Proper Gander: Legal Highs And Lows

BBC3 is easy to overlook in its new online-only home, even though this is probably how we’ll watch more channels in the future, as the boundaries between television and the internet blur. Online, the channel can group together similar broadcasts, and their stash of shows and articles about drugs looks at the issue from some interesting and imaginative angles. Their titles follow the BBC3 tradition of a tabloidish, eyeball-grabbing headline which suggests the programme is going to be tackier than it turns out to be: Meth And Madness In Mexico, Why Are Women Putting Cannabis In Their Vaginas? and Whoopi Goldberg Wants To Cure Your Period Pain With Weed. More blandly titled is their Drugs Map Of Britain series, which in its first episode visits the people in Wolverhampton aiming at Getting Off Mamba.

Mamba is a ‘legal high’, now more formally called ‘new psychoactive substances’ (NPSs). These are synthetic versions of other drugs, produced by the kind of entrepreneurial spirit we’re supposed to admire. The manufacturers of these substances found the gap in the mainstream market left by the trade in drugs like heroin, cannabis and cocaine being illegal and therefore underground. As new psychoactive substances differ chemically from other drugs, they weren’t covered by existing legislation, until the introduction of the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act. Before the change in the law, NPSs were openly sold online and in ‘head shops’, meaning they could reach a wider audience than other drugs, and therefore rake in the profits. Mamba, an artificial approximation of cannabis, is probably the most well known type; a few years ago it was mephedrone, aka ‘m-cat’ or ‘meow meow’. Others have names such as ‘happy joker’ and ‘holy smoke’, their packets marked ‘not for human consumption’, which used to be enough to protect the manufacturers from legal comebacks about the drugs’ downsides. One downside not shown in the documentary is a ‘mamba attack’, an extreme reaction to the drug which tends to involve being disorientated and losing bodily control, which in practice can mean collapsing and being unresponsive or acting aggressively or erratically.

Perhaps because of BBC3’s reduced budget, Getting Off Mamba isn’t complicated by a narrator or commentary from professionals. The camera follows Liam, who smokes mamba every few hours, and says it ‘makes you feel nice. It makes me forget about things that I don’t want to think about, like being homeless, having no family, no friends, no help, no nothing’. He and many others use it as a coping strategy for the pressures of effectively being on capitalism’s scrapheap. The rough sleepers and vulnerably housed people featured in the show all recognise that using mamba doesn’t really help them deal with their situations, and instead makes matters worse. Another mamba smoker, Bruce, says it has sapped his motivation and self-esteem as well as draining his money. In other circumstances, drug use can be more enriching, but not when it’s wrapped up in an otherwise unfulfilling, restricted lifestyle.

Liam decides to get support to come off mamba, and visits ‘SUIT’, one of Wolverhampton’s substance misuse services. He meets with Sunny, who has recovered from addiction and now helps others do the same. He and Liam talk about how staying off drugs means making changes to different aspects of his life, such as how he spends his time and who he associates with. An update at the end of the show tells how he’s avoided using mamba and is on a work placement. Getting Off Mamba is less exploitative of its subjects than many of the similar documentaries which followed in the wake of Benefits Street. But it still approaches them in a distant, slightly patronising way, which veteran drama producer Tony Garnett has likened to anthropologists studying ‘natives’.

New psychoactive substances (NPSs) aren’t really all that new, but have become more widespread over the last decade, encroaching on the popularity of heroin, cannabis and cocaine. Some people have switched to NPSs from using traditional drugs because of their increased availability, and the decline in purity of traditional drugs is probably another factor. Producers dilute drugs with cheaper (and often harmful) substances in order to bulk out the deal and make more money. For them, this becomes a false economy when users turn to something else they hope will be more effective, such as mamba. The drugs market will change again with the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which makes it illegal to produce or supply NPSs. This won’t magically make demand for them disappear, so their manufacture and use will be driven underground, like other drugs. Nor will the change in law remove the pressures of poverty and homelessness which lead some people into problematic drug use. For Liam and the others in Getting Off Mamba, drugs have been a coping mechanism which hasn’t solved their underlying difficulties. Similarly, reforms like the Psychoactive Substances Act are just coping mechanisms which also don’t address the deeper causes of the drugs problem.

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