Notes From a Small Planet

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Chemical warfare

I didn't know him all that well. He worked in the same building as me, but not in the same office. But from time to time we'd meet up in the pub next to the building, and he was always very pleasant company.

We were working for rival music magazines, but that didn't matter. He was always very friendly, and I rather admired him. He was a very talented writer who'd played a key role in discovering one of the biggest British bands on the 1990s, and he'd retained that band's friendship - not an easy thing for a journalist to do in an area of activity as full of egos and mistrust as the music industry.

And so it came as a terrible shock when I heard that he was dead. The news came just before Christmas a few years ago, and it certainly cast a dark shadow over my festive season. The manner of his passing made it worse. It transpired that he'd had a serious cocaine habit (something that I'd never guessed) and had suffered a heart attack some time previously. Despite that warning, he'd been unable to leave the white powder alone. After another coke binge, a second heart attack had killed him.

I mention this sad story simply to illustrate that I really do know only too well how destructive drugs can be. Thankfully, I've only known that one person who was killed by them, but I've certainly known other formerly nice people who've been turned into jabbering, paranoid pains in the posterior by their habits.

On the computer training course I attended towards the end of last year, one of my fellow students was a nice, witty guy aged about 40, who told me that he'd been an amphetamine addict for eight years and then a heroin addict for a further eight years. Not surprisingly, he'd spent some time in prison along the way. Aside from his teeth, which were brown stumps, he seemed to have come out of it pretty well, all things considered. He said that he had finally cleaned up his act, and I could only wish him well.

I can't help but think of all of this when the debate about changing the drug laws comes around again, as it seems to do with increasing frequency these days in Britain. I am under no illusion that drugs are all a bit of a giggle. But still, I was heartily in agreement with the report published this week by a Government home affairs select committee, which has caused a fair bit of controversy.

Most attention focused on the proposal to downgrade ecstasy from Class A to Class B, putting it legally on a par with cannabis and amphetamines, rather than with heroin. This has led to the usual knee-jerk reactions from some sections of the media. Pictures of poor Leah Betts, who died after taking ecstasy some years ago, have appeared in some newspapers alongside predictable quotes from her parents, who are trotted out to express their horror whenever anyone suggests that ecstasy is anything other than a guaranteed suicide pill.

Yet, patently, it isn't anything of the sort. I must add quickly that any drug that increases heart rate and body temperature, as ecstasy does, is obviously potentially dangerous. However, the inescapable fact is that millions of otherwise law-abiding young people all over the world like to go to clubs and drop an 'E' at the weekend. If the stuff were really as dangerous as heroin, as the UK law now suggests, then the casualty rate would surely be far higher.

A major part of the risk involved with taking any illegal drug is that, when you're buying from criminals, you can't be sure what you're being sold. That problem has been addressed in some Dutch clubs, where testing stations have been made available for ecstasy users to check the purity of the stuff they're taking. But this eminently sensible precaution cannot be used in Britain, as a club would risk being closed down if it acknowledged that people were taking illegal drugs on the premises. And so laws supposedly designed to protect people actually end up making their lives considerably more dangerous.

There are other eminently sensible proposals in the select committee's report. Addressing the question of heroin addiction, it suggests trying out a programme of carefully supervised heroin prescription. Similar schemes have been tried out with some success in the Netherlands and Switzerland. The report goes on to say that the government should 'substantially' increase its funding for treatment of heroin addicts, and that some of that money should be spent on providing 'safe' injection rooms, designed to keep chronic heroin addicts off the streets.

There will be some understandable objections to the idea of doctors dishing out an illegal drug, and taxpayers' money being spent on supplying that drug. But anyone who really objects should ask which is better: a junkie going to his doctor and being supplied with drugs whose purity level is reliable, or the same junkie carrying out burglaries in order to raise the funds to buy his fix from a criminal who may have mixed the stuff with rat poison? Addicts cost the public money already. When they're driven to feed their habits by stealing, they create court costs and use up police resources, before possibly increasing the prison population. And if the idea of the 'safe' injection rooms seems distasteful, then it's surely less so than discarded syringes lying in the street.

The select committee's chairman Chris Mullin MP said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:
'All drug taking is bad for you and should be discouraged, but we need to get real and focus on the 200 to 250,000 or so problematic drug users ... who mainly use heroin.'

Quite so, and his committee's report has come up with some excellent suggestions for doing just that. The question now is whether the Government will have the courage to follow the committee's advice.

The report points out the obvious truth that the experience of the last 30 years has shown that policies wholly or mainly based on enforcing drugs laws are 'destined to fail'. It also suggests that harm reduction, not retribution, should be the main focus of drugs policy - something which, it notes, the government is taking 'tentative' steps towards.

And that's the trouble, really. The select committee's suggestions will provoke debate, but in order for them to do any real good the government needs to be less tentative about abandoning policies that have been failing for decades. Give that Home Secretary David Blunkett's immediate response to the report was to declare that the government would definitely be ignoring its advice about ecstasy, it's hard to be optimistic about the chances of that.

The government really needs to kick its addiction to looking tough. Then it might really be able to help those who suffer from the dreadful disease of drug addiction.

Intimate examination

I know that many Researchers are currently taking exams. I can only hope that none of you suffer quite the sort of distraction during those exams as was experienced by students taking a mock exam at the exclusive, private Marlborough College in Wiltshire the other day.

A maths teacher named Richard Jowett was meant to be invigilating the exam; but he obviously wasn't in a particularly vigilant frame of mind that day. Being a posh sort of place, Marlborough College supplied teachers with laptop computers. During the exam, Mr Jowett got a bit bored, and started surfing the Internet on a laptop.

Unfortunately, he failed to realise that the laptop was linked to a large monitor screen, so all the 17 students sitting the mock exam could see what he was looking at. Even more unfortunately, he was in fact looking at porn sites.

The head of Marlborough College, Edward Gould, has confirmed that the incident took place. He has declined to comment further, other than to say that Mr Jowett is now on sick leave.

What's the betting that he'll feel even more sick when he gets back to work?

A packet of lager, please

And now, news of a culinary breakthrough achieved by a group of students in Indiana. The team of scientists at Purdue University have devised a flavouring powder that could soon lead to the creation of lager-flavoured crisps.

The Purdue University team reportedly 'took most of the moisture out of a pint'. I often do that myself, and I'm usually left with an empty glass. But the scientists must have used a different method to mine, because they ended up with a powder.

They now believe that it could be used to flavour dips, sauces and bread as well as crisps. And if lager isn't your thing, then don't worry. They've used the same technique with dark beer, so you should be able to get a packet of bitter too.

I suppose all they need now is potato-flavoured beer...

The proof of the PUDDING

This column really started something a little over a month ago. In the 'Post' of April 18, I reported the story of Janice Hathy, a stress management expert from Kalamazoo, Michigan, who wanted to start an annual event called the Great American Grump Out, during which overt displays of unhappiness would be banned. Those caught being grumpy would be punished by fines, or humiliated by being made to wear special hats.

I was outraged. I've always felt that 'Cheer up, it might never happen' was the most maddening phrase in the English language. I felt that we should stand fight for our right to frown, and said so in the column.

That obviously struck a chord with a few people out there. The column led to a conversation during which the idea of a new h2g2 society was proposed, and an inspired name suggested for it: People United in Defence of Depression, Irritabililty and Natural Grumpiness, or PUDDING for short.

I built a PUDDING home page last week. Already 20 people have joined the society, and new recruits are rolling up every day. I'm amazed but delighted by the response. Clearly, I'm not the only one around here who hates being ordered to smile.

Obviously, I knew that h2g2 people were special. I just didn't realise that so many of them were specially good at being grumpy. I find that knowledge strangely heartening.

Ormy's 'Notes' and Other


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