RSC condemns the government's 'Crazy Chemist' campaign


16 September 2010

The Royal Society of Chemistry has been left aghast by a government campaign using an appalling image of a chemist in a warning to students over the dangers of 'legal highs'.

Almost 500,000 new students will start university next week and receive posters and leaflets featuring the 'chemist' who can only be described as looking unhinged. The RSC now wants all promotional material with the image, and all references to a 'crazy chemist', withdrawn immediately.

A Home Office press release issued earlier today (Wednesday) states the "Crazy Chemist" campaign is being launched by James Brokenshire, Minister for Crime Prevention, despite having already been launched a year ago by FRANK, the government's national anti-drugs campaign. 

The point of the re-launch is, as Mr Brokenshire states: "to warn young people that just because a substance is advertised as 'legal', does not mean it is safe." 

But the suggested image of a mad-looking "crazy chemist" dishing out harmful substances is one that the RSC totally rejects. 

Jim Iley, director of science and education at the RSC, said: "This is a lazy stereotype of the chemist as unhinged scientist and it is totally irresponsible that the government has decided to use such an image for what is clearly an important campaign which we would whole heartedly endorse. Chemists in the UK and elsewhere invest significant amounts of time to use chemistry to solve health-related issue and, consequently, improving people's lives. 

"Rather than reinforcing unhelpful stereotypes, the government needs to be sending a clear message that we need chemists because they are able to offer positive solutions to the issues facing our society, not contributing to them. The people dealing in legal highs in towns and cities are not chemists and should not be referred to as such. If the minister had come to the Royal Society of Chemistry first, we would happily have given our advice on how best to tackle this issue considering they attempted the exact same campaign a year ago and presumably got nowhere."

John Mann, emeritus professor of chemistry at Queen's University, Belfast, told the RSC that the government has had plenty of warnings over the issue of legal highs in the last two years and should be looking to the US for how to tackle the problem.

"In the US the Federal Analog Act covers all compounds that are 'substantially similar' to the most highly controlled substances and they can then be treated in the same way as that controlled substance," he said. "Although this section of the all encompassing US Controlled Substances Act has had a number of legal interpretations, it is now routinely used to include any analogue that has stimulant, depressant or hallucinogenic actions in the central nervous system. Unsurprisingly, mephedrone has not yet been much used in the US."

Professor Mann, a Fellow at the RSC, also said: "It would seem to be easy for any government that is keen on crime prevention to follow the lead of the US, and I believe Norway, and implement an analogue law. Under this type of law, the default setting is that a compound is presumed 'guilty' by structural association until proved 'innocent'. It would then be the job of the ACMD to establish the safety of the compound - but this would not be a priority since the drug dealers are hardly going to scream that they have been unfairly treated."

Professor Mann said that no legal highs can be considered safe despite claims to the contrary from sellers. "Whatever the basic pharmacology of the main component, this compound is likely to be contaminated with side-products of the synthesis and agents added to the drug to 'cut' it. The consumer will never know what these contaminants are." 

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