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The toxic impact of drug panics

People are reportedly consuming substances that produce “superhuman strength”, trigger “face-eating attacks”, eliminate the ability to feel pain… and make them “smell of prawns”. They may read like the taglines for a graphic novel B-movie adaptation, but if these sometimes frankly ludicrous headlines would have you believe anything, it is that the effects of the class of drugs – including the exotically named “monkey dust” – they speak of are anything but fiction. Instead, we are told they are causing “a public health crisis”.

Media coverage of the “epidemic” in the midlands cites Staffordshire Police saying it received an overwhelming 950 reports in three months related to monkey dust. The West Midlands Ambulance Service has been called out 229 times for problems related to the drug since January and paramedics describe witnessing horror scenes akin to those in Night of the Living Dead. Users, meanwhile, are said to be running into traffic, and scaling and leaping off buildings. One police officer likened trying to restrain them as “like you are dealing with someone who thinks they are the Incredible Hulk”.

The psychoactive substance has been called a “family wrecker” for the supposedly “major” role it is playing in parents’ drug use, accounting for nearly a third of all assessments performed by Staffordshire County Council’s children’s services department. It is being blamed for costing councils “millions” of pounds too, with warnings of millions more being needed if there is no intervention.
The health consequences of using such drugs are not to be diminished. Reactions to monkey dust – the street name for the class B cathinone stimulant methylenedioxy-α-pyrrolidinohexiophenone or MDPHP – can include paranoia and hallucinations. It could be argued, however, that the hyperbole and astonishing claims made about it in several publications verge on scaremongering.

Moral panics about drugs are seductive and fuel sensational headlines about wild reactions to substances that often have bizarre and peculiar names; “krokodil” – famed for its gnarly “flesh-eating” properties – and “spice” – reportedly turning Britain into a “zombie nation” – are others. We have been as intrigued as we are horrified about certain drugs for at least a decade.
The beginning of the 20th century saw a groundswell of xenophobia and anti-Chinese sentiment linked to drugs. Newspapers and even the Home Office distributed articles that spoke of the “yellow peril” and the practice occurred simultaneously in Canada when the media there fired up concerns about Chinese opium in Vancouver.

President Nixon, who instigated the “war on drugs”, used the fear and prejudice about black people that many people held in the 1970s to oppress and unfairly target specific communities. Despite relatively equal use of cannabis between white and black people, it was black people who were more likely to be arrested.
It is simplistic to blame only the media for generating such concerns and, as Nixon’s actions demonstrate, drugs panics are a powerful weapon in the arsenal of the war on drugs. Business can have a vested interest in drug panics too. The vast number of Americans becoming dependent on opiates demonstrates the way that pharmaceutical companies are both poacher and gamekeeper in this unfolding tragedy.

They successfully marketed these drugs, creating millions of new opiate-dependent patients. As a consequence, hundreds of people a week are overdosing – but they can be successfully treated with an opiate antidote. In a classic supply and demand move, the cost of these drugs has at least doubled without any justification other than profiteering from misery.