What the people who read the papers say

I’m a big fan of overhyped, ill-informed media circuses – they can be so entertaining. And it was with a rosy glow of nostalgia that I followed the recent shrieking newspaper hysteria over ‘legal high’ mephedrone. Nostalgia because it almost looks like they just dug up some old articles on Ecstasy from the early 90s and changed some of the words.

Like Ecstasy, mephedrone has apparently become a staple of the club scene, and, like Ecstasy, it appears to have caused some high-profile casualties that the ravening press have seized on as mascots in their latest cause celebre. It’s hard to forget the tabloid hysteria surrounding the Ecstasy related death of Leah Betts in 1995; perhaps easier for many people to forget that she didn’t die as a result of taking the drug, but by drinking so much water that her brain swelled up inside her skull. Never ones to learn a lesson about responsible journalism, the press have leaped on, particularly, the recent deaths of two young men in Scunthorpe to bolster a crusade against mephedrone.

Without wanting to cheapen or denigrate the grief of these men’s families, it should be pointed out that every article on this story (including the usually responsible BBC) has ignored the fact that the men in question had also consumed large quantities of alcohol and methadone. The problem was compounded by the fact that ‘methadone’ sounds so similar to ‘mephedrone’ that a number of readers who did notice this seemed unaware of the difference.

I’ve taken to reading online forums of various papers when I’ve a quiet moment at work, and what was surprising – and even encouraging – was that most people chiming in on the debate thought not only that banning mephedrone was a bad idea, but that banning any drug was a bad idea. Perhaps people genuinely are starting to think that, pragmatically, drug prohibition is an expensive, counter-productive waste of time. If that’s the case, for once the tabloids may have to change their tune. But will they? It’s a chicken and egg situation: do the papers form people’s opinions or reflect them once they’ve formed them?

Obviously, it was no surprise to find that leading the charge against what they insist on referring to as “meow meow” is that bastion of common sense, the Sun. Their insistence on calling the drug something which apparently no user ever would is in itself a clue to how ill-informed the paper seems. “Meow meow” has made many people recall Chris Morris’ classic Drugs episode of Brasseye, which now looks prophetic in its depiction of Morris asking random dealers for ‘Clarky Cat’ and ‘Yellow Bentines’. The Sun have produced such calm, clear-headed pieces as ‘Legal drug teen ripped his scrotum off’ which comes as not much of a surprise, but I couldn’t help smirking at the usually earnest Times giving the world ‘Meow meow Sank its Claws Into My Mind’ . The ever reliable Charlie Brooker has pipped me to the post in a much wittier article about the hysteria in his Guardian column so I’ll content myself by stating my view on this ‘problem’.

Mephedrone almost certainly arose as an alternative to other, probably safer drugs which are criminalised. Ban it, as politicians seem intent on doing without thought, and another chemical compound will be synthesised to do the same job. I’ve done my fair share of drug experimentation, but I have no real experience of what the stuff is or what it does, so (unlike many journalists) I wouldn’t presume to speak from a position of knowledge. But as a relatively new substance, legal or not, it’s difficult to know what the risks of taking it are, and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs should certainly be doing a study. Unfortunately, as the sacking of its former director shows, they’re not going be too keen to produce a study which contradicts the politicians and the press’ preconceived ideas concerning this substance.

The bottom line is this: drug prohibition does not work. From a purely pragmatic viewpoint, there is a demand for ‘drugs’, and has been for thousands of years. And where there is a demand, there will be a supply. Make something illegal, and the people who will provide that supply are the criminals. America’s dalliance with banning alcohol in the 20s is the textbook example, and yet people still fail to learn from it. The relatively benign cannabis is seen as a ‘gateway’ drug – this might be true, but only because you have to buy it from the same shifty dealer who also sells crack and meth. Imagine if you could buy it from your local newsagent, like that government approved narcotic, tobacco.

So again from a pragmatic viewpoint, the only way to properly control drugs is to legalise them. All of them. Educate people about them, regulate their sale, and above all, tax them. The benefits are obvious, once you get off your moral high horse. People will get the drugs whether they’re legal or not – if they’re legal, the quality is guaranteed, you save billions in ineffective anti-drug enforcement and gain billions in taxation. With the added benefit that organised crime would be crippled overnight. The anti-drugs campaigners in this country and the US love to bang on about how drug sales fund terrorism – given the amount of poppies grown in Afghanistan, they’re probably right. So, want to win your ‘War on Terror’ overnight? Take control of their funding by selling the product yourself.

There are any number of other arguments in favour of legalisation, but in the interests of even handedness, I tried to come up with some logical objections, not produced by the knee jerk moralising that you might see in the Daily Mail. There are a couple of things that count against overall legalisation. Firstly, it might give people the idea that the drugs are now, somehow, ‘safe’. This is the real problem with mephedrone – its legal status seems to convince people that a relatively untried substance won’t cause the sort of damage as the illegal ones. But this is the point where education could step in. After all, we all know how bad for us tobacco is. If you somehow missed that at school, the stark ‘Smoking Kills’ notices on the packets should clue you in. If a Health warning’s good enough for Marlboro, why not for crystal meth?

Second, it will make actually getting the drugs easier. This may sound like I’m switching position, but actually the illegality of most drugs does tend to make it difficult to get hold of them. Buying from the chemist is considerably easier than locating a dealer, gaining his trust, and running the gauntlet of potential prosecution to actually purchase something which is probably cut with baby powder anyway. Even so, by removing the rebellious glamour of a drug’s illegality, you’re probably removing a lot of its temptation in the first place. Want to stick it to ‘The Man’? If he’s the one selling the stuff, you’re not going to look like any kind of anarchist buying it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that excessive drug use is a good thing. But you could say the same thing about excessive alcohol abuse, and nobody’s calling for booze to be banned. It’s a sad thing that people feel the need to fill some perceived void in their lives by altering their minds with any substance, be it LSD or Guinness. But, again pragmatically, if people are going to do it anyway, let’s at least try and make it as safe as such an activity can be.

Sadly, while the people posting to the online debates understand the hypocrisy of legally selling the far more dangerous tobacco and alcohol, there’s still not enough people vocal about this to give any politician the courage to even mention it. Even if they did, it would only work if it were a worldwide policy, and the US are even more unlikely to put away their emotions and think logically about it. But one thing’s for sure – take away “meow meow” and something else will leap up to take its place. Perhaps we could call it “Shatner’s bassoon”…

Ten “improvements” commonly made to old cars

I like lists.

I also like cars, particularly old ones which are a bit sporty or weird. The trouble is, by the time they’ve reached a sensible price, i.e. less than a grand, they’ve often been in the hands of what can only be termed ‘boy racers’, who have a somewhat skewed idea of what can improve a vehicle beyond its original design specifications. Done well, with care, skill and money, these can be real improvements. But at the sub thousand pound level, they almost never are. Here, for your edification and caution, are a list of “improvements” you really should avoid:

1. The ‘big bore’ exhaust. Yes, all Subaru Impreza WRX rally cars come with a wide bore exhaust to improve throughflow and performance. No, attaching one to a Nissan Sunny 1.1L will not have the same effect.

2. The ‘sports’ steering wheel. Old cars, particularly front wheel drive ones, often have rather heavy steering, particularly when not blessed with power assistance. This is why they have steering wheels of a diameter sufficient to pilot the Queen Mary. Obviously, then, it’s not the best idea in the world to fit a sporty steering wheel with the diameter of a tea plate. This will render any kind of steering effectively impossible to anyone with arm muscles slightly smaller than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

3. The stiffened suspension handling kit. Most sporty cars – Golf GTIs, Astra GTEs etc – have fairly stiff suspension to begin with. Fitting a cheap ‘handling kit’ will not make them go round corners any faster. What it will do is render an already bumpy ride uncomfortable beyond all imagining.

4. The suspension lowering kit. Because nothing looks cooler than scraping your exhaust off at the first speed hump you encounter.

5. The aftermarket spoiler kit. All the disadvantages of the above, plus the aesthetic beauty of hideously moulded bits of plastic badly attached with rivets, ill-sanded filler and touch up paint that blends into the original colour like Samuel L Jackson at a Klan gathering.

6. The rear spoiler. A gargantuan device shaped to look like a whale’s tail, most often bolted somewhere onto the rear of the car where it can have absolutely no effect in countering wind resistance but will make rearward vision impossible.

7. Ill-fitting and mismatched bucket seats. Trust me, Alec Issigonis  never intended the Morris Minor to be fitted with these. And the racing harnesses will look a bit silly in a car that rarely exceeds 75 mph.

8. The novelty gearknob. Actually, Volkswagen have only themselves to blame for this one, with their oh-so-amusing golfball shaped attachment to the gearstick on Golf GTIs. Like all of the aftermarket tat, this may look good (although it usually doesn’t), but its chief effect is to cause severe bruising of the hand after driving, say, five miles.

9. Gigantic chromed alloy wheels that leave room for a tyre with a profile of less than an inch. Yes, your car is old. Yes, it probably needs a respray. What better way to throw this into sharp relief than by fitting the most ridiculously reflective wheels that you can find? For added discomfort, the cushion of air provided by the low profile tyres will be so tiny as to render the effects of the suspension nonexistent.

10. The furry dice. Actually, these have been around for so long that they’ve transcended embarrassment to have an air of retro kitsch to them. If you can just find some way of convincing your friends that they’re only attached ‘ironically’…