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Thursday, March 18, 2010 

Scum-watch: Fuelling a moral panic over Mephedrone.

This whole post comes with a very hefty hat-tip to Carl, a crime reporter on a local newspaper.

If yesterday's reporting on Mephedrone or 4-MMC was slightly hysterical, then we now seem to be moving into full moral panic territory. Moral panics are not just driven by exaggeration and overreaction through fear, but directly fuelled by downright lies, obfuscation and completely inaccurate media reporting, all of which has come together in today's Sun in a quite remarkable fashion.

Not content with just wanting 4-MMC to be banned, it seems determined to inflate the number of deaths associated with it, claiming that there have been 5 while only 1 has today been directly linked to the drug, but also spreading likely myths. The paper is suggesting that "dealers" are adding Crystal Meth to it, which seems highly unlikely on two grounds: firstly that Meth is not a popular drug in this country, especially when compared to the US; and secondly that the most popular methods of taking it are different. Meth is almost always either injected or smoked, whereas 4-MMC is mainly taken either by snorting it, by swallowing it in capsule form, "bombing it" or mixing it into a drink. Meth can be snorted, and it can potentially be mixed with 4-MMC, but if anyone is doing so, my bet would be only those who consider themselves truly "hardcore" are likely to chance it.

The paper's main claim today though is that teachers are having to hand 4-MMC back to pupils who have it in their possession, as it has no age restriction and isn't illegal. The paper here seems to be using a typical tabloid short cut: what it does definitively report is the comments made by Mike Stewart, head of Westlands School in Torquay:

Mr Stewart said: "Both teachers and police are powerless to do anything about it.

"Items can be confiscated, but because this drug is still legal it would have to be given back at the end of the day and that's disturbing.

"This drug is highly dangerous and must be banned."


Note that Stewart doesn't actually say that he has had to give 4-MMC back to a student after it's been confiscated, because in all likelihood he hasn't. He does though seem to be one of these teachers that love to talk to the media, as this video on the BBC shows. From this the paper has directly taken the line that teachers are having to give it back, which there is absolutely no evidence for whatsoever.

My school days aren't that long behind me, and teachers then were all too confiscate happy, and the time the item was kept was often far longer than just until the end of the day. The idea that a teacher would confiscate a white powder, even if told that it was 4-MMC and still hand it back to a student is ludicrous. The very first thing that would happen is that a higher authority (probably up to head of year, deputy head, even head level) would be brought in for something so potentially serious, and then almost certainly the police as well. After all, you can't take a student's word for it that the white powder they have in their possession isn't cocaine or speed. The Devon and Cornwall police themselves issued a press release today which ought to fully debunk this claim (Update: .doc, thanks again to Carl):

"If the seized drugs are found to be mephedrone no charges will follow under the Misuse of Drugs Act, but it is possible that other offences such as those under Intoxicating Substances Act 1985 could be brought. If, after testing, the seized substance is identified as mephedrone the Force will retain and destroy the product."

No chance whatsoever then that teachers or even police would have to give it back. The Sun could have checked this themselves, but instead thought that scaring people would be a better option.

Having then created a nightmarish picture of teachers having to give potentially deadly drugs back to their students, the paper moves on to lambasting the government, its other favourite popular past-time :

Home Secretary Alan Johnson was blasted as it emerged that a decision on a ban had been delayed SIX MONTHS.

An official review was launched last October, then postponed when the scientist in charge quit in protest at the sacking of chief drugs adviser Prof David Nutt.

The committee has still not reported, meaning any ban is still months away.


Not true - the ACMD is due to give advice to ministers at the end of the month, regardless of the problems caused by the sacking of Prof David Nutt, whom the Sun previously smeared by association, targeting his own children. The government has said it will take "immediate action" upon receiving that advice, although how much they can do considering parliament will have to rise on the 6th for an election on May 6th is difficult to see. The best plan to deal with it in a prohibitive fashion, as pointed out yesterday, was to stick it in a "Class D" classification, age-restricting and taking control of the supply until more research and studies had been carried out. This though simply isn't good enough for those who have already lost loved ones, even if they don't yet know whether it was 4-MMC itself that killed them, newspapers which are determined to use any stick to beat the government and other politicians who are equally set on proving their law and order credentials.

The paper's leader has all of this and more besides:

SCHOOL heads are furious at the Government shambles over killer party drug meow meow.

Teachers seize stashes but have to return them because there is no law against the lethal substance.

Nonsense, as we've established above.

Instead of acting, Labour cobble up plans to microchip puppies - in an attempt to divert attention from the Jon Venables scandal.

Yes, that policy was directly cooked up to distract everyone. Do they really expect anyone to believe such utter rot?

Lord Mandelson admits he's never HEARD of meow meow. Shouldn't a senior minister be better informed?

When it has absolutely nothing to do with his own ministerial duties, no, he doesn't necessarily have to be.

America can ban drugs instantly for a year pending investigation.

Why can't we? Labour mumble about a decision by the summer.


Even if 4-MMC was to be banned immediately, does the paper really think that'll either solve anything or decrease the dangers of taking it? Of course it won't, it's just the same old "sending a message" nonsense which has failed now for over half a century.

Tackling meow meow is urgent.

The Government must wake up or have more deaths on its conscience.


More deaths on their conscience? Is the paper really suggesting that the government bears some responsibility for those who die as a result of taking potentially dangerous substances? This is the equivalent of claiming that the government bears responsibility for everyone who dies as a result of alcohol poisoning because that's legal, or through lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking. For a newspaper that repeatedly stresses personal responsibility, this is the complete antitheses of that philosophy. By the same yardstick you could claim that the media could have deaths on their conscience through the hype and hysteria which they're spreading about 4-MMC; you can bet that there'll be more inquisitive and inclined to try it this weekend as a result of all the coverage, regardless of the panic associated with it. If the government has a responsibility, then so does the media. The Sun has resolutely failed that test.

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The Sun failed any kind of test to do with the responsible reporting of drugs use and policy all the way back in 1988 as this illustrates:

"The national press' initial coverage of the Acid House scene was a positive one, with The Sun promoting the famous craze of 'Acid Smiley Face T-Shirts', now accredited with 1988/89 E-culture, as the latest fashion to impress your friends with. They described Acid House itself as 'cool and groovy', but this would soon change. Increased pressure from the subcultural press about the 'drug crazed world' of Acid House, and the Dance scene's desire for a moral panic soon meant that Acid House hit the headlines in the biggest possible way. Indeed, what followed may have been the single biggest contributing element in Acid/Rave's explosion as young people's most popular form of entertainment at the turn of the decade.

Moral panic broke out in October 1988. Only two weeks after running the story about Acid House above, the Sun linked the scene with rumours of new horror drug ecstasy, bearing the headline 'Evil of Ecstasy' on October 19th. The other tabloids including The Post and Today all ran similar stories, many on their front pages along with photographs of writhing masses of sweaty teenagers. One Sun headline entitled 'Spaced out!' is accompanied by such a photo, along with a caption saying, 'Night of ecstasy... thrill seeking youngsters in a dance frenzy at the secret party attended by more than 11,000.' The ravers in the photo look hot, crazed and quite demented. Also, the use of an exclamation mark in a headline is usually reserved for only the most shocking of subjects. The moral panic had begun."

http://www.fantazia.org.uk/Scene/press/magazines.htm

How many people read that and thought "Acid House, that sounds like fun. Get me into that forthwith", do you think?

You almost can't blame the Sun, for reverting to type on an issue that hits all their buttons (children! drugs! internet!) - I'm almost more surprised to find that over twenty years later, we're still expecting them to act differently.

Julia

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