Ken Clarke - Justice ministerKen Clarke, the Justice Secretary, made news the other day by telling the truth, or at least some of the truth. Mr Clarke told the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) drugs inquiry we were not winning the war against drugs.

For the first time ever a serving senior politician has admitted the policy of the past 40 or so years has failed, which really just highlights an interesting aspect of the drug war; no serving politician before Mr Clarke has ever dared to step out of line like this, despite knowing full well what the truth is. There is something very strange in this, it’s as if some invisible force prevented serving politicians being honest, as if some metaphorical hand had a very firm grip of their floppy parts.

Mr Clarke did support continuing   the prohibition policy in his evidence to the committee, even though he admitted it doesn’t work, saying.

The Government has no intention whatever of changing the criminal law on drugs.

He said “he personally believes” that the fear of arrest deters young people from taking drugs. Interestingly he didn’t  cite any evidence for that “belief” – he couldn’t because there isn’t any, indeed there is much to show that prohibition is rather ineffective at preventing drug use. Ken believes in a fairyland situation that just doesn’t exist, reality is quite different.

Ken Clarke knows quite a bit about drug dealing, having been a drug dealer himself. Actually, he wasn’t so much just a dealer, more like one of the king pins in a major international cartel. Ken Clarke was, between 1998 and 2007 Deputy Chairman and a director of British American Tobacco (BAT) . There is always something repellent about a politician professing a belief on the workings of prohibition, but it’s even worse when that same politician has made himself rich pedaling such an addictive  and destructive drug, but at least he has let the cat out of the bag; our drug laws do not work. It’s official now.

What Ken didn’t touch on in his evidence tot he HASC was the harm the present policy is causing. This blog has covered many aspects of the way the drug laws are causing harm over the years, without wishing to repeat a well worn argument the fact is that prohibition is not drug control and so called “illegal” drugs are not controlled drugs, despite what politicians tell us. Indeed, as someone is bound to point out if I don’t mention it, drugs aren’t illegal; prohibition tries to control people.

Ken, being a business man who has worked at the more senior levels of the drug supply industry will be fully aware of how the commercial pressures of supply and demand work, so he should be fully aware of how and why a whole new drugs supply industry has come about in recent years. He will be fully aware that prohibition has found a new way to fail and this time we could be looking at a very serious problem.

The problem is prohibition makes certain products illegal to have or to trade in and because unless something is made illegal it is fully legal, if a substance isn’t actually banned, then it’s simply not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act. Of course, when the Act was written, forty odd years ago, no-one had considered the possibility that drugs would become so popular and so much in demand that a whole industry could be developed based on designing and manufacturing chemicals which mimic the prohibited drugs, but which are chemically different enough not to be covered by the ban. But that is what has happened and we now face a flood of new drugs; the so-called “legal highs”.

Head shops have long sold packets of “herbal highs” which usually claimed rather more than they delivered in terms of effectiveness, but the new generation of “legal highs” are nothing to do with these. For a start, there’s nothing “herbal” about these new chemicals, they are very much man-made. We are dealing here with drugs with which we have no experience and which in most cases have not been tested in any way before being sold. Worse, some of the marketing has promoted these chemicals as “safer” alternatives to illegal drugs, simply because they are not illegal.

“Legal highs” come in all sorts of types, from chemicals which mimic Ecstasy to those which mimic cocaine, speed and probably just about everything else that’s popular. A quick look at the government’s anti drugs advertising campaign “Frank” gives an ide of what has happened. Originally only the “traditional” drugs were listed, then sometime last year Frank included a whole wad of new substances

Among this mass of new synthetic chemicals are some that mimic the effect of cannabis and are sold to look like the real thing. These, of course, are of special interest to us.

This from ECMDDA

In the pure state, these substances are either solids or oils. Smoking mixtures are usually sold in metal-foil sachets, typically containing 3 g of dried vegetable matter to which one or more of the cannabinoids* have been added. Presumably, a solution of the cannabinoids has been sprayed onto the herbal mixture. A number of plants are often listed on the packaging, but it appears that many are not present. However, large amounts of tocopherol (Vitamin E) have been detected, possibly to mask analysis of the active cannabinoids. The presence of several cannabinoids in some samples may also be intended to confound forensic-chemical detection.

* These substances are often called “Synthetic cannabis”, that is wholly misleading, they are not synthetic versions of the compounds found in cannabis, although confusingly they are classed as “cannabinoids” in the article above.  “Cannabinoids” are defined as “The chemical compounds that are the active principles in marijuana”, so these chemicals do not belong in that classification. Actually the ECMDDA article does explain this, before using the term wrongly

Although often referred to simply as synthetic cannabinoids, many of the substances are not structurally related to the so-called ‘classical’ cannabinoids, i.e. compounds, like THC, based on dibenzopyran.

They are correctly described as “synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists”, because of the effect they have in the human brain in that they act on the same parts of the brain as do cannabinoids. Yes, it’s a bit of a mouthful but it’s important to emphasis these chemical shave nothing to do with cannabis.

Below is shown the THC molecule and below that some examples of these synthetic chemicals. Unless otherwise shown, at the end of each bond line is a carbon atom, each of which has four bonds. Hydrogen atoms occupy bonds not shown.

The THC molecule found in cannabis

This is THC, the main active chemical in cannabis

CP 47,497 – very similar to THC but with some subtle differences


JWH-018, the chemical known as “Spice”

There are more images of the molecules on the ECDDA page linked to above. A point which must be made is that molecular structure is very, very important when it comes to the effect is has on the brain and small differences in molecular shape may have vastly different results. Drugs work by occupying receptor sites in the brain normally occupied by brain chemicals. We know pretty well what cannabis does, we have around 5000 years of recorded history of its use after all, but we have no real knowledge of what impact these synthetic chemicals may have beyond the fact that they make the user sort of stoned.

The industry producing and distributing these substances has come about because of the prohibition of cannabis and the resulting huge demand for the cannabis experience. They are manufactured without any proper controls or regulation, distributed by people interested only in making money and sold and promoted as not being prohibited substances, and therefore safer.

The government of course has done what it always does, and rushed through new laws to ban these substances. But the new products keep coming and what we are seeing is just the latest and potentially most serious result of the head in the sand policy of prohibition. Make no mistake; this whole industry has been created by the present drugs policy, it would simply not have come about without prohibition.

There is only one way to kill off the market for products like “Spice” and that is to make real cannabis available.  Advice from UKCIA is that if you want to get stoned, or more importantly need the medical benefits of cannabis, don’t be conned by these chemical “alternatives” and demand the real thing. The message to government is along the lines of open your eyes to the harm your brain dead policy is causing. That means you, Mr Clarke.