Illicit and Licensed Pleasures.

In Blog, Culture, Interviews, Politics, Uncategorizedby Rashers Tierney1 Comment


With Author’s Day hype reaching boiling point, many are quick to draw the line that corporations like Diageo are just legalised dope peddlers. That notion of illicit and licensed pleasures is explored in the work of Fiona Measham, a Professor of Criminology in Durham University and a pioneer of testing club chemicals in the UK.

Measham sits on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs across the pond and contributed to rabble 6’s discussion of harm reduction.   Rashers Tierney dug out his scratchy old tape recorder and got his Mavis Beacon on to produce a transcript of the interview. It delves into research chemicals, pill testing and how we relate to booze.

The rise of research chemicals has meant there’s a drastic change in the landscape of drug use – information on existing drugs like E and so on, is now redundant as a new chain of chemicals come on the market. Has prohibition contributed to this knowledge gap?

Definitely yes. It’s a really big problem because, there’s a very small evidence base for a lot of new drugs and that’s true for the people working in the field, the researchers – let alone for drug workers and let alone for users. And that takes a while to filter through from the scientific researchers to drug workers, then into leaflets and harm reduction and then to people who are using on the streets.

Although, that is sometimes circumvented by some users who use the internet and go directly to the scientific journals themselves, so the internet has changed that sort of loop of information. But there are so little known about so many drugs now that it’s a very different landscape and it’s a real concern because I don’t think we admit how ignorant we are.

Lots of things have contributed to the knowledge gap. Why do we see the increase in these chemicals and novel psychoactive substances? You could argue that is because of prohibition – when we banned mephedrone, there was a shift to try and market a different drug in its place that was legal.

But it’s not just that, what’s interesting for me the researcher is that after mephedrone lots of drugs have come since and in a lot of my research people are still taking mephedrone now that it is illegal. So it’s not just about the legal status of the drug, and it also seems to be that people that take so called legal highs or novel psychoactive substances are also taking other drugs as well that are class a or b.

So again it doesn’t appear to be the legal status that is the most significant factor. But it does seem to be that people like to experiment with a range of recreational drugs depending on the price, purity and availability of different ones and they put them all together in a poly-drug mix depending on what’s around at the time.

In some of your research, there seems to be a trend that a lack of purity in street chemicals has led to a more cavalier attitude among drug users about what they are taking – witness the consumption of bubble and so on. Is this a cause of concern for harm reduction?

Yeah, we definitely found that in the North West of England, this idea of bubble, and people don’t know what’s in it and don’t necessarily care what’s in it. Which I think is interesting and challenging when it comes to harm reduction, because we assume we have this rational consumer who wants to know as much as possible about the drug and which might be true on a Monday or a Tuesday but come Friday or Saturday it might be quite a different attitude. We can see that in relation to research in relation to Ecstasy testing.

In the field it seems that people are quite interested in doing the tests, but it didn’t affect whether or not they consumed the tablet at the end of it because they bought it, they paid for it, they might as well take it anyway.  I read some research recently that said of 65 or 70 people that tested their pills, regardless of the results, went on to eat them anyway. So I think we can overplay that rational consumer card a bit, because at the end of the day if people have bought them, they want to take them unless it’s really hideous. But some of the details of that can get lost in tentative things like ecstasy testing.

Photo By Paul Reynolds

Photo By Paul Reynolds


Could explain what the difference is between illicit pleasure and licensed pleasure – does this create difficulties for dealing with the health concerns around drug use?

Oh that’s a good question. I suppose the best way is the comparison between alcohol and recreational drugs. There’s an idea that illicit pleasures are things that may or may not be legal. They are not socially condoned accepted, or facilitated in anyway – for example at the moment MDAI is legal, but you couldn’t go into a pub and rack up lines of it – you’d be kicked out and the police might come and arrest you for some unidentified white powder but in the same pub obviously people are able to drink alcohol and until recently were able to smoke but now they do that outside.

So yeah, I mean in terms of legal drugs we do a lot with alcohol to facilitate the pleasures of what are seen to be moderate sensible consumption I think it’s interesting that a lot of policy documents don’t recognise the pleasures of drunkenness, it’s all about low levels of consumption and the pleasures from alcohol come from the sociability and are not seen to come from the pharmacological effect of the drug.

They don’t recognise that been drunk can be a pleasurable state in itself. So I think even with legal drugs, the pleasure is quite clearly defined and quite narrow – the pleasure should, in inverted commas, be “the sociability of going to the pub, the sociability of having friends around and a glass of wine” – the pleasure shouldn’t be about the public drunkeness and the depravity that might result from that.

So, our pleasures are still really circumscribed by government in all sorts of ways.

What is the difference between a recreational drug user and a problem drug user? I ask because the Irish National Drug Strategy only mentions problem drug users in its mention of harm reduction, is that not a total blind spot?

I think it’s quite a clear distinction, other people might disagree with me on this – in terms of looking at the definition of a problem drug user, in the UK at least and I don’t know if this is true of Ireland – here it’s clearly defined by what drugs people take.

So here it’s the people that take opiates, or take crack – or the route of ingestion is injecting and everyone else counts as recreational. And in my research that has been the reality, in terms of that distinction, a lot of my research has been recreational users and I will ask them about heroin and crack and it’s very, very low levels.

Where if you do research with other user groups, it’ll be quite a different profile so there seems to be a natural separation between them. It doesn’t mean that some people don’t cross between the two, or that some people can’t use heroin or crack  in unproblematic ways – I’ve interviewed many a recreational crack user.

I’m not saying there aren’t people who go between the two groups or are problematic recreational users or unproblematic crack users, but generally it does seem to be those two distinctions do make sense and are used a lot in Uk drug policy.  My concern is that more than 95% of users fall into that recreational category and there’s very little resources for them as they are not seen as a problem in terms of going out and committing crime, they are generally not in touch with services. There is very little apart from Frank the government website and various half hearted education campaigns, but in the UK we don’t even get drug education in the schools anymore.

So we miss this whole group really who might go into occasional recreational use and could have harm reduction strategies directed at them but that doesn’t happen any more we’ve come along way backwards since twenty years ago with the Safer Dancing, safer clubbing, that doesn’t get funding anymore. And that’s a tragedy. because that’s what most people are doing. I was at the Warehouse Project, there’s five and a half thousand people and a good number of those would have been taking recreational drugs by size of their pupils!

With the 90s’ rave scene, there was a much smaller array of substances for the original chemical generation to consume – talking to Russell Newcombe ( pioneered the harm-reduction movement in Merseyside from the mid-1980s) he made the interesting point to me that with such a wide range of drugs out there, traditional pill testing kits are more or less redundant. Are there other direct strategies or evolution in testing kits that could be used at festivals etc by agencies to identify dodgy batches or are we back at ground zero again?

Well, there’s a lot of things in relation to that question – as I said there’s a debate about there being any point in pill testing if people take them anyway?  I think there’s an assumption that they are a good idea, but if it doesn’t follow through with a change in people’s actual behaviour, that might not necessarily be the case. I think the field tests are far too crude, compared to the laboratory ones.

I mean a far better process would be to go with the Dutch DIMS system where people go and get pills tested properly in the laboratory and you get the full break down of what’s in them. The problem with that is obviously, people have to wait a few days before they go back and get the results – and decide whether or not they take them, so it’s not instant like in a club. But it’s far less crude, and the output in terms of knowing what’s in a pill is far more useful, rather than saying “oh yeah, it might contain a bit of MDMA or it might contain something else…”

You don’t really know the proportions, so that doesn’t really particularly help. I think in relation to the other end of that question, in my research most people are still taking ecstasy so Russell is right in a way, there are so many new drugs, but most people arent’ taking them – what I’ve being doing recently is trying to counter act this view that just because there is a load of drugs available on the internet doesn’t mean people are buying and taking them, and my research is that most people aren’t buying and taking them.

I think it’s partially the recession, people don’t want to spend thirty forty pound on a gramme of something that they don’t even know if its going to be any good, it could be rubbish, it could leave them in a psychotic state for for five days and I think peoples own personal experiences have made them a lot less excited about those, combined with the effect that ecstasy tablets are much stronger again and better value for money.

Mephedrone was the right drug at the right time, when ecstasy and cocaine purity had gone down – now the purity of ecstasy and cocaine is gone up a bit – people can get hold of what they want. I think a lot of the interest in the novel psychoactive substances might have waned and also, I know this from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug (EMCDDA) they said previously, last year there was about forty new drugs, this year for the last three month period there has been no new legal highs from their internet monitoring. None at all.

So I think we might have seen a saturated market and that sort of endless development and experimentation, we might have seen a peak and it might be waning. At least for now, at least during the recession, I think people don’t want to take that risk. I’ve interviewed people who’ve said “I took this drug and I was awake for three days, and it was really shit, I didn’t have a good time.”

I talked to one guy who went to hospital, he was going mad on it for days and days and they said go home and have a cup of tea. So I think it’s a value for money issue with some of the new legal highs, people don’t know what they are getting, they don’t like the results. So yes, there’s new drugs  – but I think still ecstasy is the favourite and I think because it’s high purity, people are going back to that.

I think the pill testing kits can be a bit of red herring because people take them anyway.

 Can you think of agencies or countries that have a highly evolved system of harm reduction when it comes to club drugs etc?

The DIMS system is probably the most effective because it is well funded, anyone can go in and take the drugs along and they also do sample testing as well. So they’ve got really good data to look at the trends now. If you look online you can see their reports, so they are available to everyone but also individuals can go – one of the things that is really good, is they address the public health issue.

One of the criticisms of testing is that dealers can go along, get their drugs tested and then its just becoming a service, sort of rubber stamping and giving approval to the illicit ways of dealers.  They’ve really taken that on and said ‘our priority is public health, we don’t give a monkeys about that, its a red herring.’ I think that is good because, one of the criticisms of testing has always been that and you’ve just got to take the bull by the horns and say ‘look this is a public health issue, potentially we can save lives’ and not have any truck with who is selling what and why.

 With the emergence of a polydrug use environment, does that map onto something wider with consumer society?

Harold Parker and I wrote a long time ago about pick and mix. I suppose it fits more into post-modern ideas, that we have multiple identities, whether that’s at work or home, or out and about at leisure – and that people don’t have fixed identities anymore, so you can have a pix and mix approach whether it’s to music or to clothes, I suppose compared to twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago, people ,might have been a mod, a rocker or a punk, a skin head – you’d wear certain clothes and have a commitment to that way of life and you don’t have that in the same way anymore. people have a pick and mix approach to drugs really, just as they do to music or to clothes. Without that really full time, 24/7 investment in the same way.

Obviously, you still have a few emos and goths and this and that, but not in the same way and not to the same extent. I think you could argue that with drugs really, is you transfer those same consumer skills of buying the best things at the best price, when they are available in relation to the legal market, or the shopping in the high street we are all thought to do and you can apply that to drugs.

Ireland witnessed a short lived but booming head shop industry sprout up and then be quickly legislated against,  using an analog act based on legislation in the states. Can you tell me of alternative pathways that could have been taken?

 I didn’t know Ireland had an analog act. We’re looking at this on the ACMD (Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs), we did look at how the American analog act didn’t work in practice and all sorts of other ways, so it’d be quite interesting to hear what happened in Ireland .

Well they think it’s ineffective and the proof of that is they still pass laws anyway on cathinones and cannabinoids so they couldn’t trust the analog act to do the job. We had some discussions with the DEA there, it’s so complex that it leads to expert witnesses fighting it out in court and it becomes this battle of expert witnesses and in effect its virtually useless really, and I think they described it as imperfect – this contest of different experts in court and very complicated case law so in the end they went ahead and passed ordinary laws.

 And have you seen the approach in New Zealand – how do you feel about that?

I’m really interested in it because they did have an analog act and the clearly thought that didn’t work for them and now they’ve decided to ban everything unless it’s proven to be safe and its appealing because it puts the onus on manufacturers of legal highs and it puts the cost of any testing on them, because we do have a situation where people are selling these things, they’re not tested and we don’t know the long term implications.  There are serious health  concerns about these things so I think to put the onus on the manufacturer in terms of testing and proving safety totally makes sense.

Whether or not it would ever lead to anything being safe enough to be sold is really interesting and we’ll be watching to see, it could be they set the bar so high it will never happen. But yeah, its an interesting novel approach that turns prohibition on its head – ban everything, unless you can prove its safe – instead of just banning things that proved to be harmful. And because it came out of failed analog legislation makes it even more interesting in terms of possible alternative routes.

Then in Europe, we’ve got different approaches – but most people are following the same line which is find out, do a risk assessment, see if there are any significant harms and if so ban it and then see what happens in terms of availability, purity, prevalence and so on. And with mephedrone and my research in London gay clubs, is that its popularity has increased, not decreased.

The price hasn’t gone up a lot, it was ten pound a gramme, when it was legal – its now about 20 – 25 pound, so it’s only doubled – its not a huge, massive spiral – it doubled in price as soon as it was banned and held steady at that price for the past couple of years. The purity has gone down, but not massively – it seems people can get it in from Europe anyway pretty much only slightly cut – so the purity hasn’t gone down as much and the price hasn’t gone up as much as you might have expected.

 The Irish national drug strategy talks about how pillars like research and academia, as well as law enforcement need to feed into together on the debate. How does the ACMD work?

Well, when there is a new drug to be considered, they ought to collect what evidence is available and there is various experts who sit on ACMD from the different disciplines, from pharmacology, I’m in criminology, and there’s also people there representing the police, GPs, health services, pharmacies and all sorts of different people sit on it and we gather the latest and best evidence  – for some substances there is very little at all, for example with mephedrone there was virtually nothing before it was being used popularly, because it didn’t have a previous history of being used by the pharmaceutical industry. Where as some other drugs do have a history of commercial development which means the scientific research can be mined for that, for what were the effects were on guinea pigs and humans when they were looking into it for commercial purposes. So it varies a lot what the evidence base is.

The other thing we found that is quite useful is having good contacts in hospitals that collect high quality data on admissions. One of the problems with hospitals is the way they currently record admissions is quite limited and archaic so we don’t know what people go in for, so it could have been methadone, mephedrone, methylone.  The people at the front desk don’t necessarily record all of that when everyone is in a panic, and someone is passed out and you have upset parents and friends around.

So, it’s about getting better quality data from all the services, and we’ve been working with various people that sit on AMCD to do that. We get the best information we can, but it tends to be really limited and it tends to be a short turnaround time because everyone wants to know everything immediately, and sometimes it takes a year or two for things to pan out. For example, with mephedrone it looks like suicide of young men after taking mephedrone is becoming an issue, well we didn’t know that a few years ago.

And its only now we can start to see the data. It might only be ten, twenty, thirty people – not a huge number compared to road traffic accidents, but nevertheless over three or four years you draw a picture of that. We’re starting to see that coming through with mephedrone, we didn’t know that a few years ago, the numbers were too small to see any trends then.

So part of it is wait and see, but the problem with wait and see is that people die in the meantime, governments get jumpy and the press gets jumpy  and some of the general public get jumpy because especially for teenagers any death is one death too many.

Follow Fiona Measham on Twitter for up to date and forward thinking on drub policy. 


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