Last Thursday at 9pm, a programme being shown on BBC3 called “Can I get High Legally?” caught my interest. Not having a TV ourselves, we patiently waited for it to become available on iPlayer whilst the orders poured in – a massive amount, far more than usual. Something in the programme had obviously made legal highs seem pretty appealing. Or had it?
George Lamb was presenting, which made me wary from the outset. What can this uber-trendy, slightly poncy metrosexual reminiscent of other Camden boys like Noel Fielding and Russell Brand have to say about the science and safety of legal highs? Well, as it turns out, nothing. The description of the programme on the BBC website claims that “George Lamb dives into the world of legal highs, meeting users and sellers, finding out why they are legal and if this means they can also be called safe”. In actual fact, the programme consisted mainly of Lamby boy wandering round Camden (where else?) looking shocked. You can buy legal highs in shops? There’s proper websites selling them? It all actually looks professional? That’s because they’re legal, idiot. We’ve already established that. Unless he feels that the purpose of the programme was to answer the question in the title, which seems pretty pointless – “Can I get high legally?” – well yes, of course you can.
This brings me on to my first major issue with the programme (and believe me, there were many, but I’ll only rant about a select few here); where were the mentions of alcohol and tobacco? They literally did not get mentioned once, which I think is pretty appalling. Holy shit George, did you know you can just wander in off the street and buy a pint? And there’s proper shops selling it? Regardless of one’s opinion about the “differences” between drugs and alcohol, it is a mind altering substance that you can buy legally and with minimal restrictions, just like the legal highs George Lamb is horrified to see available, displayed in attractive ways and with nice pictures on the packets to entice customers. What about the Martini advert with George Clooney and all the sexy women? Why is that different? What about all the casual references equating getting drunk with having a good time in popular media? Why is all of that OK, in fact so OK that it doesn’t even get a mention? People just do not see that intoxication is intoxication, and if one kind is acceptable then we need to think about why. George Lamb voices his concerns throughout the programme that legal highs are so dangerous precisely because they’re legal – because that means everyone thinks they’re safe and isn’t careful enough. I think that is a valid point, but where it applies most strongly is with alcohol and tobacco, substances that most people don’t even consider to be “drugs”. How many deaths are there per year from legal highs, George, compared to alcohol and tobacco?
These are the kinds of questions he should have been answering, which brings me onto my second point. It’s hard to pin down, but there was just a general lack of substance. Where were the statistics, the graphs, the interviews lasting more than 20 seconds, the facts? This programme, these questions, had such potential, but it just wasn’t in depth enough. He doesn’t ask the right questions, he misunderstands or misrepresents (or both) the points made by the experts and he whizzes through the whole thing not really covering anything. They set up a night out, for example, where a group of three students were to take some legal highs and record their experiences throughout the night. What we in fact got was three sweaty faced goons grinning into the camera, edited with some generic “rave” footage. What did they take? Pretty basic question. How much did they take? Were they drinking alcohol? How long after ingestion was the footage filmed? Why didn’t the BBC choose to show more than 3 or 4 seconds of footage at a time so that we could actually get a look at them – were they sweating, slurring, delirious? We didn’t get the answer to any of these questions and considering that this was presented as a case study of people taking legal highs, I think it’s pretty shocking journalism. But perhaps I’m being unfair – we did learn during a meeting with Lamby in a greasy spoon the next day that they felt a bit rough. Well big woop.
Another massive misrepresentation was the case study involving Guernsey. Guernsey, for those of you who don’t know, is mega strict on illegal drugs. This legislation has obviously been highly successful as they now have a massive problem with legal highs, as the teenagers and young adults (because it is mostly them) can’t get hold of the real stuff. George Lamb didn’t quite seem to be able to make his mind up here – whilst he explains how unusual the situation is there and seems pretty sure that it’s because of the super tough drug laws, he then questions teenagers on the street and expects us to be shocked that they’ve all tried legal highs. Of course they’ve all tried legal highs, they all take them there, that’s the whole point and why you went Guernsey! It’s not representational of the population at large so I really didn’t get the point of this section at all. His condescending attitude towards users of legal highs also really pissed me off. He got down with the kids and joined them in their car whilst they smoked some kind of legal smoking mix (probably Spice) from their hand-crafted Coke bottle bong (we’ve all been there) and questioned them about the safety of what they were doing. When they replied that they were aware that it was risky, he was incredulous – fancy knowing that something you’re doing is risky and doing it anyway, how stupid, right? Right? Well, no. Unless Lamby boy’s never crossed the road, got in a car, lit up a fag or basically done anything ever, he’s being a total hypocrite. As it turns out, he actually admits to having taken cocaine and ecstasy during the program, making his hypocrisy even more apparent. Being aware of the risks of something and doing it anyway doesn’t make you an idiot, it means you’ve considered the risks and decided they’re minimal, or at least minimal compared to the benefits. Yes, an aeroplane might crash, but you want to go on holiday, and it’ll probably be fine. People make these kind of decisions every day.
Another aspect of the programme boasted about in the description is that Lamb talks to “sellers”. Well, he actually talks to one, and he was a complete arsehole about it. He wanders into shops and rings people up wanting to talk to them on camera right now, and then treats it as some kind of admission of wrong-doing when they say no. Finally, Chris from Potseeds.co.uk, a friend of ours, agrees to talk to him and George is off to Potseeds HQ in Totnes. The way it is edited makes Chris look like a lone man who sells drugs out of a shed, rather than the manager of a busy, successful and completely above board business, and Lamb’s tone is mocking throughout. He picks up packets off the shelves, laughing at their funny names, in a scene akin to a crap drugs education lesson at school where you’re warned off drugs as “only dopes smoke dope”. The worst bit though is when Lamb chooses to assess what Chris has said in the voiceover, recorded after he’s left Totnes, rather than addressing his criticisms to him when he has a chance to reply. Chris hesitated, we are told, which obviously makes him a bastard and a liar and a downright horrible human being (or words to that effect). Or, it just makes him a normal man who isn’t trained for TV, who knows every single syllable he utters will be analysed to death and used against himself and the entire legal highs industry.
The final bit of the programme that really got my goat actually had the potential to be very interesting. Lamb goes to speak to an actual scientist (just one though – toxicologist Dr. John Ramsey from St George’s College at the University of London) about legal highs and he is told that MDMA is probably safer than many legal highs as it’s been around for such a long time we know how to deal with it. Well, I totally agree – pure, pharmaceutical-grade MDMA is almost definitely safer than legal highs. In fact, it’s one of the safest drugs around, so saying that it’s safer than legal highs is kind of a non point – it’s also safer than alcohol. But, more importantly, pure, pharmaceutical-grade MDMA is not what we should be talking about here – it’s not what is available in clubs or pubs or whatever to the average customer. Ecstasy, MDMA’s dirty little sister, is what must be considered when you compare illegal drugs to legal drugs, as that is the alternative. Even street bought MDMA is nowhere near 100% MDMA. This leads me on to the final, and in my opinion, worst moment of this documentary, where George Lamb fucks up yet another incredible chance to actually learn something from someone who knows what they’re talking about. He’s talking to Matt Bowden (who we also spoke to later for comment), the guy who made BZP big in New Zealand, as a reaction to the massive crystal meth problem they have there. Matt categorically says that BZP is not “safe”, it’s “safer”, but if people are going to do it, “safer” is better than nothing – my sentiment exactly. At this point Lamb demonstrates a display of ignorance of Brass Eye proportions when he says that he’s been told that “taking an ecstasy” is safer than taking legal highs. By this point I was practically screaming at the screen, and I bet I don’t need to tell you why as I’m sure you all have a much higher IQ than Lamby evidently does – the scientist said MDMA, for christ’s sake, not ecstasy, and that’s a pretty fucking important difference. After this, Lamb takes salvia and makes a total tit of himself but I was sick of his bullshit by then (although I did notice that he didn’t even explain what salvia was… considering that he’d been talking about synthetic legal highs all the way through it might be important to mention that salvia is a plant, and is in no way a legal high).
I had many more complaints about this programme, from the trivial (like Lamby’s stupid highlights/streaks/whatever the hell they are) to the not-so-trivial (what about all the legal highs out there that aren’t synthetic? They didn’t get a mention at all, other than salvia which he didn’t differentiate from everything else he’d been talking about), but those are the main ones. I wouldn’t mind if the programme had concluded that legal highs were all bad, as long as it was based on some interesting, reliable evidence. As it was, there wasn’t really a conclusion at all, and I felt like I hadn’t learned anything. There were some interesting ideas (following users on a night out, for example) and some very interesting contributors. It’s a great topic and, as legal highs become more prevalent, something that needs to be discussed, but uninformed dirge like this contributes nothing other than yet more misunderstandings. Given the BBC’s track record, with programmes like Horizon definitively stating that popular legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous than MDMA and cannabis (watch that episode here), I had high hopes that this programme would give a well researched, balanced insight into the legal highs industry. Instead, we got a overgrown gawky teenager marvelling at “druggies” and consistently boasting about his own supposed experience with illegal drugs (which did nothing but make him look like a hypocrite), topped off with an image of salvia use no more insightful than “woah, man”. Disappointing work, BBC (But thanks for the extra sales ;-))
Hopefully I can find a video of this somewhere to post up here, but no luck yet.
UPDATE: Here it is! Unfortunately, the site it’s hosted on will probably try and sell you a girlfriend or something before you can actually watch the video. Click the red play button and close the pop up window if one appears. Then, the play button turns green. Click it again and you can watch the entire thing: