Hard News by Russell Brown

Party off

So the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs meets tomorrow to decide the fate of the legal party pills trade. But if the comments in today's Herald story on the subject are any indication, it would be a little difficult to have great confidence in its expertise.

There are some odd and surprising things in this story. Take this paragraph:

They contain benzylpiperazine and trifluromethylphenylpiperazine, substances derived from pepper plants which can also be produced synthetically, says Dr Bob Boyd, the chairman of the advisory committee and the Food Standards Australia-New Zealand Authority chief medical adviser. Pills with these pepper-derived chemicals have been illegal in the United States since 2002 and are illegal in two Australian states

Dr Boyd doesn't know what he's talking about. For one, the chemicals in the party pills are not derived from pepper plants, although it suits the vendors to imply that is the case. And they are not even the same thing, produced synthetically. Piperazines do not occur naturally.

Then there's this:

The head of the police national drug intelligence bureau, Detective Inspector Gary Knowles, a member of the committee, has been quoted as saying that it is of "grave concern to me that these pills are being labelled as a natural high, when people taking them have no way of really knowing what's in them and what they could do to them".

No, they're not "natural", or "herbal" (or as Nandor once

notoriously ventured

"similar to having some 'V' or a decent coffee"). But to call for them to be outlawed on the basis that their contents are uncertain is spectacularly counterintuitive.

The whole point of legitimate sale is that people can be relatively sure of what they're buying - far more so than is the case with any illicit chemical, especially bootleg amphetamines, which might be tainted with a number of chemicals - from red phosphorous to paint thinner - which have actually caused fatal poisonings.

All the pills, whatever the brand, contain either BZP or a mixture of BZP and TFMPP (the formulations differ in the additional vitamins and amino acids they contain, at least one includes a diuretic aimed at avoiding the very slim risk of over-hydrating - see below) . The former produce wakefulness and elevated mood, the latter a more sensual effect. They both induce a hangover, especially as dosage increases.

BZP isn't especially good for you: the major risk being to those with a problem with high blood pressure (the same applies, of course, to tobacco and even caffeine). But there is only one recorded death ever, anywhere related to its use - and that was a dry-drowning (the victim drank 10 litres of water in a short period) associated with ecstasy use.

The problems reported in this country seem to relate almost exclusively to overdose, and, possibly, gross overdose. The problem is that the overdosers you might legislate to protect are the very users who would simply switch to an illicit alternative. If they don't listen to advice on dosage, they're hardly likely to heed the law on the other stuff. And you can't legislate to stop people wanting to stay up late.

These products

are clearly very popular (two million doses sold in the four years they've been on the market, apparently), so much so that if they were intrinsically very dangerous we'd expect to have heard of more problems. And it's worth considering the circumstances of the Dunedin case: five young people, having deliberately overdosed, get themselves to hospital where they explain that they feel terrible. When was the last time you heard of an alcohol overdose victim doing that? Would you rather have your 18-year-old daughter crashed out on alcopops at a party, or fretting because she can't get to sleep?

Of course, it's not that simple. People will, for example, drink alcohol with them - although any danger there would seem to rest more with a misguided feeling that you can drink more alcohol than usual, rather than a toxic reaction.

Options short of a complete ban might include mandating the full disclosure of all ingredients, better public health advice and prevention of after-hours operations like Wellington's Cosmic Corner, which encourage repeat dosage at a time when the judgement of users is not all it might be. A ban on marketing is another potential option. They should be removed from corner dairies immediately. I suspect that the authorities will take the easy path of simply banning these substances, but one would hope they first consider the real consequences of doing so. Among them, that organised crime will be delighted with a ban.

Anyway, Salon has

an excellent backgrounder

on the Spanish election result, which makes clear the extraordinary lengths the Aznar government went to manipulate public perceptions of the bombing. Governments that lie in such a way deserve to be thrown out. And Jonathan Freedland has a

good column in the Guardian