Last year, a multimillion dollar lawsuit finally established that the energy drink Red Bull does not give you wings. It’s yet to be seen whether anyone will be looking for a similar settlement with Police Scotland after their staggering claims that New Psychoactive Substance (NPS) legal highs are giving Edinburgh drug users super-human strength, with the ability to “run further” and “jump between roofs”.
Drawing direct comparison with “issues which they had in the States in the 1980s with PCP or Angel Dust”, Superintendent Matt Richards recently told an Edinburgh City Council committee how his force have been “overtaken” by use of NPS in the capital. This came as the council concluded a report into NPS use, over which there has been growing concern in recent months. In particular, a legal “bath salt” stimulant branded as “Burst” is sending the authorities into a panic – and seemingly not without reason, with intravenous use of the powder soaring.
According to the council’s report, of 835 admissions to the toxins unit at Royal Edinburgh Hospital between March and August 2014, 14% were confirmed as being from NPS use, more than half of them from taking Burst. Six deaths have been linked to NPS use – a finding which was widely publicised last month, although the report qualifies this statement by saying the deaths are still “under investigation”, which was filtered out from most news coverage.
As legal substances, NPS are readily available in head shops and newsagents across the UK, albeit usually with warnings against human consumption. It’s been noted that their availability, potency and low cost makes them particularly attractive to vulnerable sections of the population, including children and homeless people. Superintendent Richards warned that the drugs are causing “bizarre” and “erratic” behaviour, saying that “people seem to be stronger, more volatile, aggressive” and that city police officers are reporting users “can run further, jump between roofs”.
He also said that officers have been drawing comparison with PCP use in “the States in the 1980s”, although it’s unclear how many of Lothian & Border’s finest were actually serving in downtown LA during that decade and are in a position to verify this. Or maybe they’ve just seen some cop movies. However, to support these claims, a dossier has been drawn up of dozens of violent incidents which police say are linked to the drug, including a 12-hour flat siege and an officer being stabbed.
The evidence suggests that there is a growing trend of NPS consumption in Edinburgh – confirmed by hospital reports and data from the city’s needle exchanges. In October 2014, nearly 600 needles were recorded as being provided for NPS use, up from just over 300 in April. Where Police Scotland’s anecdotal hyperbole fits in is another matter. Yeah, it may well be the case that a series of violent incidents have happened, but there’s the whole awkward correlation/causality dilemma to consider. At the very least, it’s clear that most involve other substances, like alcohol.
The line the police have been taking on this and the ensuing press coverage is pretty much moral panic 101. The pattern is identical to just about every drug scare ever: a new mysterious substance emerges, causes crazed and reckless behaviour from those who take it, and nearly always jumping from buildings at that. Wild reports of violent attacks “linked to the drug” soon follow, with drug users undergoing a Hulk-like transformation and becoming difficult for the police to subdue. What’s more – the drug peddlers are after OUR WEANS as well! Continuing his evidence, Richards told the council’s Health and Social Care Committee that students have been seen “injecting openly” on campuses, adding that there are “100,000 students in this city who are potentially inclined to use these drugs. We know they are using them, we know they are pre-loading before going out on a Friday and Saturday night”.
The report shows that around 2600 needles were provided by the NHS for intended NPS use the six months from April to September last year. This may seem like a lot, but barely registers against the 700,000 needles that Lothians NHS gives out for heroin use each year. It also indicates that people using NPS intravenously are those who already have access to injecting equipment – heroin addicts. The idea that thousands of Edinburgh’s students are going to the effort of obtaining needles to shoot up with dodgy store bought powders seems fanciful at best. In fact, it seems more like the kind of thing a cop who wants an excuse to go barging into shops full of Bob Marley t-shirts, bongs and cannabis seeds would say. Richards also reckons that NPS “apparently does the same as heroin”, although it’s a funny kind of opiate that gives you a sudden urge to start going all Prince of Persia over urban landmarks.
The only reason anyone takes shitty legal highs is precisely because they don’t have the financial or logistical means to obtain something better. Here at A Thousand Flowers we might think that legalising MDMA is the solution to most things, but in this case it’s definitely true. If MDMA – which despite its class A status is not a dangerous drug – was readily available, it’s hard to believe that anyone would really want the dodgy corner shop alternatives. MDMA is also a substance that we understand, know the risks of and could safely regulate. The same can’t be said of whatever new molecular combination is currently being dreamt up in a Chinese lab, specifically designed to evade the same laws that criminalise MDMA consumption.
Superintendent Richards seems to be on a solo mission to bring back the days of Mephedrone Madness, when the entire country lost its shit over a drug that was supposedly causing teenagers to rip their own balls off and the cause of over 50 deaths. Of course it wasn’t, but post-mortems rarely make the news, and the media soon got bored of “Meow Meow” scare stories and moved along. What the police’s agenda is here isn’t totally clear, although it seems like a convenient pretext to start clamping down on head shops and ramping up stop and search of the 100,000+ “potentially inclined” NPS users in the city. Whatever their game is, regurgitating TV tropes about people jumping over rooftops and PCP induced rages is far from conducive to a sensible debate or a focus on harm reduction.