabis should be moved back to class B.

If he hoped that the ACMD would give him the answer that he wanted, Clarke was to be dissappointed as the ACMD said that cannabis should remain as a Class C drug. In a clear shot across the bows of the Home Secretary, members of the ACMD made it known that there could be high profile resignations from the ACMD if the Home Secretary simply disregarded their recommendations.

Faced with this, Charles Clarke followed the ACMD's lead, and left cannabis in Class C, but decided that there should be a review of the whole classification system, to ensure that the penalties and restrictions were appropriate and commensurate with risk.

This review was undertaken, as instructed, by the Science and Technology Committee. It reported in October this year, in a report which was highly critical of both the drug classification system and the ACMD. It concluded that the current classification system was not 'fit for purpose' and castigated the ACMD for its failure to highlight the inadequacies of the system to successive ministers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Home office and the ACMD didn't respond favourably to "Making a Hash of It." The Home Office rejected virtually all their recommendations; the ACMD issues a short, terse response using some very pointed language.

This spat reveals the very real problem at the heart of the UK's drugs policy. It lacks cohesion, direction or an evidence base. It is being pulled in different directions by various parties, rather than having the intellectual and policy foundations shaped by expertise and evidence.

The ACMD should be making recomendations to Ministers, and these should be put before Parliament. It is not for the Home Secretary to pick and choose what measures are, or are not taken forward. The ACMD for example said they recomended against the use of Sniffer Dogs or drug testing in schools. Yet the DfES are continuing to take forward a drug testing pilot in Kent - in direct contradiction of the ACMDs response.

Likewise, in their report on Drug Deaths, the ACMD called for a pilot for drug consumption rooms, a call echoed by the Home Affairs Select Committe and more recently by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

But despite evidence and recomendations from these respected bodies, the Home Office rejected these calls on the most cursory of grounds.

If we are truly to have an evidence-based drugs policy, we should be listening more closely to the ACMD. But in turn the independence of the ACMD should be more carefully protected. We grow more and more concerned that its composition will be more closely controlled and vetted by the Government of the day, and therefore more likely to produce "Government-friendly recommendations." This would be a disaster for policy and practice.

Making A Hash of It - report
ACMD response
Home Office Response

23 October 2006

Heroin Chic: Kate Moss, Jane Henderson and Topshop

It's not often that KFx dips it's toe into the heady world of fashion. But having had an insight into why former Topshop's fashion director recently quit, we felt obliged to share it.

As fashion followers will know, model Kate Moss was appointed as a fashion designer by the head of Topshop. This we learn was not the final straw for Ms Henderson.

What was, we understand, was that her initial offerings appeared to be some fairly 'distressed' clothes, which were somewhat ragged and (dare we say it) dirty.

We understand that being offered these as a design offering were a bridge too far, and this resulted in Ms Henderson's departure.

The only thing that remains unanswered is...were these products in fact Pete Doherty's unwashed clothes? We wait to learn more, avidly.

In the meantime, thoroughly ashamed of ourselves for running such superficial twaddle, we now resume normal service!

17 October 2006

The Macho Rev Hargreaves and his Cannabis Campaign

After the tragic stabbing of Stevens Nyembo-Ya-Muteba in Hackney in October, you could not avoid seeing or hearing George Hargreaves in the media afterwards.

It was widely alleged in the media that the boys who stabbed Mr. Muteba had been smoking cannabis before the attack. Hargreaves used this as the catalyst to launch a broadside against cannabis and to announce that thanks to an 'anonymous donor' he was going to court for a judicial review of the ACPO policy in relation to cannabis policing.

Hargreaves says that an anonymous donor has given him the required money to launch his High Court challenge. But in practice he could probably fund ths himself being a wealhy man. He earns, it is estimated, some £10k per month - from record royalties.

For the anti-Gay Hargreaves also wrote the Gay club anthem "So Macho," sung by Sinitta.

We discuss the review of policing cannabis in a separate article (see above.) Here, we want to set the record straight on Hargreaves and his campaign.

In the local press and on the Radio 4's Today programme, Hargreaves represented himself as a local pastor, dismayed at seeing 'his' community in Dalston torn apart by cannabis, and watching young people's mental health deteriorating.

In fact, the Reverend Hargreaves is a Christian Fundamentalist who established Operation Christian Vote and has parliamentary ambitions. He sees the purpose of Government "the purpose of government is the maintenance of freedom and justice solely in accordance with biblical principles."

He adds cannabis to his list of 'anti's' most notably anti-abortion and anti-gay. He believes that people should be arrested and charged for even small amounts of cannabis. Presumably he believes this would have a deterrent effect, or that a short spell in detention would correct wayward young people, rather than merely criminalising them at an early age.

In the sad case of Mr. Muteba, he didn't mention the lack of recreational facilities in Dalston for young people, the growth of gang culture, the lack of community policing on the Holly Estate. All he focussed on was cannabis.

And, like the Daily Mail and the other campaigners, Hargreaves likes to string together unproven and often incorrect statements to support his condemnation of cannabis.

He claims that use of cannabis has escalated; research shows that use of cannabis amongst 11-15 year olds, and 16-25 year olds has actually declined since 2003 [BCS, DoH].

He claims that use of skunk has escalated since reclassification; the widespread use and availability of skunk had been increasing over the past decade, and is not a reflection of reclassification. Indeed, the evidence is that a licensed and regulated market would ensure a wider range of strengths, rather than our current reliance on strong homegrown skunk'

he repeats the argument that cannabis causes schizophrenia, an assertion not borne out by the evidence. While there is clearly a relationship between cannabis and mental health, this has not be shown to be a causative link. It's tragic that anyone would want to exploit the tragic death of a person, to promote their own moral and political agenda. Something that the Reverend Hargreaves has no compunction about doing.


The End of the Road for the Cannabis Policing 'experiment?

It seems likely that before the end of the year, the current cannabis policing policy will come to a grinding halt. Given a combination of factors, it seems almost inevitable that the current policy will be abandoned. This will not, unfortunately, be due to evidence that the policy has 'failed,' but rather due to a combination of media pressure, political ineptitude and circumstances.

The political climate:

The political demise of David Blunkett leaves the way clear for John Reid to change the way cannabis is policed. That Blunkett has now revealed the extent to which his performance was impaired by his social problems means that his decision making is now easy for others to question and overturn.

Likewise, Charles Clarke's decision to follow the ACMDs recomendations was a close run thing; it was made whilst the Home Secretary simultaneously promised a review of the whole classification system.

The Home Office's rejection of the review undertaken by the Science and Technology committee, which looked at the drugs classification system, suggests that the Home Office will not reclassify cannabis to B, but will also not change the overall classification system.

Media Pressure:

The media have frothed themselves in to a righteous indignation about cannabis and currently sense blood. The murder of Steven Nyembo-Ya-Muteba, the killing of Paul Butterworth in St Albans by Laurie Draper, the ongoing campaign against 'skunk farms' run by 'Vietnamese Gangs,' have all contributed to a febrile atmosphere and intense pressure on an underperforming Home Office. The Government needs a way out, and the media knows that they are kicking against a door which is ready to swing open.

Police Review:

ACPO is currently reviewing the policing of cannabis including the current guidance; this review (it is claimed) had been planned for a while and is not a response to current political or media pressure. But given current criticism pressure is going to be intense for a change to the current police guidance. Certainly, the outcome to date has been a lottery of enforcement and this has meant huge variation as to how cannabis has been policed.

Legal Review:

The Judicial Review, which has been sought by Christian fundamentalist George Hargreaves, is set to challenge the current ACPO guidance. He is not seeking (we understand) to review the reclassification of cannabis, rather the ACPO policing guidance. It has to be said that such a review may well find against the ACPO guidance, suggesting that the decision not to enforce the law as a matter of policy is ultra vires but this will remain to be seen. But it also increases the chances that ACPO and/or the Home Office may decide to change policy prior to a court result to avoid the embarassment of a court result going against ACPO.

In conclusion:

When cannabis was originally to be reclassified, it should have simply moved to class C, and as such the power of arrest would have been removed. Blunkett, in a furious backpedal under media and police pressure, had PACE amended to make sure that the power of arrest for cannabis was retained, and tried to fudge this decision by getting ACPO to draft guidance to ensure a presumption against arrest. This fudge, which was an inelegant and ill-considered approach, is now under review with ACPO, under sustained media pressure and the subject of judicial review. Blair, Reid, Clarke and others have already indicated that they would like to to see the reclassification reversed.

In light of this, it seems almost inevitable that the current policing arrangement will be ended. However, we do not think that cannabis will move back to Class B. To do so would be for the Home Office to reject outright the advice of the ACMD. This would be a huge step. But the need to re-reclassify would largely be irrelevant if the current policing policy were to be abandoned.


15 October 2006

Drug Thresholds Abandoned!

In a low-key announcement, buried at the end of a low key report launch, the Government has abandoned it's efforts to introduce "threshold quantities." These, you will remember, were to be introduced as part of the Drugs Act 2005. The aim was to introduce "prescribed amounts" of drugs, above which there would be a presumption of intent to supply, and a reverse evidentiary burden on the defendant to disprove the assertion.

The measure was widely reported in the media at the time, and trumpeted by the Home Office as a measure that would see many more people successfully prosecuted for supply.
Many in the drugs field, including KFx, were opposed to the measure. We disapproved of the legal change, and argued that, as well as the law being ill-considered, the defining of threshold amounts would prove impossible.

We were also concerned that, despite the figures that the Government published in the RIA that accompanied the bill, it became clear that the Home Office had no idea how many people would be affected by the change. When asked, for example, how many people were found to be in possession of specific amounts of cannabis, the Home Office acknowledged that they didn't store this information, and so couldn't say how many people would be charged with supply under the new rules.

Only 36 organisations responded to the consultation, mostly police forces. Fortunately, critical comments were received from many, including KFx, Transform, Release, Turning Point and others. It is was saddening to see that some very vocal groups, including Reform, Kaleidescope, Drugscope and Liberty did not contribute.

Having said that, the Home Office, having received serious structured criticism decided once again to abandon ill-considered legislation. As with the proposal to change Section 8 of the MDA, the Home Office has been found to make policy on the hoof, and be forced in to backing down when challenged in a serious and consistent way.

For the full Home Office response to the consultation click here

26 September 2006

Cannabis Drought - and a new War on Weed

- 26.9.06

Cannabis users in the UK have been aware for at least the last two months that there was a serious shortage of cannabis in the UK. Discussions on the drug strand of the Urban 75 website had been discussing the shortage in early August, and it was raised as a concern by harm reductionists at UKHRA in early September.

What had initially appeared to be a localised problem - which seemed to be affecting Liverpool , Cheshire, and some parts of Scotland, rapidly escalated and most parts of the UK were reporting shortages of cannabis within a few weeks.

At this point, various theories were being posited for this shortage, which was mainly having an impact on herbal cannabis. Some London-based commentators suggested (in August) that supplies were being held in reserve for the Notting Hill Carnival, and other sources suggested that growers had somehow formed a cartel, and were sitting on stockpiles to force costs up.

In practice, it seems more likely that a series of police actions across various parts of the UK had impacted on availability of home-grown herbal cannabis in the UK.

In May, Kent police raided a large production site. On August 10th, the BBC reported further raids in Faversham, Kent. The Guardian (August 29 2006) reported that police in Hertfordshire had closed 24 'factories' in the preceding four months and made a number of arrests.

Raids have also been reported in Wiltshire (July 2006) Catford, South London (August 2006), Swindon (July 2006), Lewes Sussex - september 2006, Clitheroe (July 2006), L.B. Barnet (July 2006), Ealing (August 2006), and a number of other areas.

Now at this stage, no 'formal' or coordinated action had been declared either by the Home Office or the Police. So in theory, this action was all uncoordinated, local activity.

But it seems that the net result of this has put a huge amount of pressure on other areas, forcing people to travel to secure cannabis in other cities, and in turn causing the shortage to increase.

The net result so far has been to force the prices up, and also to drive people towards the use of less safe substances.

For some cannabis users this has meant smoking imported, low grade cannabis resin, such as Soap. But with increased port and airport security, displaced demand and a domestic reliance on home-grown cannabis, shortage of resin is also being reported.

Drugs workers are concerned that the shortage of homegrown cannabis is increasing the risk of lapse amongst former opiate users. Several drugs workers have spoken to KFx highlighting clients who had previously been abstinent from opiates, but had kept themselves calm through their use of cannabis. The drought has resulted in a number of these clients returning to opiate use.

Any hope that the drought would come to an end will have been dashed by the announcement on the 25th September 2006 that the Police intended to launch a concerted campaign, involving 19 police forces and to run for the next two weeks (at least). The initiative, dubbed Operation Keymer, will include police forces in Cambridgeshire, Essex, Greater Manchester, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Humberside, Kent, Merseyside, Metropolitan, Norfolk, Northumbria, North Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, South Wales, South Yorkshire, Surrey, Sussex, West Yorkshire and Wiltshire.

Vernon Coaker, speaking for the Home Office, endorsed this campaign the same day. The Minister, who has declared he has sampled the drug in the past, said ""We fully support this crackdown, which sends out a powerful message that growing and dealing in cannabis will not be tolerated." [BBC].

What is not clear from the Police announcement or the Home Office comment is what inititiated this action, and this announcement at this time. It is fairly obvious that concerted (if not coordinated) action against cannabis cultivation has been taking place since at least July, and that this action has at least in part contributed to the current drought.

So the present announcement does not seem to be a "new" drive - more a formal announcement and extension of the current police action. But a credulous media happily reprinted the news story, provided by ACPO, complete with the helpful "How to Spot a Cannabis Farm" lists supplied by the Police.

Only the truly cynical would link the current drive, and the timing of the announcement, with any sort of Home Office involvement. It is of course impossible that the Home office would have initiated such a drive, using the closure of cannabis farms as a way to achieve 'rapid gains' on the back of recent criticism of the UK drug strategy by the ACMD, increased levels of young suppliers and the ongoing criticism by the right-wing press of cannabis reclassification.

And only the truly paranoid would look for the hand of Dr John Reid, who certainly has no interest in pitching for being Labour leader, overseeing such a campaign during the Labour Party Conference.

Either way, at the end of this 'Operation,' a number of producers will undoubtedly be removed from the production cycle. But the risk is that the end product will be production consolidated in the hands of a smaller number of more ruthless producers, moving in to replace the smaller local producers removed by this operation.

ACPO Press Release:

Media Reporting:


14 August 2006

The Ice Age is Coming

By 'Delia Venus Wynn'

Over the last few months, the media has become increasingly rabid about a 'new' drug arriving on our shores. As always it has been demonized as the beginnings of the worst drug epidemic in history. Methamphetamine (ice) is becoming the new drug bogey man.

Much has been written about methamphetamine, a great deal of it inaccurate, some just total fantasy but some is all too true.

So what is really going on? With access to major manufacturers, dealers and users I will try to delve below the media froth, and explore the real UK position. This in turn highlights how enforcement and Government Agencies can minimize the risks posed by this new challenge.

The United States' Experience of Meth Production:

The majority of the US market is supplied by large-scale labs, principally in Mexico, California and, to a lesser extent Texas, but a significant proportion comes from what the DEA term 'Mom & Pop' laboratories. Mom & Pop manufacturers use their garden shed, garage or kitchen to make relatively small batches (between 10 & 50 grams) on a 3-4 day cycle. They won't get rich, but to some it looks like an easier life than getting a McJob!

Methamphetamine is not primarily derived from a plant source so unlike heroin or cocaine, it doesn't necessarily require long supply routes. This has in turn made it especially popular in less accessible markets, such as New Zealand, where home grown methamphetamine production is an easier undertaking than importation of, for example cocaine.

Unlike many other forms of drug synthesis, methamphetamine is, in reality, relatively straightforward. Critically, precursor chemicals are more readily available than is the case with most street drugs. Your local pharmacist sells over-the-counter cold medication that contains a healthy amount of the precursor (a £3.50 box of tablets is enough to make about ¾ of a gram of pure methamphetamine which could be sold for £50-£80.

That isn't to say that production from plant precursors isn't also feasible. South East Asian suppliers obtain Ephedrine from Ephedra Sinica, a hardy shrub which has been used in Chinese herbal medicine for 5000 years. These traditional growers extract the ephedrine which can be easily converted to methamphetamine using very basic chemicals.

The relative ease with which precursors can be obtained has been exacerbated by the growth of the Internet, which makes both recipes and sources of precursors easy to find. Key chemicals used in common production processes are available cheaply on-line, although some of these may, in turn, be sting operations run by enforcement agencies.

As the chemicals in question are not on watch-lists for precursor chemicals, such companies will be able to act with impunity unless the licensing laws relating to these compounds is changed or it is possible to prove that they are being supplied with the intention of manufacturing a controlled drug.

UK methamphetamine is currently imported either from the Far East (Yaba, made from ephedrine extracted from the Ephedra Viridis shrub) or from former Ecstasy manufacturers (mainly based in The Netherlands or Belgium) who have switched from MDMA production to the more profitable methamphetamine.

The simple replacement of PMK (piperonyl methyl ketone) for BMK (benzyl methyl ketone) is all that the chemist has to do. The reaction is identical in all other respects, so they are ideally placed to make the switch.

It is interesting to note that within The Netherlands the black market price for BMK is now higher than that of PMK.

The effects of methamphetamine are similar to amphetamine (speed) but four times stronger weight for weight and with a significantly longer duration of action. In addition, methamphetamine can be smoked like crack and has a similar rush. The difference is that while a crack high lasts for ten minutes or so, the methamphetamine high lasts for eight hours and is qualitatively very similar.

This makes it a more economical drug for those looking for a powerful stimulant high.

Methamphetamine can be smoked, snorted, swallowed or injected. This makes it a very versatile drug. Whatever method of ingestion a user is familiar with, they can take methamphetamine in the same way. This makes it relatively easy to market. The downside is a much bigger crash, so heavy users seek to repeat dosing to avoid this event, often for days and weeks at a time. The crash from a single dose begins at the 8 hour mark and lasts for a further 8 to 16 hours. With chronic usage, the crash can last a week or more.

Meth Trends:

Recent reports from the US have shown that methamphetamine is not the national epidemic that the media suggests, but is very prevalent in certain urban areas. For example, in these areas, the proportion of males testing positive for methamphetamine on arrest, according to the DEA newsletter 'Microgram' are as follows:

Phoenix 38.3%
Los Angeles, 28.7%
Portland, Oregon 25.4%
San Diego 36.2%
San Jose, California 36.9%.

Nationally, however, just 5 percent of men who had been arrested were found to have methamphetamine in their systems. By contrast, 30 percent tested positive for cocaine and 44 percent for marijuana (although it should be noted that cannaboids will show up in modern drug tests for weeks).

These figures seem to indicate that methamphetamine is nowhere as popular as say, crack, probably because of its long duration and horrible crash. Also, as users become tolerant, users are likely to take larger and larger doses to obtain the same high so methamphetamine looks increasingly less like a "cheap" drug.

Lessons Learned and Early Interventions:

The experience of the US, Australia and elsewhere is certainly that methamphetamine can and does have a massively damaging physical and psychological effect on users, and causes huge collateral damage to users.

However, the US experience has not been that the drug became a widespread 'foundation' drug in the same way that heroin has. Instead, it springs up in concentrated, but highly damaging pockets.

Indeed, evidence suggests a significant decrease in methamphetamine use in the States with estimates that use has diminished 30% since 2001.

Some factors that may have contributed to this include:

1) Heavy ongoing use of methamphetamine is less feasible than with most other drugs due to the serious physical and mental health problems that are likely to stem from it and the increase in tolerance. So use tends to be sporadic and bingeing (similar to a crack 'mission') rather than ongoing for sustained periods of time.
2) Many areas of the US are only supplied irregularly (mom & pop producers are frequently caught) so finding a steady supply remains difficult.
3) With a longer time-frame of problematic use, education and awareness messages in the US and elsewhere are more widespread. With families and friends of users having direct experience of the effects of the drug, and in turn with these being translated in to education, there is a higher level of awareness, and in turn resistance, than in the UK. The extent to which mainstream US TV shows such as CSI and ER routinely feature methamphetamine story-lines highlights the extent to which awareness of the drug (but in turn the 'glamour' too) has been absorbed by the media.
4) Efforts to clamp down on precursor chemicals, including decongestants, have had significant impact on areas where supply was reliant on local production rather than imports.

Of course, only the heavy users come to light via law enforcement agencies and drug support agencies. There is, no doubt, a large number of users (students, truck drivers and so on) using it to allow them to keep working, rather than for recreational purposes. These users take far less and so decrease risk of detection. It is also worth pointing out that a great many US employers and educational establishments have introduced a mandatory random drug test policy which may have a deterrent effect on many potential users.

View from the UK Street:

Currently, the market in Manchester, UK, is just starting to see the drug being sold in two specific markets. Firstly, the Gay scene (centered on Canal Street) has a small but expanding market of recreational users who love the energy giving, inhibition losing effects which also boost sexual drive (initially at least). It allows people to make use of the whole weekend from Friday evening until Sunday morning. As with heavy use of other stimulants, afternoons and evenings are for comedowns, typically aided with alcohol or increasingly anxiolytics such as un-prescribed benzodiazepines. The main risk to these users is unprotected sex due to the lack of inhibitions and increased sex drive. If the U.S. experience is any kind of indicator, the rate of STDs amongst these users will increase quite drastically.

The second group of users is likely to form the bulk of drug workers' caseload. We are beginning to see a marketing campaign strongly reminiscent of the introduction of crack. Dealers are offering 2 points of brown and 1 of methamphetamine for £20. Now crack is established, with some crack users not using much, if any heroin, the dealers are hoping to use methamphetamine for several reasons.

· Methamphetamine is highly addictive, requiring increasingly larger doses to get the same high, resulting in larger sales.
· The over stimulation caused by methamphetamine over long periods mean that instead of needing 1 point of heroin to balance 1 point of crack, a user is likely to find that they need two or three points of brown to balance 1 point of methamphetamine.
· Users who have not taken heroin may also be tempted to indulge to offset the comedown.
· Dealers are also likely to sell increasingly large amounts of tranquillizers. With Valium & Xanax available on the internet for pence rather pounds per pill and currently being imported from Eastern Europe in large quantities, the dealers are able to sell them at increasingly high prices to 'tweaked' users desperate for something to help them unwind.

On a personal note, having tried the drug, it does seem like only hardened drug users would contemplate imbibing this compound regularly. Its extreme physical and mental effects mean that only people who find extremely potent stimulant use pleasurable would enjoy the effects. It is also interesting that within the US, there are still clandestine laboratories producing plain amphetamine, so it seems reasonable to assume that some people, at least, prefer the weaker (safer) compound.

The next steps:

Uniquely, the UK is in a good position to respond proactively to methamphetamine as we have had fair warning that the drug is likely to start entering the UK in significant quantities or start to be produced here.

The decision to move the methamphetamine from Class B to Class A should provide the required impetus to develop effective responses. Given the rapidity that crack cocaine achieved massive market penetration, it seems likely that methamphetamine would follow the same route and achieve a wide market distribution quickly, following the same supply lines and getting in via the heroin market and sex-worker markets. So developing effective responses now is essential.

This will require responses from law-enforcement and drugs agencies and would ideally include the following:

· Prevention of UK-based production: this will require reformulation and greater control of OTC medicines containing precursor chemicals, and more robust licensing to prevent the sale of additional chemicals used in the production cycle.
· Effective monitoring of importation routes.
· Targeted education messages to high risk populations, especially clubbers, the gay scene, and heroin or crack users being targeted by suppliers.
· Effective training of drugs workers to be aware of methamphetamine and the role of therapies such as CBT in working with methamphetamine users
· Local monitoring of methamphetamine trends to provide early warning of increased use.
· Closer examination of the experience of other countries' models of control and treatment, especially those with extensive experience of responding to methamphetamine.


Methamphetamine does represent a new and significant risk to drug users and the communities in which they live. Drugs agencies, mental health services and the criminal justice system are likely to see users presenting with a collection of drug and health related needs.

However, if the experience of other countries, especially the U.S. holds true, methamphetamine is unlikely to become as uniformly widespread as heroin or crack due to the deeply unpleasant side-effects. In the short term, the levels of use are likely to expand rapidly. This expansion could be reduced through effective control and education strategies.

Without wishing to be complacent, it may well be that, after reaching a peak within the next five years or so, levels of use will drop off as older users move away from the drug and the next generation reject a drug which perhaps offers too much of a high and too much of a crash.

Last edited 28/6/06

Delia Venus Wynn is a pseudonym; the author is a former manufacturer and user of a large range of compounds. Delia is now working towards a professional career in the other side of the drugs field.

Edited, and additional material added by Kevin Flemen/KFx

A shorter version of this article was published in Drink and Drug News.

Right of Reply/Comment:

KFx was contacted by a senior professional in the Manchester area following publication of the above article. They made the following comment which we wanted to post here as it challenges the content of the above article and we are always keen to maintain balance and debate.:

>>>>"I've been asking around with our sources (very reliable) and as yet there appears to be virtually no methamphetamine available in Greater Manchester. This would apply to both the scene around Canal St. and amongst users at our needle exchanges. There was one arrest earlier this year but as far as we are aware of no evidence of an organised market.." [comment received 28.9.06]

09 February 2006

Cannabis Reclassification - Where will Clarke go next?

After months of rumours and posturing, we finally got a decision relating to Cannabis. As the process had taken such a long time, it's worth recapping the sequence of events that led to this decision:

May 2002: the Home Affairs Select Committee recommends moving cannabis from Class B to Class C
July 2002: David Blunkett says he will follow the HASC recommendation relating to cannabis
November 2003: Legislation to reclassify cannabis finally passed
January 2004: Cannabis reclassified
December 2004: Mr. Blunkett leaves the Government
March 2005: Charles Clarke refers the cannabis issue back to the ACMD
January 2006: ACMD comes down against changing cannabis classification again
January 2006: Charles Clarke abides by the ACMD recommendation but proposes review of classification system

It's worth stressing some of the above milestones. The original decision, proposed by the Home Affairs Select Committee, was arrived at following interviews with experts and after a period of research. It was a decision supported at the time by large sections of the drugs field, though greeted with concern by others,including mental health professionals.

But in practice, the reclassification was bodged, with Blunkett coming under serious pressure from media and lobbying bodies. This included the change to the powers of arrest relating to cannabis and the penalties for supplying class C drugs.

Shortly after Blunkett's ignominious departure from the Home Office, Charles Clarke moved in to the recently vacated seat. He, no fan of cannabis reclassification, agreed to requests to review the reclassification and, quite properly, passed the matter to the ACMD. While his own views on the matter have been the subject of record, such decisions should be taken under the advisement of the ACMD, and a decision on Clarke's part to disregard their views would be unprecedented.

While the ACMD deliberated, various interest groups lobbied from the outside; Release, Transform, Turning Point, Rethink, Mind and many others offered thoughts on what should happen next.

The ACMD considered - and according to some sources came under pressure from ministers to reach an acceptable decision. The ACMD were firmly directed to review the reclassification in the light of "new" cannabis research related to the links between cannabis and mental illness.

But the ACMD - after extensive speculation - did not reach the decision Charles Clarke or Tony Blair had wanted. They agreed that while use of cannabis could have a negative impact on mental wellbeing, it was correctly classified in Clause C and that no reclassification was required.

This put Charles Clarke in an awkward position. While clearly personally favouring a move to Class B, this would have meant disregarding a recommendation by the ACMD - and an opinion that the Home Office had specifically sought. This would have been a hugely controversial move - to go against the stated opinion of the ACMD risked antagonising them and the possibility of resignations. According to some media reporting, key figures on the ACMD were prepared to consider their positions if the Home Secretary ignored their opinions.

In the end, Charles Clarke acceded to the wishes of the ACMD, and left cannabis where it was. As a sop to those who had lobbied so hard to see it reclassified to B, Clarke promised an awareness campaign to reinforce messages about cannabis risks and legal status.

But more worryingly Clarke also said that he intended to revise the whole system of classification. In his statement to the Commons he said:

The more that I have considered these matters the more concerned I have become about the limitations of our current system. Decisions on classification often address different or conflicting purposes and too often send strong but confused signals to users and others about the harms and consequences of using a particular drug and there is often disagreement over the meaning of different classifications. For example many people wrongly interpreted the reclassification of cannabis to mean that cannabis was not harmful and that its use was acceptable and even legal.

For these reasons I will in the next few weeks publish a consultation paper with suggestions for a review of the drug classification system, on the basis of which I will in due course make proposals.

Given Clarke's overall views on drugs, this probably does not bode well. It suggests that Clarke will get the outcome that he wants - tougher rules on cannabis - by a new tool: if the ACMD won't agree to moving it within the existing system, why not create a complete new system? Ironically, the point where we came in to all this - the Home Affairs Select Committee - also had worries about the existing classes of his drugs. That was why they wanted cannabis moved to Class C and Ecstasy moved to class B. This, they felt, would more accurately reflect the relative risks of these drugs.

So now Clarke is planning to review the legislation and possible revise the classifications. We must await his proposals with some trepidation.

But there is another way that Clarke, or his successor, will get their way. They can stack the ACMD in their favour. This, perhaps, has already started to happen. While new members can be proposed by existing ones, they are interviewed by Home Office officials before being offered their positions. And each is up for renewal every two years. By careful nomination and selection it becomes relatively easy to stack the ACMD to reflect Government Policy. So it is possible that this will be the last time that the ACMD reaches a decision that diametrically opposes the Home Secretary's own wishes. Both Clarke, and future Home Secretaries, will have noted this and be considering how they can avoid future repetition.

So while, for now, cannabis will remain within Class C, change is still in the pipeline.

07 February 2006

From Gillick to Axon - a wake-up call for drugs workers:


In January, the verdict was delivered in the case of Sue Axon, who challenged the legality of Government guidance on contraception advice to under 16s and a parent's "right to know." The case was not widely reported in the drugs field, which was strange as if the case had been found in favour of Ms Axon, it would have had profound implications for drugs work with under 16s, including advice work and needle exchange.

Axon challenged guidance that allowed for contraception to be provided to under 16's without parental consent provided that the child was considered "Gillick competent." This framework for working with under 16s has been an integral aspect of work with under 16s including drugs work, and has been enshrined in a number of strategy documents including the HAS report on work with young people, various Drugscope documents and resources from the NTA.

In the event, the court did not find in Ms Axon's favour, and so did not overturn the framework established in Gillick. Mr Justice Silber said: "Everybody involved in this case is agreed that a young person should be encouraged to involve his or her parents on any decision on sexual matters."

However, he added that there were unfortunate situations in which a young person needed advice when they were not prepared to inform their parents."

While the case upholds the concepts that emerged from Gillick, it does bring in to sharp focus the importance of careful assessment of a young person within the Framework. On the back of regular training sessions with a large number of wokers, it is clear that a number of workers in various agencies are unclear about their obligations to assess against Gillick.

All agencies working with under-16s must ensure that they have good assessment protocols to establish competence and effective procedures in place to assess when and how parents should be involved. The Axon case has reinforced the importance of dilligent assessment; workers must be able to demonstrate that they have made effort to encourage or facillitate disclosure to parents or carers, and they must be able to demonstrate how competence has been established. Failure to do could see future challenges to this important precedent eroded or worse, overturned.

More Water? - News on the Water for Injection situation:


We received a flurry of emails from concerned Needle Exchanges who were confused by apparently contradictory messages from different sources. On the one hand, Exchange Supplies mailed out their new brochure. It included promotional material relating to their 2ml ampoules of water - licensed for injection and conforming to the revised paraphernalia legislation.

But at the same time, the Guardian ran a big story saying that Needle Exchange workers were being threatened with prison for giving out too much water. Worried workers, in the throes of purchasing water, became worried that they were facing a new clampdown. So what's the reality of this situation.

The crux of the Guardian article was a restating the changes to the Paraphernalia laws relating to water (see drug news passim or click HERE. This made it lawful to distribute water to distribute ampoules of water for injection of 2ml or less, without prescription. Greater quantities would continue to fall foul of both the Medicines Act (by virtue of being a POM) and/or the Misuse of Drugs Act (as they would not fall within the revised paraphernalia legislation.)

But, with the greatest deference to Diane Taylor that the article, while technically accurate, is a little strident and liable to cause confusion and increase concern - possibly unecessarily.

The many organisations who have given out 5ml amps without a PGD have always been in breach of the law. They have typically been aware of this, and for most it's been a risk that they have been prepared to take.

Thanks to the industrious lobbying of Dericot, Preston et al the desired legislative change to the water legislation has been achieved, rightly making it lawful to distribute 2ml ampoules. It was unlawful to distribute 5ml ampoules without a PGD or similar; it remains unlawful to do so. In this respect the situation has not changed.

Granted, the non-availability of a licensed 2ml ampoule had been an issue, but as the Exchange Supplies website makes clear, they are now making available 2ml glass ampoule that is licensed and lawful.

So while the Guardian article is technically accurate when it says "But in practice the only plastic ampoules suitable for use by drug users contain 5ml of water," it unhelpfully neglects to mention availability of a glass article. Critics are arguing that the the Medical Regulatory Authority are being overly slow in terms of granting licenses to other products - most notable 1.4ml plastic water ampoules. They are right to stress these concerns. But the way that it has been reported has clearly confused some in the drugs field, which is far from helpful.

So if anything the situation is better now than it was a month ago, which is not clear from the article at all.