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Matthias Rath's Bad Science Finally Catches Up With Him

Bad ScienceYes­terday, Ben Gol­dacre of Bad​Science​.net pub­lished the “missing chapter” from his awe-​​inspiring book, Bad Science. This book teaches us to use the most fool­proof bull­shit detector out there (yes, ourselves!) to sift though the moun­tains of pseudos­cientific horse shit in search for the corny nuggets of truth. Ear candles? Homoe­opathy?  Fish oil? Gillian McBitchKeith?  Dangers of the MMR vaccine? All horse shit. Ser­i­ously, this is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and if you don’t already own it, you can buy a copy and get it delivered for little over a fiver!

This new chapter takes on Mat­thias Rath, a vitamin pill salesman, and reveals him to be one of the biggest bas­tards out there. You think Big Pharma is the ulti­mate evil power in the uni­verse? Maybe you should look at the evils of altern­ative therapy:

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The Doctor Will Sue You Now

This chapter did not appear in the ori­ginal edition of this book, because for fifteen months leading up to September 2008 the vitamin-​​pill entre­preneur Mat­thias Rath was suing me per­son­ally, and the Guardian, for libel. This strategy brought only mixed success. For all that nutri­tion­ists may fan­tasise in public that any critic is somehow a pawn of big pharma, in private they would do well to remember that, like many my age who work in the public sector, I don’t own a flat. The Guardian gen­er­ously paid for the lawyers, and in September 2008 Rath dropped his case, which had cost in excess of £500,000 to defend. Rath has paid £220,000 already, and the rest will hope­fully follow.  Nobody will ever repay me for the endless meet­ings, the time off work, or the days spent poring over tables filled with end­lessly cross-​​referenced court documents.

On this last point there is, however, one small con­sol­a­tion, and I will spell it out as a cau­tionary tale: I now know more about Mat­thias Rath than almost any other person alive. My notes, ref­er­ences and witness state­ments, boxed up in the room where I am sitting right now, make a pile as tall as the man himself, and what I will write here is only a tiny frac­tion of the fuller story that is waiting to be told about him. This chapter, I should also mention, is avail­able free online for anyone who wishes to see it.

Mat­thias Rath takes us rudely outside the con­tained, almost aca­demic dis­tance of this book. For the most part we’ve been inter­ested in the intel­lec­tual and cul­tural con­sequences of bad science, the made-​​up facts in national news­pa­pers, dubious aca­demic prac­tices in uni­ver­sities, some foolish pill-​​peddling, and so on. But what happens if we take these sleights of hand, these pill-​​marketing tech­niques, and trans­plant them out of our dec­adent Western context into a situ­ation where things really matter?

In an ideal world this would be only a thought exper­i­ment. AIDS is the opposite of anec­dote. Twenty-​​five million people have died from it already, three million in the last year alone, and 500,000 of those deaths were chil­dren. In South Africa it kills 300,000 people every year: that’s eight hundred people every day, or one every two minutes. This one country has 6.3 million people who are HIV pos­itive, including 30 per cent of all preg­nant women. There are 1.2 million AIDS orphans under the age of sev­en­teen. Most chillingly of all, this dis­aster has appeared sud­denly, and while we were watching: in 1990, just 1 per cent of adults in South Africa were HIV pos­itive. Ten years later, the figure had risen to 25 per cent.

It’s hard to mount an emo­tional response to raw numbers, but on one thing I think we would agree. If you were to walk into a situ­ation with that much death, misery and disease, you would be very careful to make sure that you knew what you were talking about. For the reasons you are about to read, I suspect that Mat­thias Rath missed the mark.

This man, we should be clear, is our respons­ib­ility. Born and raised in Germany, Rath was the head of Car­di­ovas­cular Research at the Linus Pauling Insti­tute in Palo Alto in Cali­fornia, and even then he had a tend­ency towards grand ges­tures, pub­lishing a paper in the Journal of Ortho­molecular Medi­cine in 1992 titled “A Unified Theory of Human Car­di­ovas­cular Disease Leading the Way to the Abol­i­tion of this Disease as a Cause for Human Mor­tality”. The unified theory was high-​​dose vitamins.

He first developed a power base from sales in Europe, selling his pills with tactics that will be very familiar to you from the rest of this book, albeit slightly more aggressive. In the UK, his adverts claimed that “90 per cent of patients receiving chemo­therapy for cancer die within months of starting treat­ment”, and sug­gested that three million lives could be saved if cancer patients stopped being treated by con­ven­tional medi­cine.  The phar­ma­ceut­ical industry was delib­er­ately letting people die for fin­an­cial gain, he explained. Cancer treat­ments were “pois­onous com­pounds” with “not even one effective treatment”.

The decision to embark on treat­ment for cancer can be the most dif­fi­cult that an indi­vidual or a family will ever take, rep­res­enting a close balance between well-​​documented bene­fits and equally well-​​documented side-​​effects. Adverts like these might play espe­cially strongly on your con­science if your mother has just lost all her hair to chemo­therapy, for example, in the hope of staying alive just long enough to see your son speak.

There was some limited reg­u­latory response in Europe, but it was gen­er­ally as weak as that faced by the other char­ac­ters in this book. The Advert­ising Stand­ards Authority cri­ti­cised one of his adverts in the UK, but that is essen­tially all they are able to do. Rath was ordered by a Berlin court to stop claiming that his vit­amins could cure cancer, or face a €250,000 fine.

But sales were strong, and Mat­thias Rath still has many sup­porters in Europe, as you will shortly see. He walked into South Africa with all the acclaim, self-​​confidence and wealth he had amassed as a suc­cessful vitamin-​​pill entre­preneur in Europe and America, and began to take out full-​​page adverts in newspapers.

“The answer to the AIDS epi­demic is here,” he pro­claimed. Anti-​​retroviral drugs were pois­onous, and a con­spiracy to kill patients and make money. “Stop AIDS Gen­o­cide by the Drugs Cartel” said one head­line. “Why should South Africans con­tinue to be poisoned with AZT? There is a natural answer to AIDS.”  The answer came in the form of vitamin pills. “Mul­tiv­it­amin treat­ment is more effective than any toxic AIDS drug. Mul­tiv­it­amins cut the risk of devel­oping AIDS in half.”

Rath’s company ran clinics reflecting these ideas, and in 2005 he decided to run a trial of his vit­amins in a town­ship near Cape Town called Khayel­itsha, giving his own for­mu­la­tion, Vita­Cell, to people with advanced AIDS. In 2008 this trial was declared illegal by the Cape High Court of South Africa. Although Rath says that none of his par­ti­cipants had been on anti-​​retroviral drugs, some rel­at­ives have given state­ments saying that they were, and were act­ively told to stop using them.

Tra­gic­ally, Mat­thias Rath had taken these ideas to exactly the right place. Thabo Mbeki, the Pres­ident of South Africa at the time, was well known as an “AIDS dis­sident”, and to inter­na­tional horror, while people died at the rate of one every two minutes in his country, he gave cre­dence and support to the claims of a small band of cam­paigners who vari­ously claim that AIDS does not exist, that it is not caused by HIV, that anti-​​retroviral med­ic­a­tion does more harm than good, and so on.

At various times during the peak of the AIDS epi­demic in South Africa their gov­ern­ment argued that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, and that anti-​​retroviral drugs are not useful for patients. They refused to roll out proper treat­ment pro­grammes, they refused to accept free dona­tions of drugs, and they refused to accept grant money from the Global Fund to buy drugs. One study estim­ates that if the South African national gov­ern­ment had used anti-​​retroviral drugs for pre­ven­tion and treat­ment at the same rate as the Western Cape province (which defied national policy on the issue), around 171,000 new HIV infec­tions and 343,000 deaths could have been pre­vented between 1999 and 2007. Another study estim­ates that between 2000 and 2005 there were 330,000 unne­ces­sary deaths, 2.2 million person years lost, and 35,000 babies unne­ces­sarily born with HIV because of the failure to imple­ment a cheap and simple mother-​​to-​​child-​​transmission pre­ven­tion program. Between one and three doses of an ARV drug can reduce trans­mis­sion dra­mat­ic­ally. The cost is neg­li­gible. It was not available.

Inter­est­ingly, Mat­thias Rath’s col­league and employee, a South African bar­rister named Anthony Brink, takes the credit for intro­du­cing Thabo Mbeki to many of these ideas. Brink stumbled on the “AIDS dis­sident” material in the mid-​​1990s, and after much surfing and reading, became con­vinced that it must be right. In 1999 he wrote an article about AZT in a Johan­nes­burg news­paper titled “a medi­cine from hell”. This led to a public exchange with a leading vir­o­lo­gist. Brink con­tacted Mbeki, sending him copies of the debate, and was wel­comed as an expert.

This is a chilling test­a­ment to the danger of elev­ating cranks by enga­ging with them. In his initial letter of motiv­a­tion for employ­ment to Mat­thias Rath, Brink described himself as “South Africa’s leading AIDS dis­sident, best known for my whistle-​​blowing exposé of the tox­icity and inef­ficacy of AIDS drugs, and for my polit­ical act­ivism in this regard, which caused Pres­ident Mbeki and Health Min­ister Dr Tshabalala-​​Msimang to repu­diate the drugs in 1999?.

In 2000, the now infamous Inter­na­tional AIDS Con­fer­ence took place in Durban. Mbeki’s pres­id­en­tial advisory panel before­hand was packed with “AIDS dis­sid­ents”, including Peter Dues­berg and David Rasnick. On the first day, Rasnick sug­gested that all HIV testing should be banned on prin­ciple, and that South Africa should stop screening sup­plies of blood for HIV. “If I had the power to outlaw the HIV anti­body test,” he said, “I would do it across the board.” When African phys­i­cians gave testi­mony about the drastic change AIDS had caused in their clinics and hos­pitals, Rasnick said he had not seen “any evid­ence” of an AIDS cata­strophe. The media were not allowed in, but one reporter from the Village Voice was present. Peter Dues­berg, he said, “gave a present­a­tion so removed from African medical reality that it left several local doctors shaking their heads”. It wasn’t AIDS that was killing babies and chil­dren, said the dis­sid­ents: it was the anti-​​retroviral medication.

Pres­ident Mbeki sent a letter to world leaders com­paring the struggle of the “AIDS dis­sid­ents” to the struggle against apartheid.  The Wash­ington Post described the reac­tion at the White House: “So stunned were some offi­cials by the letter’s tone and timing during final pre­par­a­tions for July’s con­fer­ence in Durban that at least two of them, according to dip­lo­matic sources, felt obliged to check whether it was genuine.  Hun­dreds of del­eg­ates walked out of Mbeki’s address to the con­fer­ence in disgust, but many more described them­selves as dazed and con­fused. Over 5,000 researchers and act­iv­ists around the world signed up to the Durban Declar­a­tion, a doc­u­ment that spe­cific­ally addressed and repu­di­ated the claims and con­cerns – at least the more mod­erate ones – of the “AIDS dis­sid­ents”. Spe­cific­ally, it addressed the charge that people were simply dying of poverty:

The evid­ence that AIDS is caused by HIV-​​1 or HIV-​​2 is clearcut, exhaustive and unam­biguous… As with any other chronic infec­tion, various co-​​factors play a role in determ­ining the risk of disease. Persons who are mal­nour­ished, who already suffer other infec­tions or who are older, tend to be more sus­cept­ible to the rapid devel­op­ment of AIDS fol­lowing HIV infec­tion.  However, none of these factors weaken the sci­entific evid­ence that HIV is the sole cause of AIDS… Mother-​​to-​​child trans­mis­sion can be reduced by half or more by short courses of anti­viral drugs. What works best in one country may not be appro­priate in another. But to tackle the disease, everyone must first under­stand that HIV is the enemy. Research, not myths, will lead to the devel­op­ment of more effective and cheaper treatments.

It did them no good. Until 2003 the South African gov­ern­ment refused, as a matter of prin­ciple, to roll out proper anti­ret­ro­viral med­ic­a­tion pro­grammes, and even then the process was half-​​hearted. This madness was only over­turned after a massive cam­paign by grass­roots organ­isa­tions such as the Treat­ment Action Cam­paign, but even after the ANC cabinet voted to allow med­ic­a­tion to be given, there was still res­ist­ance. In mid-​​2005, at least 85 per cent of HIV-​​positive people who needed anti-​​retroviral drugs were still refused them. That’s around a million people.

This res­ist­ance, of course, went deeper than just one man; much of it came from Mbeki’s Health Min­ister, Manto Tshabalala-​​Msimang. An ardent critic of medical drugs for HIV, she would cheer­fully go on tele­vi­sion to talk up their dangers, talk down their bene­fits, and became irrit­able and evasive when asked how many patients were receiving effective treat­ment. She declared in 2005 that she would not be “pres­sured” into meeting the target of three million patients on anti-​​retroviral med­ic­a­tion, that people had ignored the import­ance of nutri­tion, and that she would con­tinue to warn patients of the sideef­fects of anti-​​retrovirals, saying: “We have been vin­dic­ated in this regard. We are what we eat.”

It’s an eerily familiar catch­phrase. Tshabalala-​​Msimang has also gone on record to praise the work of Mat­thias Rath, and refused to invest­igate his activ­ities. Most joy­fully of all, she is a staunch advocate of the kind of weekend glossy-​​magazine-​​style nutri­tionism that will by now be very familiar to you. The rem­edies she advoc­ates for AIDS are beet­root, garlic, lemons and African pota­toes. A fairly typical quote, from the Health Min­ister in a country where eight hundred people die every day from AIDS, is this: “Raw garlic and a skin of the lemon – not only do they give you a beau­tiful face and skin but they also protect you from disease.”  South Africa’s stand at the 2006 World AIDS Con­fer­ence in Toronto was described by del­eg­ates as the “salad stall”. It con­sisted of some garlic, some beet­root, the African potato, and assorted other veget­ables. Some boxes of anti-​​retroviral drugs were added later, but they were reportedly bor­rowed at the last minute from other con­fer­ence delegates.

Altern­ative ther­ap­ists like to suggest that their treat­ments and ideas have not been suf­fi­ciently researched. As you now know, this is often untrue, and in the case of the Health Minister’s favoured veget­ables, research had indeed been done, with results that were far from prom­ising. Inter­viewed on SABC about this, Tshabalala-​​Msimang gave the kind of responses you’d expect to hear at any North London dinner-​​party dis­cus­sion of altern­ative therapies.

First she was asked about work from the Uni­ver­sity of Stel­len­bosch which sug­gested that her chosen plant, the African potato, might be act­ively dan­gerous for people on AIDS drugs. One study on African potato in HIV had to be ter­min­ated pre­ma­turely, because the patients who received the plant extract developed severe bone-​​marrow sup­pres­sion and a drop in their CD4 cell count – which is a bad thing – after eight weeks. On top of this, when extract from the same veget­able was given to cats with Feline Immun­ode­fi­ciency Virus, they suc­cumbed to full-​​blown Feline AIDS faster than their non-​​treated con­trols. African potato does not look like a good bet.

Tshabalala-​​Msimang dis­agreed: the researchers should go back to the drawing board, and “invest­igate prop­erly”. Why?  Because HIV-​​positive people who used African potato had shown improve­ment, and they had said so them­selves. If a person says he or she is feeling better, should this be dis­puted, she demanded to know, merely because it had not been proved sci­en­tific­ally? “When a person says she or he is feeling better, I must say ‘No, I don’t think you are feeling better? I must rather go and do science on you’?” Asked whether there should be a sci­entific basis to her views, she replied: “Whose science?”

And there, perhaps, is a clue, if not exon­er­a­tion. This is a con­tinent that has been bru­tally exploited by the developed world, first by empire, and then by glob­al­ised capital. Con­spiracy the­ories about AIDS and Western medi­cine are not entirely absurd in this context. The phar­ma­ceut­ical industry has indeed been caught per­forming drug trials in Africa which would be impossible any­where in the developed world. Many find it sus­pi­cious that black Africans seem to be the biggest victims of AIDS, and point to the bio­lo­gical warfare pro­grammes set up by the apartheid gov­ern­ments; there have also been sus­pi­cions that the sci­entific dis­course of HIV/​AIDS might be a device, a Trojan horse for spreading even more exploit­ative Western polit­ical and eco­nomic agendas around a problem that is simply one of poverty.

And these are new coun­tries, for which inde­pend­ence and self-​​rule are recent devel­op­ments, which are strug­gling to find their com­mer­cial feet and true cul­tural iden­tity after cen­turies of col­on­isa­tion. Tra­di­tional medi­cine rep­res­ents an important link with an autonomous past; besides which, anti-​​retroviral med­ic­a­tions have been unne­ces­sarily – offens­ively, absurdly – expensive, and until moves to chal­lenge this became par­tially suc­cessful, many Africans were effect­ively denied access to medical treat­ment as a result.

It’s very easy for us to feel smug, and to forget that we all have our own strange cul­tural idio­syn­crasies which prevent us from taking up sens­ible public-​​health pro­grammes. For examples, we don’t even have to look as far as MMR. There is a good evid­ence base, for example, to show that needle-​​exchange pro­grammes reduce the spread of HIV, but this strategy has been rejected time and again in favour of “Just say no.” Devel­op­ment char­ities funded by US Chris­tian groups refuse to engage with birth control, and any sug­ges­tion of abor­tion, even in coun­tries where being in control of your own fer­tility could mean the dif­fer­ence between success and failure in life, is met with a cold, pious stare. These imprac­tical moral prin­ciples are so deeply entrenched that Pepfar, the US Pres­id­en­tial Emer­gency Plan for AIDS Relief, has insisted that every recip­ient of inter­na­tional aid money must sign a declar­a­tion expressly prom­ising not to have any involve­ment with sex workers.

We mustn’t appear insens­itive to the Chris­tian value system, but it seems to me that enga­ging sex workers is almost the corner­stone of any effective AIDS policy: com­mer­cial sex is fre­quently the “vector of trans­mis­sion”, and sex workers a very high-​​risk pop­u­la­tion; but there are also more subtle issues at stake. If you secure the legal rights of pros­ti­tutes to be free from viol­ence and dis­crim­in­a­tion, you empower them to demand uni­versal condom use, and that way you can prevent HIV from being spread into the whole com­munity. This is where science meets culture. But perhaps even to your own friends and neigh­bours, in whatever sub­urban idyll has become your home, the moral prin­ciple of abstin­ence from sex and drugs is more important than people dying of AIDS; and perhaps, then, they are no less irra­tional than Thabo Mbeki.

So this was the situ­ation into which the vitamin-​​pill entre­preneur Mat­thias Rath inserted himself, prom­in­ently and expens­ively, with the wealth he had amassed from Europe and America, exploiting anti-​​colonial anxi­eties with no sense of irony, although he was a white man offering pills made in a factory abroad. His adverts and clinics were a tre­mendous success. He began to tout indi­vidual patients as evid­ence of the bene­fits that could come from vitamin pills – although in reality some of his most famous success stories have died of AIDS. When asked about the deaths of Rath’s star patients, Health Min­ister Tshabalala-​​Msimang replied: “It doesn’t neces­sarily mean that if I am taking anti­bi­otics and I die, that I died of antibiotics.”

She is not alone: South Africa’s politi­cians have con­sist­ently refused to step in, Rath claims the support of the gov­ern­ment, and its most senior figures have refused to dis­tance them­selves from his oper­a­tions or to cri­ti­cise his activ­ities. Tshabalala-​​Msimang has gone on the record to state that the Rath Found­a­tion “are not under­mining the government’s pos­i­tion. If any­thing, they are sup­porting it.”

In 2005, exas­per­ated by gov­ern­ment inac­tion, a group of 199 leading medical prac­ti­tioners in South Africa signed an open letter to the health author­ities of the Western Cape, pleading for action on the Rath Found­a­tion. “Our patients are being inund­ated with pro­pa­ganda encour­aging them to stop life-​​saving medi­cine,” it said. “Many of us have had exper­i­ences with HIV infected patients who have had their health com­prom­ised by stop­ping their anti-​​retrovirals due to the activ­ities of this Found­a­tion.”  Rath’s adverts con­tinue unabated. He even claimed that his activ­ities were endorsed by huge lists of spon­sors and affil­i­ates including the World Health Organ­iz­a­tion, UNICEF and UNAIDS. All have issued state­ments flatly denoun­cing his claims and activ­ities. The man cer­tainly has chutzpah.

His adverts are also rich with detailed sci­entific claims. It would be wrong of us to neglect the science in this story, so we should follow some through, spe­cific­ally those which focused on a Harvard study in Tan­zania. He described this research in full-​​page advert­ise­ments, some of which have appeared in the New York Times and the Herald Tribune. He refers to these paid adverts, I should mention, as if he had received flat­tering news cov­erage in the same papers. Anyway, this research showed that mul­tiv­it­amin sup­ple­ments can be bene­fi­cial in a devel­oping world pop­u­la­tion with AIDS: there’s no problem with that result, and there are plenty of reasons to think that vit­amins might have some benefit for a sick and fre­quently mal­nour­ished population.

The researchers enrolled 1,078 HIV-​​positive preg­nant women and ran­domly assigned them to have either a vitamin sup­ple­ment or placebo. Notice once again, if you will, that this is another large, well-​​conducted, pub­licly funded trial of vit­amins, con­ducted by main­stream sci­ent­ists, con­trary to the claims of nutri­tion­ists that such studies do not exist. The women were fol­lowed up for several years, and at the end of the study, 25 per cent of those on vit­amins were severely ill or dead, com­pared with 31 per cent of those on placebo. There was also a stat­ist­ic­ally sig­ni­ficant benefit in CD4 cell count (a measure of HIV activity) and viral loads. These results were in no sense dra­matic – and they cannot be com­pared to the demon­strable life-​​saving bene­fits of anti-​​retrovirals – but they did show that improved diet, or cheap generic vitamin pills, could rep­resent a simple and rel­at­ively inex­pensive way to mar­gin­ally delay the need to start HIV med­ic­a­tion in some patients.

In the hands of Rath, this study became evid­ence that vitamin pills are superior to med­ic­a­tion in the treat­ment of HIV/​AIDS, that  anti-​​retroviral ther­apies “severely damage all cells in the body – including white blood cells”, and worse, that they were “thereby not improving but rather worsening immune defi­cien­cies and expanding the AIDS epi­demic”. The researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health were so hor­ri­fied that they put together a press release setting out their support for med­ic­a­tion, and stating starkly, with unam­biguous clarity, that Mat­thias Rath had mis­rep­res­ented their findings.

To out­siders the story is baff­ling and ter­ri­fying. The United Nations has con­demned Rath’s adverts as “wrong and mis­leading”. “This guy is killing people by luring them with unre­cog­nised treat­ment without any sci­entific evid­ence,” said Eric Goemaere, head of Méde­cins sans Frontières SA, a man who pion­eered anti-​​retroviral therapy in South Africa. Rath sued him.

It’s not just MSF who Rath has gone after: he has also brought time-​​consuming, expensive, stalled or failed cases against a pro­fessor of AIDS research, critics in the media and others.

But his most heinous cam­paign has been against the Treat­ment Action Cam­paign. For many years this has been the key organ­isa­tion cam­paigning for access to anti-​​retroviral med­ic­a­tion in South Africa, and it has been fighting a war on four fronts.  Firstly, TAC cam­paigns against its own gov­ern­ment, trying to compel it to roll out treat­ment pro­grammes for the pop­u­la­tion. Secondly, it fights against the phar­ma­ceut­ical industry, which claims that it needs to charge full price for its products in devel­oping coun­tries in order to pay for research and devel­op­ment of new drugs – although, as we shall see, out of its $550 billion global annual revenue, the phar­ma­ceut­ical industry spends twice as much on pro­mo­tion and admin as it does on research and devel­op­ment. Thirdly, it is a grass­roots organ­isa­tion, made up largely of black women from town­ships who do important pre­ven­tion and treatment-​​literacy work on the ground, ensuring that people know what is avail­able, and how to protect them­selves. Lastly, it fights against people who promote the type of inform­a­tion peddled by Mat­thias Rath and his ilk.

Rath has taken it upon himself to launch a massive cam­paign against this group. He dis­trib­utes advert­ising material against them, saying “Treat­ment Action Cam­paign medi­cines are killing you” and “Stop AIDS gen­o­cide by the drug cartel”, claiming – as you will guess by now – that there is an inter­na­tional con­spiracy by phar­ma­ceut­ical com­panies intent on pro­longing the AIDS crisis in the interests of their own profits by giving med­ic­a­tion that makes people worse. TAC must be a part of this, goes the reas­oning, because it cri­ti­cises Mat­thias Rath. Just like me writing on Patrick Holford or Gillian McKeith, TAC is per­fectly in favour of good diet and nutri­tion. But in Rath’s  pro­mo­tional lit­er­ature it is a front for the phar­ma­ceut­ical industry, a “Trojan horse” and a “running dog”. TAC has made a full dis­closure of its funding and activ­ities, showing no such con­nec­tion: Rath presented no evid­ence to the con­trary, and has even lost a court case over the issue, but will not let it lie. In fact he presents the loss of this court case as if it was a victory.

The founder of TAC is a man called Zackie Achmat, and he is the closest thing I have to a hero. He is South African, and col­oured, by the nomen­clature of the apartheid system in which he grew up. At the age of four­teen he tried to burn down his school, and you might have done the same in similar cir­cum­stances. He has been arrested and imprisoned under South Africa’s violent, brutal white régime, with all that entailed. He is also gay, and HIV-​​positive, and he refused to take anti-​​retroviral med­ic­a­tion until it was widely avail­able to all on the public health system, even when he was dying of AIDS, even when he was per­son­ally implored to save himself by Nelson Mandela, a public sup­porter of anti-​​retroviral med­ic­a­tion and Achmat’s work.

And now, at last, we come to the lowest point of this whole story, not merely for Mat­thias Rath’s move­ment, but for the altern­ative therapy move­ment around the world as a whole. In 2007, with a huge public flourish, to great media cov­erage, Rath’s former employee Anthony Brink filed a formal com­plaint against Zackie Achmat, the head of the TAC. Bizar­rely, he filed this com­plaint with the Inter­na­tional Crim­inal Court at The Hague, accusing Achmat of gen­o­cide for suc­cess­fully cam­paigning to get access to HIV drugs for the people of South Africa.

It’s hard to explain just how influ­en­tial the “AIDS dis­sid­ents” are in South Africa. Brink is a bar­rister, a man with important friends, and his accus­a­tions were reported in the national news media –and in some corners of the Western gay press – as a serious news story. I do not believe that any one of those journ­al­ists who reported on it can pos­sibly have read Brink’s indict­ment to the end.

I have.

The first fifty-​​seven pages present familiar anti-​​medication and “AIDS-​​dissident” material. But then, on page fifty-​​eight, this “indict­ment” doc­u­ment sud­denly deteri­or­ates into some­thing alto­gether more vicious and unhinged, as Brink sets out what he believes would be an appro­priate pun­ish­ment for Zackie. Because I do not wish to be accused of selective editing, I will now repro­duce for you that entire section, uned­ited, so you can see and feel it for yourself.



The doc­u­ment was described by the Rath Found­a­tion as “entirely valid and long overdue”.

This story isn’t about Mat­thias Rath, or Anthony Brink, or Zackie Achmat, or even South Africa. It is about the culture of how ideas work, and how that can break down. Doctors cri­ti­cise other doctors, aca­demics cri­ti­cise aca­demics, politi­cians cri­ti­cise politi­cians: that’s normal and healthy, it’s how ideas improve. Mat­thias Rath is an altern­ative ther­apist, made in Europe. He is every bit the same as the British oper­ators that we have seen in this book. He is from their world.

Despite the extremes of this case, not one single altern­ative ther­apist or nutri­tionist, any­where in the world, has stood up to cri­ti­cise any single aspect of the activ­ities of Mat­thias Rath and his col­leagues. In fact, far from it: he con­tinues to be fêted to this day. I have sat in true aston­ish­ment and watched leading figures of the UK’s altern­ative therapy move­ment applaud  Mat­thias Rath at a public lecture (I have it on video, just in case there’s any doubt). Natural health organ­isa­tions con­tinue to defend Rath. Homeo­paths’ mail­outs con­tinue to promote his work. The British Asso­ci­ation of Nutri­tional Ther­ap­ists has been invited to comment by blog­gers, but declined. Most, when chal­lenged, will dissemble.”Oh,” they say, “I don’t really know much about it.”  Not one person will step forward and dissent.

The altern­ative therapy move­ment as a whole has demon­strated itself to be so dan­ger­ously, sys­tem­ic­ally incap­able of crit­ical self-​​appraisal that it cannot step up even in a case like that of Rath: in that count I include tens of thou­sands of prac­ti­tioners, writers, admin­is­trators and more. This is how ideas go badly wrong. In the con­clu­sion to this book, written before I was able to include this chapter, I will argue that the biggest dangers posed by the material we have covered are cul­tural and intellectual.

I may be mistaken.

***

If you liked that, buy the book! I swear you won’t be able to put it down. You can find more for free at Bad​Science​.net, including Ben’s column in The Guardian of the same name.

Posted in Essays | Tagged bad science, ben goldacre, books, mathias rath |

Hypnotic Legal Pills

Hypnotic Pills

Luckily for you guys, I’ve happened across a few sample packs of these new legal pills. They’re called Hyp­notic and are made by LightYears, the same people that brought you Diablo, Hummer, MeO, Activate, Elevate, etc. Here’s what they say on the back:

Ingredi­ents: Guarana, Geranium extract, Poppy seed, Calcium, Mag­nesium and tab­leting aids.
Dosage: Take 2 tablets with water or fruit juice. If under 60kg take only 1 tablet.
Warning: Do not take more than 2 tablets within 24 hours. Effects may last for up to 12 hours. Do not take if preg­nant, lactating, suffer from mental illness or high blood pres­sure. Don’t mix with other drugs or medi­cines, keep hydrated and party responsibly.

And here’s what they say on the inside:

Where relax­a­tion and exhil­ar­a­tion meet.
Sit back and let your­self be taken away by the warm buzz that is Hyp­notic. Whether you’re plan­ning down time or party time it’ll give you that extra spark that’ll truly enhance your mood. Exper­i­ence relax­a­tion you can melt into, mixed with excite­ment that’ll lift you.
Hyp­notic will take you to a place you won’t want to leave.

So why is it lucky for you guys? Well, I thought I’d spread the wealth a bit and give some away.

How can you win some?

Hypnotic PillsAre you:

  • From the UK planet Earth?
  • Not preg­nant, lactating, suf­fering from mental illness or high blood pressure?
  • Com­puter lit­erate enough to use email?

Then you just might be in with a chance of winning! All you need to do is sub­scribe to this blog via email. Couldn’t be simpler! For three weeks, I’ll give away one pack a week to someone ran­domly selected from my list of email sub­scribers.  So, sub­scribe sooner rather than later and be in with a bigger chance of winning. Winners each week will be announced at some point over each weekend, starting with the first winner on Sat 19th April.

It would also be super nice if those winners would report back here and write a little review.

Just for you, Sharon:

Here’s a few nice plant pic­tures taken from Inverewe Gardens on our recent holiday:)
Click on each for a high res version.

Posted in Drugs | Tagged activate, competition, diablo, elevate, holiday, hummer, hypnotic, legal highs, legal pills, lightyears, meo |

We're Never Going On Holiday Again

Mellon Udrigle Beach

Mellon Udrigle Beach

Last week me and my now ex-​​girlfriend (read on…) went on holiday to the west coast of Scot­land. With the last few weeks of uni­ver­sity looming over us like some kind of big, looming, stressful meta­phor, what better way to unwind than abandoning all work and revi­sion for a bit and going on holiday?

Slatterdale

Slat­tadale

We started the week wan­dering round the grounds of Blair Castle and then headed up to Land­mark Forest Adven­ture Park, where we learned that ducks will jump for chips, among other things. There’s no way I can list everything we did there and not sound com­pletely lame, so have a look at their website instead. Day two we spent chillin’ out, maxin’, relaxin’ all cool on Mellon Udrigle beach, one of the best beaches ever, where me and my girl­friend got engaged! :o

As if that wasn’t enough excite­ment for one week, day three was spent checking out a river that appears from nowhere, another awesome beach in Durness, Smoo cave, the best fish et chips in the country according to Rick Stein and Cor­rie­shal­loch gorge, a gaping hole in the ground, spanned by the flim­siest of bridges.

Durness Beach

Durness Beach

Day four was a slow day — everyone was knackered. A quick run round the shops in the morning fol­lowed by another trip to Mellon Udrigle was about all we could handle.  The last day was a little more action packed. We went to Gair­loch, Red Point, yet another beach, Slat­tadale, a nice little wood­land walk,  and finally Inverewe Gardens, home to some pretty amazing plants, con­sid­ering it’s in Scot­land (appar­ently, it has some­thing to do with the weird cur­rents around there…) For those of you still thinking “Who the hell would want to go to Scot­land? All it does is piss down”, let me just mention one more thing… On our last day, where we were was as hot as Bermuda, hotter than all of the UK and the majority of Europe. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!

A big thanks to everyone who obvi­ously thought we did deserve a holiday and placed an order anyway! If it makes you feel any better about the delay, me and the soon-​​to-​​be misses were up all Sunday night pack­aging stuff — at one point we could barely move for envel­opes. Suffice to say, the Post Office shat their pants!

So, it’s back to the grind­stone for another few weeks then hope­fully we can get some inter­esting stuff hap­pening with Coffeesh0p and this blog.

The view from Inverewe Gardens

The view from Inverewe Gardens

Thanks again!

Woop! :D

Posted in Personal | Tagged coffeesh0p, engaged, holiday, scotland |

Sam Harris, Religion & Drugs

What with my recent com­puter troubles (I’ve had to format at least once more since writing that post, by the way), I’ve not been able to post any­thing with much sub­stance in the past few weeks. To make that up to you, this post will a long one, albeit not my own words, so put the kettle on and dig out your reading glasses.

The End Of FaithThe fol­lowing passage is taken from Sam Harris’s book, The End Of Faith, and talks about religion’s role in keeping drugs illegal:

***

The War on Sin

In the United States, and in much of the rest of the world, it is cur­rently illegal to seek certain exper­i­ences of pleasure. Seek pleasure by a for­bidden means, even in the privacy of your own home, and men with guns may kick in the door and carry you away to prison for it. One of the most sur­prising things about this situ­ation is how unsur­prising most of us find it. As in most dreams, the very faculty of reason that would oth­er­wise notice the strange­ness of these events seems to have suc­cumbed to sleep.

Beha­viors like drug use, pros­ti­tu­tion, sodomy, and the viewing of obscene mater­ials have been cat­egor­ized as “vic­tim­less crimes.” Of course, society is the tan­gible victim of almost everything human beings do — from making noise to man­u­fac­turing chem­ical waste— but we have not made it a crime to do such things within certain limits. Setting these limits is invari­ably a matter of assessing risk. One could argue that it is, at the very least, con­ceiv­able that certain activ­ities engaged in private, like the viewing of sexu­ally violent por­no­graphy, might incline some people to commit genuine crimes against others. There is a tension, there­fore, between private freedom and public risk. If there were a drug, or a book, or a film, or a sexual pos­i­tion that led 90 percent of its users to rush into the street and begin killing people at random, con­cerns over private pleasure would surely yield to those of public safety. We can also stip­u­late that no one is eager to see gen­er­a­tions of chil­dren raised on a steady diet of methamphet­amine and Marquis de Sade. Society as a whole has an interest in how its chil­dren develop, and the private beha­vior of parents, along with the con­tents of our media, clearly play a role in this. But we must ask ourselves, why would anyone want to punish people for enga­ging in beha­vior that brings no sig­ni­ficant risk of harm to anyone? Indeed, what is start­ling about the notion of a vic­tim­less crime is that even when the beha­vior in ques­tion is genu­inely vic­tim­less, its crimin­ality is still affirmed by those who are eager to punish it. It is in such cases that the true genius lurking behind many of our laws stands revealed. The idea of a vic­tim­less crime is nothing more than a judi­cial reprise of the Chris­tian notion of sin.

It is no acci­dent that people of faith often want to curtail the private freedoms of others. This impulse has less to do with the history of reli­gion and more to do with its logic, because the very idea of privacy is incom­pat­ible with the exist­ence of God. If God sees and knows all things, and remains so pro­vin­cial a creature as to be scan­dal­ized by certain sexual beha­viors or states of the brain, then what people do in the privacy of their own homes, though it may not have the slightest implic­a­tion for their beha­vior in public, will still be a matter of public concern for people of faith.

A variety of reli­gious notions of wrong­doing can be seen con­ver­ging here — con­cerns over non­pro­cre­ative sexu­ality and idol­atry espe­cially — and these seem to have given many of us the sense that it is ethical to punish people, often severely, for enga­ging in private beha­vior that harms no one. Like most costly examples of irra­tion­ality, in which human hap­pi­ness has been blindly sub­verted for gen­er­a­tions, the role of reli­gion here is both explicit and found­a­tional. To see that our laws against “vice” have actu­ally nothing to do with keeping people from coming to phys­ical or psy­cho­lo­gical harm, and everything to do with not angering God, we need only con­sider that oral or anal sex between con­senting adults remains a crim­inal offence in thir­teen states. Four of the states (Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Mis­souri) pro­hibit these acts between same-​​sex couples and, there­fore, effect­ively pro­hibit homo­sexu­ality. The other nine ban con­sen­sual sodomy for everyone (these places of equity are Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Mis­sis­sippi, North Car­o­lina, South Car­o­lina, Utah, and Vir­ginia). One does not have to be a demo­grapher to grasp that the impulse to pro­secute con­senting adults for non­pro­cre­ative sexual beha­vior will cor­relate rather strongly with reli­gious faith.

Jesus once got 5000 people totally baked with only an eighth of weed

Jesus once got 5000 people totally baked with only an eighth of weed

The influ­ence of faith on our crim­inal laws comes at a remark­able price. Con­sider the case of drugs. As it happens, there are many sub­stances — many of them nat­ur­ally occur­ring — the con­sump­tion of which leads to tran­sient states of inor­dinate pleasure. Occa­sion­ally, it is true, they lead to tran­sient states of misery as well, but there is no doubt that pleasure is the norm, oth­er­wise human beings would not have felt the con­tinual desire to take such sub­stances for mil­lennia. Of course, pleasure is pre­cisely the problem with these sub­stances, since pleasure and piety have always had an uneasy relationship.

When one looks at our drug laws — indeed, at our vice laws alto­gether — the only organ­izing prin­ciple that appears to make sense of them is that any­thing which might rad­ic­ally eclipse prayer or pro­cre­ative sexu­ality as a source of pleasure has been out­lawed. In par­tic­ular, any drug (LSD, mes­caline, psilo­cybin, DMT, MDMA, marijuana, etc.) to which spir­itual or reli­gious sig­ni­fic­ance has been ascribed by its users has been pro­hib­ited. Con­cerns about the health of our cit­izens, or about their pro­ductivity, are red her­rings in this debate, as the leg­ality of alcohol and cigar­ettes attests.

The fact that people are being pro­sec­uted and imprisoned for using marijuana, while alcohol remains a staple com­modity, is surely the reductio ad absurdum of any notion that our drug laws are designed to keep people from harming them­selves or others. Alcohol is by any measure the more dan­gerous sub­stance. It has no approved medical use, and its lethal dose is rather easily achieved. Its role in causing auto­mobile acci­dents is beyond dispute. The manner in which alcohol relieves people of their inhib­i­tions con­trib­utes to human viol­ence, per­sonal injury, unplanned preg­nancy, and the spread of sexual disease. Alcohol is also well known to be addictive. When con­sumed in large quant­ities over many years, it can lead to dev­ast­ating neur­o­lo­gical impair­ments, to cir­rhosis of the liver, and to death. In the United States alone, more than 100,000 people annu­ally die from its use. It is also more toxic to a devel­oping fetus than any other drug of abuse. (Indeed, “crack babies” appear to have been really suf­fering from fetal-​​alcohol syn­drome.) None of these charges can be leveled at marijuana. As a drug, marijuana is nearly unique in having several medical applic­a­tions and no known lethal dosage. While adverse reac­tions to drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen account for an estim­ated 7,600 deaths (and 76,000 hos­pit­al­iz­a­tions) each year in the United States alone, marijuana kills no one. Its role as a “gateway drug” now seems less plaus­ible than ever (and it was never plaus­ible). In fact, nearly everything human beings do — driving cars, flying planes, hitting golf balls — is more dan­gerous than smoking marijuana in the privacy of one’s own home. Anyone who would ser­i­ously attempt to argue that marijuana is worthy of pro­hib­i­tion because of the risk it poses to human beings will find that the powers of the human brain are simply insuf­fi­cient for the job.

And yet, we are so far from the shady groves of reason now that people are still receiving life sen­tences without the pos­sib­ility of parole for growing, selling, pos­sessing, or buying what is, in fact, a nat­ur­ally occur­ring plant. Cancer patients and para­ple­gics have been sen­tenced to decades in prison for marijuana pos­ses­sion. Owners of garden-​​supply stores have received similar sen­tences because some of their cus­tomers were caught growing marijuana. What explains this aston­ishing wastage of human life and material resources? The only explan­a­tion is that our dis­course on this subject has never been obliged to func­tion within the bounds of ration­ality. Under our current laws, it is safe to say, if a drug were invented that posed no risk of phys­ical harm or addic­tion to its users but pro­duced a brief feeling of spir­itual bliss and epi­phany in 100 percent of those who tried it, this drug would be illegal, and people would be pun­ished mer­ci­lessly for its use. Only anxiety about the bib­lical crime of idol­atry would appear to make sense of this retributive impulse. Because we are a people of faith, taught to concern ourselves with the sin­ful­ness of our neigh­bors, we have grown tol­erant of irra­tional uses of state power.

Our pro­hib­i­tion of certain sub­stances has led thou­sands of oth­er­wise pro­ductive and law-​​abiding men and women to be locked away for decades at a stretch, some­times for life. Their chil­dren have become wards of the state. As if such cas­cading horror were not dis­turbing enough, violent crim­inals — murders, rapists, and child molesters — are reg­u­larly paroled to make room for them. Here we appear to have over­stepped the banality of evil and plunged to the absurdity at its depths.

The con­sequences of our irra­tion­ality on this front are so egre­gious that they bear closer exam­in­a­tion. Each year, over 1.5 million men and women are arrested in the United States because of our drug laws. At this moment, some­where on the order of 400,000 men and women lan­guish in U.S. prisons for non­vi­olent drug offences. One million others are cur­rently on pro­ba­tion. More people are imprisoned for non­vi­olent drug offences in the United States than are incar­cer­ated, for any reason, in all of Western Europe (which has a larger pop­u­la­tion). The cost of these efforts, at the federal level alone, is nearly $20 billion dollars annu­ally. The total cost of our drug laws — when one factors in the expense to state and local gov­ern­ments and the tax revenue lost by our failure to reg­u­late the sale of drugs — could easily be in excess of $100 billion dollars each year. Our war on drugs con­sumes an estim­ated 50 percent of the trial time of our courts and the full-​​time ener­gies of over 400,000 police officers. These are resources that might oth­er­wise be used to fight violent crime and terrorism.

In his­tor­ical terms, there was every reason to expect that such a policy of pro­hib­i­tion would fail. It is well known, for instance, that the exper­i­ment with the pro­hib­i­tion of alcohol in the United States did little more than pre­cip­itate a ter­rible comedy of increased drinking, organ­ized crime, and police cor­rup­tion. What is not gen­er­ally remembered is that Pro­hib­i­tion was an expli­citly reli­gious exer­cise, being the joint product of the Woman’s Chris­tian Tem­per­ance Union and the pious lob­bying of certain Prot­estant mis­sionary soci­eties. The problem with the pro­hib­i­tion of any desir­able com­modity is money. The United Nations values the drug trade at $400 billion a year. This exceeds the annual budget for the U.S. Depart­ment of Defense. If this figure is correct, the trade in illegal drugs con­sti­tutes 8 percent of all inter­na­tional com­merce (while the sale of tex­tiles makes up 7.5 percent and motor vehicles just 5.3 percent). And yet, pro­hib­i­tion itself is what makes the man­u­fac­ture and sale of drugs so extraordin­arily prof­it­able. Those who earn their living in this way enjoy a 5,000 to 20,000 percent return on their invest­ment, tax-​​free. Every rel­evant indic­ator of the drug trade — rates of drug use and inter­dic­tion, estim­ates of pro­duc­tion, the purity of drugs on the street, etc. — shows that the gov­ern­ment can do nothing to stop it as long as such profits exist (indeed, these profits are highly cor­rupting of law enforce­ment in any case). The crimes of the addict, to finance the stra­to­spheric cost of his life­style, and the crimes of the dealer, to protect both his ter­ritory and his goods, are like­wise the results of pro­hib­i­tion. A final irony, which seems good enough to be the work of Satan himself, is that the market we have created by our drug laws has become a steady source of revenue for ter­rorist organ­iz­a­tions like Al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Shining Path, and others.

Even if we acknow­ledge that stop­ping drug use is a jus­ti­fi­able social goal, how does the fin­an­cial cost of our war on drugs appear in light of the other chal­lenges we face? Con­sider that it would require only a onetime expenditure of $2 billion to secure our com­mer­cial sea­ports against smuggled nuclear weapons. At present we have alloc­ated a mere $93 million for this purpose. How will our pro­hib­i­tion of marijuana use look (this comes at a cost of $4 billion annu­ally) if a new sun ever dawns over the port of Los Angeles? Or con­sider that the U.S. gov­ern­ment can afford to spend only $2.3 billion each year on the recon­struc­tion of Afgh­anistan. The Taliban and Al Qaeda are now regrouping. War­lords rule the coun­tryside beyond the city limits of Kabul. Which is more important to us, reclaiming this part of the world for the forces of civil­iz­a­tion or keeping cancer patients in Berkeley from relieving their nausea with marijuana? Our present use of gov­ern­ment funds sug­gests an uncanny skewing — we might even say derange­ment — of our national pri­or­ities. Such a bizarre alloc­a­tion of resources is sure to keep Afgh­anistan in ruins for many years to come. It will also leave Afghan farmers with no altern­ative but to grow opium. Happily for them, our drug laws still render this a highly prof­it­able enterprise.

Anyone who believes that God is watching us from beyond the stars will feel that pun­ishing peaceful men and women for their private pleasure is per­fectly reas­on­able. We are now in the twenty-​​first century. Perhaps we should have better reasons for depriving our neigh­bors of their liberty at gun­point. Given the mag­nitude of the real prob­lems that con­front us-​​ — ter­rorism, nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion, the spread of infec­tious disease, failing infra­struc­ture, lack of adequate funds for edu­ca­tion and health care, etc. — our war on sin is so out­rageously unwise as to almost defy rational comment. How have we grown so blind to our deeper interests? And how have we managed to enact such policies with so little sub­stantive debate?

***

Letter To A Christian Nation Wise words indeed. Sam Harris is a philo­sopher, neur­os­cientist and the kind of atheist who takes no shit from anyone. The rest of his book tackles the irra­tion­ality of belief, the damage it can do to society and high­lights the reasons why reli­gious tol­er­ance is cer­tainly a bad thing. This book should be on everyone’s reading list, but if you’re looking for a more concise attack on irra­tional belief, I’d also recom­mend Sam Harris’s other book, Letter To A Chris­tian Nation. Weighing in at just over 100 pages, this is more of an essay than a book, so you’ll finish it in one afternoon.

If you’re one of those rare kinds of people with an atten­tion span longer than 10 minutes, you might also like to watch The Four Horsemen — a dis­cus­sion between Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet & Chris­topher Hitchens. It’s two hours long, so you might want to preroll before­hand. ;)

Posted in Essays, Legislation | Tagged athiesm, books, faith, Legislation, prohibition, religion, sam harris, sin |

Computer Problems

It’s been one hell of a week.

My com­puter has decided that now would be a great time to die, with only a few weeks to go before my final uni­ver­sity dead­lines. Error message after error message came thun­dering onto the screen faster than I could tell the com­puter “Ok”, as though my acknow­ledge­ment of the situ­ation would make the slightest bit of dif­fer­ence. After failing to run a system restore, I decided to rein­stall Windows. I was 100% con­fident that this would fix all of my prob­lems in one fell swoop. If only…

Practice safe surfing

Prac­tice safe surfing

My first mistake was trying to rein­stall Windows XP Pro­fes­sional instead of Home edition, putting two dif­ferent install­a­tions of Windows on the same machine and solving nothing. Stupid mistake, but I had to move on — there’d be time to deal with a rogue Windows install­a­tion when everything else was back up and running. Time to rein­stall XP Home Edition! Easy enough, should you have a working XP Home Edition CD at your dis­posal. Unfor­tu­nately, mine was scratched in such a manner than each time I tried to rein­stall it, random, but dif­ferent, files refused to copy across on each of the several occa­sions I attempted it. Some time later, I bit the bullet and made the always painful decision to format the bastard. But first, I needed to back up all my shit, including Coffeesh0p code and plenty of stuff for this blog, which is no easy task if you can’t boot up your com­puter in the first place. Luckily, I decided against smashing that XP Pro­fes­sional CD into the wall earlier and cutting myself with the shards, so I thought I’d try and install that again. 39 minutes later, my com­puter was back up from its death bed, but still not fit for duty. Before I could operate format, I needed to get all my stuff backed up onto another PC on the network, but then the next hurdle cropped up — appar­ently, I wasn’t author­ised to access the files on my own pissing com­puter! Just in case any of you encounter a situ­ation as shitty as this, you have to log onto your other Windows install­a­tion in safe mode, log into the admin­is­trator account and set your­self as the owner of the files in ques­tion, which is far from a simple task.

Even­tu­ally, everything was rescued and the com­puter formatted, but it’s still not working prop­erly. I suspect it may have some virus or other, but I’ll have to live with it until my exams are over.

As a result, my cus­tomer service went down the pan, so I apo­lo­gise to anyone that sent me an email last week.

In other news, you’ve all been very kind with the new rating system I installed. So far, there’s 14 ratings, only two of which are not five stars. Thanks! :) Hope­fully, I’ll be able to post a bit more once this damn project is over…

Posted in Personal | Tagged computer, customer service, virus, windows |

Herbal Photography

It’s been a busy week here at Coffeesh0p Studios (my bedroom). First off, we’ve been bat­tling with hosting issues since the weekend. Turns out we’d exceeded our band­width limit for Feb­ruary, taking both Coffeesh0p and this blog down until I forked over more money. It’s kind of like the internet equi­valent of being kid­napped and held to ransom.

I’ve also been taking pic­tures for some of the new products I men­tioned a while ago, so I thought I’d share some here. At the moment, the product images on Coffeesh0p are pretty small, most of them being around 200 px wide, so I’ve picked a few of my favourite full size pics and dis­played them below. Click on each for the full res­ol­u­tion version.

Amanita MuscariaWe’ll finally be stocking plain ol’ Fly Agaric caps in the next few days. Up until now, the only Amanita mus­caria we’ve sold has been pre­pack­aged, so it’s hard to display them in their full glory. This single cap will be turned into a thumb­nail image only 50 x 50 px. Seems such a shame. :(
This picture of Salvia divinorum leaf has been des­per­ately needed for quite some time. Although we’ve always sold salvia leaf, the picture was terrible.Salvia Leaf
Damiana ExtractSince most extracts look pretty unap­pealing, this chunky Damiana 4x extract really stood out.
This is one of our new smoking mix­tures, Blaze. Looks as deli­cious as it smells!Blaze
Posted in Drugs | Tagged amanita muscaria, blaze, coffeesh0p, damiana, hosting, new products, photography, Photoshop, salvia divinorum |

JWH-018 Toxicology

ToxicSince my last post about the spice behind Spice (and other smoking mix­tures such as Smoke, Serenity Now, K2, Sence, etc), it has been brought to my atten­tion that some initial tox­ic­o­logy testing has been done on the syn­thetic can­nabinoid JWH-​​018. Before we get down to the details however, here’s some pretty weird back­ground inform­a­tion — the sponsor and pro­vider of these studies wishes to remain anonymous! Unfor­tu­nately, this makes the whole thing a lot less cred­ible, but since this is the only inform­a­tion we have right now, let’s hope someone else can verify these things at a later date. So far, one pro­fessor (who also wishes to remain anonymous) thinks these are real, but as of yet, no one is willing to put their name down on any kind of formal state­ment. If you, or anyone you know, has the rel­evant expertise to look over these studies, please drop me a line!

(Quick Update — A lot of people have been dis­cussing and linking to this post, but there remains some sus­pi­cion that I have some­thing to gain by saying the JWH-​​018 isn’t that harmful. Firstly, JWH-​​018 is now illegal in the UK. Secondly, as I men­tioned just above this, if I have got any­thing wrong, please pick me up on it! If it turns out my ana­lysis of the data is incor­rect, I will correct it!)

Feel free to invent your own con­spiracy the­ories, but for now, let’s take a look at the data. You can down­load the PDF doc­u­ments in this Zip file [2.04 MB]

CYP450 Inhibition Assay

This first assay looks at the effect of a drug on spe­cific enzymes in your liver. These Cyto­chrome P450 enzymes are respons­ible for meta­bol­ising the vast majority of drugs you might put in your body, so if you’ve got too much of one drug in your system (ie paracetamol/​acetaminophen), then other drugs that are also meta­bol­ised by these enzymes (ie alcohol) may compete for these enzymes and so hang around in your system for longer. As you can imagine, it’s important to under­stand how one drug may affect the meta­bolism of another, in case of any dis­as­terous drug-​​drug interactions.

Results: JWH-​​018 will prob­ably interact with the meta­bolism of other drugs, so more in vivo work is necessary.

hERG Binding Assay

hERG stands for human Ether-​​à-​​go-​​go Related Gene. This gene codes for a par­tic­ular type of potassium channel found on heart tissue. This channel pumps potassium ions out of the heart muscle cells and are crit­ical in coördin­ating the heart’s elec­trical activity. Unfor­tu­nately, these chan­nels are a prime target for drugs to bind to, dis­rupting their func­tion. This can lead to “Long QT Syn­drome”, asso­ci­ated with fainting and can lead to sudden death, so you can see why these kinds of tests are important. Here’s a typical ECG recording showing what’s called the “QT interval” shown in blue, which lasts for longer than it should do if these chan­nels are disrupted.

QT Interval

Results: JWH-​​018 does not inter­fere with these chan­nels. That’s a good thing.

Cytotoxicity Assay

This simple test essen­tially looks at how many cells die when you perfuse them with a drug. The more cells that die, the more toxic the drug.

Results: JWH-​​018 is not cyto­toxic at low concentrations.

GreenScreen HC Genotoxicity Assay

This assay looks at how much a drug will inter­fere with our DNA. Typ­ic­ally, any­thing that damages DNA is bad news, being poten­tially car­ci­no­genic, making the rationale behind this test glar­ingly obvious. This test was also per­formed in the pres­ence of a frac­tion taken from liver cells, which will break down the drug. This not only checks if the drug will damage DNA, but also its break­down products.

Results: JWH-​​018 does not damage DNA, so shouldn’t give you cancer.

Rat Repeat Toxicity Assay

Guess what happens in this exper­i­ment. A number of ren­agade lab rats looking for a bad time are rounded up and prom­ised free drugs (kind of like Pleasure Island from Pinoc­chio; that shit was scary!). The rats are then dosed up and observed. Ini­tially, they appear leth­argic (read: totally baked) but a few of them died at higher doses. This appears to be down to prob­lems breathing rather than organ tox­icity, but only affected the male rats, who appeared more sens­itive to the com­pound. The drug didn’t appear to accu­mu­late in their systems either, but they did lose some weight, prob­ably because they couldn’t be arsed to eat. JWH-​​018 showed a huge potency and was found to be tachy­phylactic (my new favourite word — it means that more of a drug is required to reach the same state fol­lowing an initial dosage).

Results: According to FDA guidelines, the human equi­valent dose is 0.016 mg/​kg but it should be tested in other species before this can be seen as reliable!

Rat Pharmacokinetics

Data is col­lected on a number of dif­ferent “phar­ma­cokin­etic” aspects of the drug, such as how it is absorbed, dis­trib­uted throughout the body, meta­bol­ised and excreted, which can help with the design of future clin­ical trials.

Results: JWH-​​018 is dis­trib­uted well throughout the rat’s tissues. Meta­bolism and excre­tion are normal, with a plasma half-​​life of approx­im­ately 2 hours

Summary

Well, from the looks of these tests, JWH-​​018 seems to be pretty safe, but unless you want to piss off Ben Gol­dacre, it would be wise not to rely on this “test tube data” entirely. Also, like I said before, we don’t know where this data has come from, clouding the issue even further.

Feel free to ask any ques­tions in the comments.

Big thanks to Alfa @ Drugs​-Forum​.com for letting me know about these studies. You can read all about JWH-​​018 on their Drugs Wiki.

COM­MENTS IN THIS THREAD ARE NOW CLOSED. YOU CAN CON­TINUE DIS­CUSSING SYN­THETIC CAN­NABIN­OIDS HERE OR INDI­VIDUAL SMOKING MIX­TURES HERE.

Posted in Drugs, Pharmacology | Tagged CyP450, cytotoxicity, genotoxicity, hERG, JWH-018, safety, spice |

JWH-018, Spice & Me

The Spice smoking mixture range has been one of the most popular “herbal” smokes ever, and now it’s no suprise why.

To get an idea of just how popular these mix­tures are, just take a look at this data from Google’s keyword tool:

That’s over 37,000 searches a month for these three search terms alone — Spice is def­in­itely a cus­tomer favourite. I also get no less than 500 emails a day from Russia asking if I can ship it there by the kilo. So what’s behind it all?

This paper [PDF; 246 kB] has some inter­esting things to say. It turns out that the Spice blends all contain JWH-​​018 as well as two com­pounds based on CP 47497 — all of them syn­thetic can­nabin­oids. These are man made chem­icals designed to tickle the same receptors as THC, the active com­pound in can­nabis, so it’s no wonder these smoking mix­tures are so powerful. The dif­fer­ence in potency between the Spice blends appears to be accounted for by increasing levels of these CP 47497 homologues.

jwh-018

Since this dis­covery, Spice has been banned in several coun­tries, including Austria and Germany. The BBC also reported on it and had the fol­lowing to say:

The UK drugs reg­u­lator, the Medi­cine and Health­care products Reg­u­latory Agency (MHRA), is under­stood to have iden­ti­fied JWH018 in products avail­able in the UK. It is cur­rently in order to determine whether or not it should be clas­si­fied as a medi­cinal product — which would mean it should only be avail­able from a doctor.

The UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which advises the gov­ern­ment on whether a drug should be made illegal, is also aware of the sub­stance, and is invest­ig­ating it.

The Spice man­u­fac­turers make no mention of these syn­thetics on their pack­aging, so a lot of herb-​​enthusiasts feel some­what betrayed. Rightly so, I suppose — not being told just what you’re smoking exactly. People have the choice to put things in their body and some Spice smokers might make a dif­ferent decision if they had all the facts in hand.

But, why?

The typical reac­tion to this news seems to be the disgust about putting any of these “unsafe” man-​​made com­pounds into their body, as though mother nature was some kind of safety net. “These plants have thou­sands of years of safe use”, they say! But let’s take a closer look…

Take Kratom, for instance. Kratom con­tains a powerful com­pound called mitra­gynine, which acts upon the opioid receptors; the same targets for opium and its deriv­at­ives. One alkaloid in kratom, although present in much smaller quant­ities, is 7-​​hydroxymitragynine, which is appar­ently 17x more potent than morphine! While I wouldn’t call this plant harmful, com­pared to other drugs like cocaine and heroin, it wouldn’t say it was harm­less either. The opioid receptors are a dan­gerous set of receptors to be messing with — the mu subtype respons­ible for the classic euphoria that accom­panies opiate use also stops you breathing if you tickle them too much. Opiates are also addictive, just like kratom can be if you take too much. While this plant may have seen thou­sands of years of respons­ible, mod­erate use, this is no reas­sur­ance at all towards its safety.

Now days, people gen­er­ally don’t toil in the field every day that Newton sends — we have more free time and money to spend than ever before. We can now afford to use large quant­ities of kratom every day, as well as other entheo­gens from around the world, but we don’t have any inform­a­tion about this level of exposure to kratom itself or in com­bin­a­tion with other stuff. For all we know, taking a mixture of kratom and Salvia divinorum daily could make your eye­balls explode after day 300, or chronic kratom use might give you some kind of evil super­power. Looking at paracetamol as a rather boring example, if you take the odd one every now and then, you’ll be fine, but if you take 8 pills a day every day for a year, you’ll likely end up with some serious con­di­tion. There’s also the fact that modern chem­istry can create powerful extracts of these entheo­gens. Who’s to say they’re safe, just because they come from a plant? And what about any other drugs we might be on? Being on a selective sero­tonin reup­take inhib­itor like Prozac for depres­sion isn’t uncommon in today’s society — combine them with the “per­fectly safe” Ban­is­teriopsis caapi vine, itself a monoamine oxidase inhib­itor, and you have a poten­tially fatal com­bin­a­tion of drugs in your system. I bet there are many more con­train­dic­a­tions we haven’t even considered.

What about plants like can­nabis and tobacco? They’ve also been used respons­ibly for thou­sands of years, but it’s only when so many people start to take these things that we real­ised “Actu­ally, smoking is bad for us”. Besides, our current medical know­ledge means we’ve only recently been able to dia­gnose these kind of things. I’m not sure I want to trust any data from a period when epi­lepsy might have been down to a demonic pos­ses­sion. How many adverse health effects could we identify in these ancient entheogen users based on what we know today?

So, while we can be uncer­tain of the long term effects on health of JWH-​​018 and friends, it seems we can’t actu­ally be certain about the safety of most of the things we happily consume. Yes, they may turn out to be super toxic (although prob­ably not, if they’re given to lab rats), but at least they only act on your can­nabinoid receptors. Kratom tends to be pre­pared as a tea — once you’ve drunk it, you’ve drunk it. If you’ve taken too much, you’ll realise when its already in your blood. It would be much harder to over­dose on these syn­thetics due to the speed at which they get in your system — if you’re too stoned, you won’t want to smoke any more, never mind being phys­ic­ally able to. The can­nabinoid receptors they target are also much safter than the opioid targets of kratom. Can­nabinoid receptors seem play a mod­u­latory role, rather than being majorly important, so messing with them doesn’t have as drastic an effect. Smoking too much might make you feel a bit sick and dizzy for a while, but you cer­tainly won’t stop breathing.

In all, I think Spice is in the wrong for not making this clear in the first place, but then I’m not suprised they didn’t want to list these com­pounds in the current polit­ical climate. Maybe when the gov­ern­ment real­ises that it is our right to put things into our own bodies, listing these ingredi­ents wouldn’t be an issue.

Even with this new inform­a­tion however, I’ll still be using the stuff. It’s great!

Posted in Drugs | Tagged banisteriopsis caapi, cannabinoids, contraindications, JWH-018, kratom, safety, spice, spice diamond, spice gold, spice silver, synthetics |

Synthesis of Salvinorin-A

Salvinorin-A Synthesis

Any hard­core chem­ists out there might be inter­ested in this paper, pub­lished in Organic Letters by a team of researchers from Niigata Uni­ver­sity. It details the syn­thesis of one of nature’s cra­ziest com­pounds, Salvinorin-​​A, found in Salvia divinorum.

For a bit more back­ground and phar­ma­co­logy, you might want to check out my Salvia present­a­tion.

Inter­esting stuff!

Posted in Drugs | Tagged chemistry, salvia diviorum, salvinorin-a, synthesis |

Cannabis Reclassification

Cannabis

Cannabis is now Class B

Don’t worry though! Our awesome Smoking Mix­tures do the trick and are totally legal!
According to our gov­ern­ment, amphet­amine (speed) is as bad for us as can­nabis — what other message could reclas­si­fic­a­tion send?

Your typical can­nabis smoker tends to

  1. stay indoors
  2. chillax
  3. get through a lot of crisps

Your typical whizzkid tends to

  1. go out a lot
  2. get some­what over­con­fident and aggressive
  3. listen to awesome drum ‘n’ bass
  4. approach the speed of light (literally*)

*Not lit­er­ally

I’m not neces­sarily knocking amphet­amine or it’s users, just pointing out that drugs are a class apart. Oh no, wait.

Check out the (now out of date) graph below, placing drugs from most harmful on the left to least harmful on the right.The score assigned to each drug takes into account harm to your­self and to society as a whole, and what’s that… alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than the class A drugs LSD and ecstasy! Con­sid­ering that the link between can­nabis and schizo­phrenia is as tenuous as ever (why isn’t the Neth­er­lands one big psych ward?), why is our gov­ern­ment ignoring it’s own sci­ent­ists? Reli­gion has more regard for evid­ence than Mr. Brown (and that’s saying some­thing!) If you want to learn more about just how stupid our current clas­si­fic­a­tion system is, you can watch this episode of BBC’s Horizon, which tackles each drug in turn. (49 mins)

Posted in Legislation | Tagged alcohol, amphetamine, cannabis, horizon, reclassification, tobacco |