The recent spate of headlines about the rising use of monkey dust drug in Stoke on Trent has led to calls to it to be made a Class A drug [from Class B where it/they are currently placed]. Whilst it is understandable that parents and local community groups would like to put an end to the use of this drug and so reduce the harms caused by its inducing reckless behaviour and paranoia, this call for re-classification is unlikely to have any significant impact, even if it is carried through by the government.
There are major problems in the up-classifying approach. First the ACMD has to recommend this. But for what drug? Monkey dust appears to be one or more types of potent cathinones. Should they all be made Class A or just the combination? What harms are there that would warrant putting this in Class A alongside known killers such as heroin cocaine and fentanyl? To make a drug Class A simply because of local use in one town with little data on significant harm would undermine the principle of proportionality that says Class A drugs are the most dangerous.
And would re-classifying work? It certainly would have little impact on the dealers because the penalty for supply of a Class A drug of life is unlikely to be given and for Class B the maximum term is 14 years which is so draconian that it is also rarely used except for massive importation amounts. The class of a drug has not direct relevance to policing and the local chief of police or their commissioner can equally well direct resources towards as Class B as a Class A drug if there is a local need.
The problem with a knee jerk reaction to re-classify is that it perpetuates the myth that the classification system is a way of dealing with the harms of drugs. But it doesn’t, and indeed may make things by letting the government persuade us it has done something useful. Heroin has been Class A for 50 years and deaths continue to rise year on year. The same is true for cocaine. What we need to do is understand the origins of the problem of monkey dust use and then develop targeted approaches to help deal with its effects.
Three years ago I predicted that the enactment of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 would lead to just the sort of problems that we now see with monkey dust and have also seen in towns like Manchester with synthetic cannabinoids [spice]. Before the Psychoactive Substances Act came into law, for several decades local head shops were selling a weak cathinone called bubbles or sparkle to young people who wanted a bit of a buzz on a night out. This was a weak cathinone usually methiopropamine or something similar, that was pretty harmless. But the hysteria over these shops and the so-called “legal highs” they were selling and the lies that were told about the harms of these drugs led to them being banned and the shops selling them closed down. Now instead of getting a mild drug from a legal source with guidance from an experienced dealer, people have to go to the black market. This market prefers to supply much more potent cathinones such those in as monkey dust, which may be up to 50x stronger because they are more addictive and so keep up demand.
It is an almost general rule that banning a relatively harmless drug leads to a black market in more harmful ones. Alcohol prohibition led to people drinking methanol and hooch, cannabis bans led to skunk and spice and now mephedrone and methiopropamine bans have resulted in monkey dust.
What can the people of Stoke do that would work? First they must allow local testing of the drugs that are available. Recently this was done in Bristol by The Loop and proved a great success in letting people know the drugs they were considering using and the harms that might result if they did. I saw this work very effectively last week with their work at Boomtown where a large number of people had their drugs tested and many discovered that what they had bought as ecstasy [MDMA] was in fact another more potent cathinone – ethylpentylone. Many of those told that they had been sold this drug decided not to take it or took much smaller amounts than they had originally planned.
The police and local authority workers in Stoke should also ask the people using this drug why they are doing this. If as I suspect they are largely the poor and marginalised then social help and medical treatments should be directed at helping them get out of the drug-using rut.
Nationally we need to take a clear view of drugs as a health problem. For too long we have chosen to use the policing and prohibition approach to trying to restrict and control drug use and harms. With drug deaths at an all-time high this approach has patently failed. I think it is time now to move the responsibility for drugs from the Home Office to the Department of Health so that logical harm reduction approaches e.g. testing and treatment can be encouraged and funded. This happens in many other countries who have significantly reduced the harms of drugs to their young people as a result.