What catches a politician’s attention even more than drugs? Why, the chance to appear in public pontificating about drugs, that’s what. And that’s how a Member of Parliament got scammed into publicly condemning an imaginary drug.
You can’t make this stuff up. Or—well, yes, somebody did, but I couldn’t. The best I can do is look on in amazement. The human imagination is endless. Not to mention bizarre.
Back in 1997, David Amess, a Conservative MP representing Basildon, filmed a video condemning a drug called Cake. Which does not now and never has existed. That left him so impressed with his own expertise that he got up in Parliament to ask what the government planned to do about the stuff.
Cake was invented—if an imaginary substance can be invented—by a TV show, Brass Eye, which among other things satirized moral panics. You made your point there, folks. It doesn’t take much to start one. The drug was also supposed to give users a bloated neck because they retained water and to distort the user’s perception of time by affecting a part of the brain called Shatner’s bassoon. Now, at that point some of us might feel a slight tug on one leg and think, Someone’s pulling that. We might do a bit of research or plug Shatner’s bassoon into Google or, y’know, ask a relative or neighbor who has some first- (or at least third-) hand knowledge of drugs if they’d ever heard of the stuff. But not the intrepid (I think that should technically be the Hono[u]rable) Mr. Amess. He just got up and condemned it as “a big yellow death bullet” and he mentioned that unhappy users were called custard gannets.
Excuse me for a minute. I’m laughing too hard to type. Custard gannets? Can’t you imagine the scene in the Brass Eye writers’ room where someone says, “Let’s call them custard gannets,” and the only sensible (or at least momentarily sober) person in the room says, “Oh, come on, you can’t call them that. Nobody’ll believe it.” But then the sensible person goes out for a cup of tea or—who knows—a shot of much-needed vodka and they quick put it to a vote and custard gannet it is. And poor Mr. Amess not only believes it, he talks about them on video and in the House of Commons.
Of such stuff are great political careers made.
His great moment came in October 2015 (which is why this admittedly old story re-surfaced), when he has appointed to co-chair a committee to shape the government’s new drug policy—the Bill Committee on Psychoactive Drugs. The bill they were considering has since passed and is expected to be signed by the Queen—also, I’m sure, an expert on drugs—in April. It makes formerly legal highs illegal and has been much criticized for being too broad. The substances that will become illegal include including laughing gas and poppers, and one brave soul got up in the House of Lords to say he uses poppers, which have a reputation for giving the user a sexual rush. A fair number of gay men do use them. I’m not sure how many, but enough that even I know about them, and being female and all I don’t hang out where I assume they’re used. For all I know even—gasp, wheeze—straight people use them. I also have no idea what, if anything, they do for women. Remember, I’m 603 years old and can’t be expected to do first-hand research on the subject. If you want to find out, you’ll have to do your own. What I can say is that sexual chemistry works differently in women than in men, as the makers of Viagra could explain. They’d have a second profitable drug if only it were that simple. So I’m guessing they don’t do much for women, but if I’m wrong do let me know.
Where were we?
The bill is so broad that according to the Independent it may accidentally ban marker pens, some glues, pheromone products, and lots of other fun stuff. It has to specifically exclude a few safe psychoactive substances like alcohol, and tobacco. And caffeine. Mind you, I won’t quibble about excluding caffeine. It’s not good for you but I know for a fact that it’s good for me, especially first thing in the morning, and it needs to stay legal. I don’t like breaking laws before noon. But proving that alcohol or tobacco do less damage than poppers or laughing gas—or cake—is going to take some fancy footwork.
So there you have it. Another great moment in politics. My thanks to P., who sent me the links. Without his high-minded civic action I’d have lived out the rest of my days not knowing how easy it is to start a moral panic. And how much fun.