‘Prohibition is harm maximisation’ – Perhaps a new slogan for the general drug law reform campaign, it would certainly be a good one.

Prohibition is quite unlike any other government policy in that it actually sets out to increase the risk from the thing it’s supposed to be protecting society from; specifically drugs policy makes drugs and involvement with drugs more dangerous than it would otherwise be. It does this in a number of ways, but perhaps most importantly by seeking to disrupt the supply and lower the quality of the product sold.

One of the indicators of ‘success’ of the prohibition regime is an uncertain supply, which means widely varying doses and high levels of contamination. The logic – if that is the right word – behind this is that fear of the increased danger presented by an uncertain supply will increase the deterrent effect and hence reduce drug use. This is prohibition thinking, of course it doesn’t work.

So it is with cannabis that in the early 1990’s we were introduced to a concept that had never occurred to cannabis users before; polluted hashish. As the supply of hash from North Africa was closed off through the prohibition efforts of HM Customs and crop eradication campaigns in the producer countries, supplies were bulked out with some pretty nasty stuff. ‘Soap bar’ hash in particular became synonymous with low quality and tales of contaminants were legion. Stories emerged off all sorts of stuff being mixed into soapbar, For example from The Contaminated Cannabis Soapbar Blog lists

Henna (common for the colour)
Instant Coffee Mixture (colour)
Plastic (common)
Pine Resin
Condensed Milk
Camel Sh** / Dog Sh**
Boot Polish
Crushed Tranqualisers (possibly to increase the effect!)
Turpentine (give more resinous look)
Glue (benzene and toluene)
Engine Oil (used as well)

Now of course, as we know far from dissuading cannabis users from getting stoned, this lowering of quality created the market conditions for the domestic cultivation industry. What the Daily Mail likes to call ‘skunk’ cannabis found a ready market as customers were eager to buy the far higher quality product.

Now an important distinction has to be made between the large scale criminal industry that supplies most of the ‘street’ cannabis and that produced by home growing enthusiasts. The latter group of people take a pride in their produce, the former are simply interested in making huge profits as quickly as possible.

We have seen a large scale contamination scare a few years ago with ‘gritweed’ – microscopic glass beads sprayed onto cannabis buds presumably to increase the weight, but it is through the intensive production techniques of the large scale criminal ‘grow ops’ that another potentially far worse threat of contamination has reared its head – the over use of OP (organophosphate) pesticides (wikipedia)

As any gardener will tell you, growing the same crop in a confined space with a rapid turnover is a great way to encourage infestation, bugs which kill the plants. An effective way to kill the bugs is to spray with OP’s. This is fine as long as these chemicals are used carefully, but if not they can pose a significant health risk. There is a very high possibility that “crim weed” will contain unhealthy levels of OP pesticides.

Now of course, the important point to make here is we simply do not know the level of danger this presents because we don’t know the size of the problem. The massive cannabis supply industry is underground, hidden and totally without control or regulation.

According to the government, this fear of the unknown would count as another ‘success’ for the prohibition effort.

Far from being concerned about the effect on peoples health though politicians keep details of such contamination very, very quiet because they know what a PR disaster it could become for the drug policy, but this might be about to change.

In recent months there have been a large number of deaths of young people who thought they were taking ecstasy (MDMA), but who were sold fake pills containing a different and very much more toxic drug PMA. As The Economist reported back in July in an article headlined “Pointless deaths”

What ties these stories together is that in every case, the suspicion is that the victims took something that looked like an ecstasy tablet, but may not have been. Many are thought to have taken PMA tablets—a far stronger drug than MDMA, the usual ingredient in ecstasy—or something else entirely. PMA takes longer than MDMA to kick in and so users may chase the first pill with a second or third. When they are eventually ingested, the result is catastrophic.

In fact stories have been turning up in local papers for some time now – this from Manchester Evening News form April

Ruth Purdie Cheshire Polices Assistant Chief Constable, said: “While we would always urge people not to take any illegal substances, I am particularly keen to emphasise the dangers and potentially life threatening consequences of PMA.

“We have now had three deaths in Cheshire which appear to be linked to the drug and therefore I feel I have a duty to warn people about the potentially fatal consequences taking this drug can have.

Polluted supplies are a measure of success for the prohibition policy remember, but even so you might think the government would be keen to warn ecstasy users of this serious problem, but you would be wrong. The government has know about this for some time and has done nothing.

One way to do something is to run a pill testing service so that users can have their pills properly tested as is happening in some countries. Channel 4 news reported on developments in Vienna

Next to the dancefloor a queue is forming. As we walk to the top of the stairs, we see a blue curtain and, behind it, a team of trained counsellors talking to clubbers in measured tones. There is a small weighing machine on the table.

It’s 10 o’clock and the CheckIt! team have already spoken to about 50 people. They are calm, reassuring and they’re counselling a steady stream of young people. They’re also taking samples of people’s drugs to send them for testing.

It should be remembered that testing is the second best option really, if the pills were properly made in the first place they wouldn’t need testing, this problem only exists because of prohibition but testing is better than nothing.

Our government is absolutely opposed to such a thing happening here which they would see as an attempt at quality control, something that would undermine the prohibition effort, but they have been forced into what is at really a third best option. Following several recent high profile deaths in Manchester there is to be at long last some pill testing, but it’s being done in a way which is intended to be seen as a branch of prohibition enforcement. As reported by Spin

Any drugs confiscated are going to be put through a machine,” the Warehouse Project’s Sacha Lord told the BBC, “which in seconds evaluates what is the makeup of that particular confiscation. We can then send out messages via social media during the event.

Not quite a useless way of going about it, but close to. How much better it would be to do the job right, with the involvement of the users themselves, but no, we cannot have quality control, the prohibition harm maximisation goal must not be undermined, so what if people die?

The PMA scare is real and up to July this year around 20 people have died because of it (Guardian). We could be looking at a grisly figure of around 40 deaths by the end of the year, all people who need not have – indeed should not – have died.

Anybody who uses any drugs supplied under the prohibition regime is at risk, as explained above even cannabis users. Perhaps it’s time to open a new front in the campaign against drug prohibition, a campaign for quality control? Really though, it comes down to controlling and regulating the supply industry, the answer is simple – end prohibition.