Tuesday 15 August 2006

A drug off the market

Say what you like about Harold Shipman, he did wonders for waiting lists. But he didn’t do a lot for the trust that patients place in their doctors. Now it is apparently becoming harder to obtain effective pain relief, as many GPs are unwilling to carry morphine-based drugs in case they end up fingered as the next stethoscope-wearing mass murderer.

Even before that blew up, it was alleged that some British cancer patients are dying in agony because of a shortage of diamorphine, the most powerful painkiller. This has apparently been a problem since early 2005, when production problems arose in the Merseyside factory that met 70pc of UK demand.

The odd thing about this particular NHS crisis is that diamorphine is merely the proper, medical name for heroin, which seems to be freely available on the streets of virtually every town and village. What sort of administrative genius does it take to create an official shortage of something the country is awash with?

The answer, according to various campaigning websites, is that the British health authorities insist on buying their injectable diamorphine only from two licensed suppliers, and in the most expensive form. As a result, we end up paying many more times for the stuff than health authorities overseas, and still can’t get a reliable supply.

I don’t know whether those claims are true, but anything about the NHS that suggests wastefulness always seems to have the ring of truth to it. How else can an organisation which has had such massive additional funds poured into it over the last nine years still be failing to deliver patient satisfaction in so many areas?

If I had my way, the supply of diamorphine would improve overnight because I’d legalise its supply. I can’t see what we achieve by making drugs illegal, thereby placing the weak-minded in the hands of criminal suppliers. These provide them with products of dubious quality which are often more dangerous than the real thing. They also charge outrageous prices which create a whole new cycle of criminality as addicts steal to fund their habit.

Instead of trying to ruin the poppy farmers of Afghanistan and the coca growers of Colombia, why not make the whole thing legal and subject to tax, as we do with other drugs like alcohol and tobacco? Victorians from the Queen down were frequent users of laudanum, a tincture of opium sold freely over chemists’ counters, and I don’t recall society being brought to its knees. At any rate, it was certainly in no greater a mess than we are today.

The only time I might have taken an illegal substance was at university in the 1970s, when peer pressure led me and countless others to smoke what was alleged to be cannabis. Also then popularly known as dope or … a rude word for excrement. I remain convinced that what my friends were actually sold was the latter, as it had never had the slightest effect on me. The claimed reactions of others were, I believe, just a form of mass hysteria.

One of my chums decided to secure an undoubtedly authentic supply by growing his own marijuana plants from budgie seed. By the start of the Easter vacation he had quite a promising collection of little seedlings, and asked his landlady if she’d mind watering them while he was away. When we got back, they’d been transformed into a collection of thriving tomato plants, suggesting that they had come to the attention of someone in authority with a knowledge of botany and a sense of humour. They weren’t much of a smoke.

So I won’t be rushing round to Mr Tall’s pharmacy in Rothbury to buy some heroin in the unlikely event that the Government takes my advice and makes it legal, thereby putting a fair chunk of the police force out of a job. However, if I am ever unfortunate enough to develop cancer, it would be jolly comforting to know that I could.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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