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The deadly codeine-based cough syrup cocktail US pop culture is spreading across the globe

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codeine-based cough syrup

Back in the early 2000s, drug users in search of alternative experiences were able to turn to websites selling a new generation of substances that were at the time referred to as “research chemicals”. For a number of years, seemingly exciting new ways in which to get high were available at the click of a mouse from companies based mostly in the US, which sold these drugs globally ostensibly solely for the purposes of scientific research. Those who wished for something a little different from more traditional illicit substances such as cocaine, ecstasy or LSD were able to obtain obscurely-titled chemicals such as 5-MeO-DMT or 1-propionyl-lysergic acid diethylamide, many of which aimed to mimic the effects of MDMA or psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.

At the time, narcotics enthusiasts viewed the online availability of research chemicals as ushering in a new era in which they would be able to easily get their hands on an ever-changing and evolving menu of exotic substances. Over a number of years, many of these chemicals morphed into so-called legal highs, which were sold legitimately as an alternative to the illicit drugs they were intended to emulate. Now outlawed in many countries, these drugs are now mostly consumed by members of vulnerable groups such as prisoners and the homeless, having been largely rejected by recreational users.

Nearly 20 years on from the controversy that surrounded the online availability of research chemicals, the imagined future of an endless supply of new psychedelic substances has failed to become a reality. Instead, recreational drug users have by and large returned to using more traditional substances, while at the same time beginning to abuse prescription medicines in greater number – a practice that has become particularly popular among young people. Peculiar as it may have sounded just after the turn of the millennium, instead of experimenting with then-unheard-of new drugs, the youth of today have turned to prescription medication used to treat conditions such as anxiety, attention deficit disorder and pain, such as Xanax, Adderall and Percocet. Somewhat more bizarrely, young people across the world are increasingly abusing a drug derived from codeine-based cough syrups, a cultural phenomenon that was first made popular by rap artists in the US during the 1990s.

Commonly referred to as Purple Drank or Purple Lean, the substance is made by mixing prescription-strength cough syrup with fizzy pop drinks or sweets. Once consumed, Purple Lean provides users with a sense of euphoria and dissociation from the body. While long-term use can lead to addiction and a whole host of health problems, as with any opiates taken in large enough doses, Purple Lean can kill. The chances of dying from a codeine overdose while drinking Purple Lean rise significantly when it is consumed with other drugs or alcohol. While taking the drug has been popular in the US for more than two decades, evidence suggests that its use is spreading to other countries, thanks in no small part to a new generation of American rappers who advocate its benefits in their songs.

A recent investigation conducted by UK radio station LBC revealed that British children are making Purple Lean after obtaining liquid codeine from drug dealers on Instagram. One UK user told the broadcaster that he became interested in the drug after watching rappers consume it on social media. The rising popularity of Purple Lean both inside and outside of the US has been very much driven by depictions of its use on online platforms such as YouTube and Instagram, with a study published last year by the JMIR Public Health Surveillance journal finding that “the prevalence of codeine misuse images, glamorising of ingestion with soda and alcohol, and their integration with mainstream, popular culture imagery holds the potential to normalise and increase codeine misuse and overdose”.

In Nigeria, the abuse of codeine-based cough syrup became such as issue that the country’s government last year banned the production and importation of such products after a BBC investigation revealed that teenagers were becoming addicted. Ministers said at the time that the ban would apply to all sales of cough syrup containing the drug without a prescription across the whole country, and that no new import licences for codeine as an ingredient for cough syrup would be issued.

Abusing cough mixture might well sound absurd to members of the so-called “Trainspotting Generation” who were more used to taking substances such as heroin and ecstasy in the 1990s, but consuming Purple Lean can be equally as addictive and deadly as almost anything they might have taken while they were young. It is not without reason that some people refer to the drug as “liquid heroin”. While the feared advent of an age in which an ever-changing array of new substances would be available online has not materialised, it is perhaps more alarming that young people are now becoming addicted and in some cases dying as a result of consuming medicine that is routinely kept in many people’s bathroom cabinets.

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Airbnb continues to profit from the global sex trafficking trade

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Airbnb continues to profit from the global sex trafficking trade

At the end of September, Airbnb unveiled a new special portal through which law enforcement officials can request information about users of the short-term property rental service. The company said the portal will provide investigators with a dedicated channel they can use to submit legal requests for information relating to information it might hold on individuals of potential interest. While Airbnb made no mention of the types of information it might be providing to police through the service, the firm said in a statement that the portal would complement the work it does on a daily basis to keep its hosts, guests and wider communities safe.

Although short-term rental properties such as those offered via Airbnb can be useful to those carrying out a number of illegal activities, they have recently become most synonymous with human trafficking and prostitution, with organised criminal gangs increasingly turning temporary accommodation into so-called “pop-up brothels”. As has been the case with almost every other industry, the internet has had a disruptive effect on the oldest profession in the world, not only helping sex workers and the pimps and gangs that control them reach a larger number of potential customers through escort sites, but also by allowing them to avoid the attention of law enforcement agencies by arranging short-terms lets online to turn into pop-up brothels.

It is a problem of which Airbnb is all too aware. Back in February of last year, the company teamed up with US anti-trafficking NGO Polaris to launch an initiative intended to prevent its properties from being used as pop-up brothels. Polaris and Airbnb vowed to crack down on the practice of pimps and traffickers renting out short-let properties for a few days or weeks before moving on to another one before police can act against them. Airbnb said it would also work with Polaris to train its staff on how to spot the signs of modern slavery and human trafficking.

Realistically though, short of installing cameras in each one of its properties or carrying out regular spot checks on tenants, Airbnb can actually do very little to stop its rentals being used in this manner. Unfortunately for the company, the problem has become a global one, with Airbnb properties the world over apparently being used for the purposes of prostitution.

Only last month, the Otago Daily Times reported that a New Zealand man returned from his travels around Asia to discover that his property had been used for sex work by the people who rented it from him during July and August through Airbnb. The man, who asked the paper to maintain his anonymity, said he came back to his property to find it stinking of cheap perfume, and later received a visit from a man who asked: “Where are the girls?” In June of last year, the UK’s Mirror reported that a couple who used Airbnb to rent out their home in Amsterdam returned to their property to find strange stains all over their furniture, and were later told by police that their address had been listed in multiple ads on sex and prostitution websites.

Mail Online reported in July 2017 that British police had warned that human traffickers were renting out Airbnb properties across the UK before advertising the services of prostitutes put to work in them online. Speaking at the time, Sergeant Matt Puttock, the Tactical Lead for Sexual Exploitation at Gloucestershire Police, said: “These are by their nature often quite hidden places. It’s very transient as they often hire Airbnb places or other serviced apartments.”

While incidents of Airbnb properties being used by prostitutes are oftentimes covered by the media with something of a nudge and a wink, the spreading phenomenon of pop-up brothels is a major driver of the exploitation of young women and girls who are trafficked across the globe in order to be forced into selling sexual services. In a report published in 2018, Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade cautioned that pop-up brothels “are changing migration patterns with huge numbers of women, particularly from Eastern Europe, being brought in by [trafficking] groups to service British men who have an expectation of an absolute right to buy sex”.

The report recommended that the UK government should issue guidance for the short-term letting sector on preventing trafficking for sexual exploitation, which should specifically address the responsibilities of companies such as Airbnb.

For its part, Airbnb does at least appear to be attempting to address the problem with the launch of its partnership with Polaris and the establishment of its law enforcement agency portal. Commendable as both these endeavours may be however, neither will likely have any real impact on the number of the firm’s rentals that are used as pop-up brothels, and will do little to protect the vulnerable woman and girls who are exploited in the properties whose letting out the firm profits from so handsomely.

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The US trade war with Beijing will do little to prevent counterfeit items flooding out of China

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counterfeit items flooding out of China

While US President Donald Trump has sought to make intellectual property rights (IPR) a major sticking point in America’s ongoing trade war with China, the little progress made in negotiations between the two countries in this area over the past year or so will likely make no dent whatsoever in the huge number of counterfeit and pirated products that are exported out of China to foreign markets every year. For its part, Beijing claims it has made significant progress on IP protection in recent years, with data from China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange (Safe) showing in April that the country’s external payments of IPR royalties had risen 24% in 2018 to $35.8 billion, resulting in a deficit of $30.2 billion.

Beijing has long promised to improve its IPR protection regime, more as part of efforts to bolster innovation and support its own industries than to placate the US, and has set up a series of specialist IP courts across the nation, as well as increasing penalties for trademark infringement. Although foreign companies have complained that these are often biased towards domestic firms and hand out inadequate punishments, the increased external IPR royalty payments being made by China suggest that the country’s new approach might be producing some positive results.

While this development is to be welcomed, particularly for those businesses that have benefited from increased IPR royalties emanating from the country, it remains to be seen what impact if any China’s new IPR regime might have on the massive amount of fake items that flood out of the  country to overseas markets.

Some experts believe the US/China trade war could even lead to an increase in the number of counterfeit goods coming out of the mainland and Hong Kong, with World Trademark Review reporting in June 2018 that six trade associations had warned US Congress that tariffs levied against Beijing could divert resources away the country’s efforts to fight the counterfeiters that operate from within its borders. In March, CNBC reported that if anything the problem is likely to get worse, not least on account of the fact that Chinese counterfeiters are increasingly able to take advantage of technology such as ecommerce platforms and 3D printers.

It could be argued that it is too early to tell whether the US trade war with China will have any meaningful effect on the volume of bogus goods that are exported from the mainland and Hong Kong to the rest of the world an annual basis, but the direction of travel suggests that an improvement from the current state of affairs looks a long way off.

At the beginning of September, the AFP news agency reported that head of the Investigations Directorate at the EU’s anti-fraud office OLAF had warned that the growth of ecommerce platforms had made Europe’s battle with counterfeiters from China more difficult, noting that gangs of fraudsters operating from within the country were to blame for the problem rather than the state itself. Just weeks later, data released by the European Commission revealed that seizures of fake goods consignments imported into the EU had risen over the previous year, and that the majority of bogus household items smuggled into the 28-nation bloc had come from China.

Back in March, a report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the EU’s Intellectual Property Office revealed that fake goods had grown to account for 3.3% of all global trade, and that most of the counterfeit items seized around the world in 2016 originated from mainland China and Hong Kong. Things seem not to have improved much over the intervening years, with continual reports suggesting that mainland China and Hong Kong remain the source of the lion’s share of all fake items sold around the globe.

At the end of last month, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) revealed that its officers based at a cargo sorting centre in Kentucky had discovered counterfeit bracelets and other jewellery sent from China that would have been worth some $90 million if they had been genuine. This came after the CBP’s annual Intellectual Property Rights Statistics showed that China remained the main source of counterfeit and pirated goods seized by customs agents across the US in 2018, accounting for 54% of the value of all IPR seizures in the country that year.

All of this suggests that while Beijing’s new IPR regime looks set to improve the lot of businesses that had been losing out on royalties they should have been earning on products sold within China, life looks unlikely to change for the organised criminal networks that are behind many of the counterfeits that are exported out of the country to overseas markets, and that tariffs imposed by the Trump administration might even make things easier for them.

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Why are young people continuing to take banned diet drugs that kill?

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banned diet drugs that kill

Facebook and Instagram last week announced that they will now prevent users under the age of 18 from viewing posts that promote weight loss products and cosmetic surgery procedures on their platforms. According to the two firms, the new policy is intended to stop teenagers from being exposed to content that conflates slimness with beauty. The initiative, which is being rolled out across both platforms over the course of the coming weeks, will allow users to report any content they believe is intended to promote dieting products or cosmetic surgery procedures to teenagers, and has been designed to help ease the pressure social media can have on young people.

While there is little doubt that use of platforms such as these can have a negative effect on the body image of young girls’ in particular, it remains to be seen whether Instagram and Facebook’s new policy will have any real impact beyond stopping young people from being bombarded with posts featuring celebrity-backed slimming products whose effectiveness is questionable at best.

Although admirable, the social media giants’ move will likely do little to prevent image-obsessed young people from going to extraordinary lengths to achieve the perfect body, which in and of itself is a concept that has been very much defined and promoted by images that circulate on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. For those who are either unwilling or unable to achieve their desired appearance through exercise and diet alone, a range of more extreme options are available beyond the slimming products promoted on social media in the shape of illegal diet drugs that promise radical results in incredibly short timeframes. In many cases, these drugs contain chemicals that can be extremely hazardous to users’ health and in some cases even kill.

Regulators across the globe are now worried that an increasing number of people are turning to weight-loss drugs such as 2,4-dinitrophenol (DNP) in order to achieve the body of their dreams, and that a growing number of users of such slimming aids are losing their lives as a consequence. DNP, which is used legally as a dye, wood preserver, herbicide and photographic developer, helps users lose weight by burning carbohydrates and fat, but has been banned as a weight-loss aid in countries such as the UK and the US owing to its potential for both short-term and long-term harm. DNP causes energy to be converted into heat, which increases users’ metabolic rate and temperature. This can prove fatal, with the drug causing the body to overheat in instances of long-term use or overdose.

While it is almost impossible to estimate exactly how many people are using these types of drugs, anecdotal evidence suggests that slimmers are ignoring public health warnings about the potentially fatal consequences of doing so, and have few qualms about taking advantage of their availability on both the surface and dark web. Earlier this month, the BBC accompanied a British father as he travelled to Ukraine to confront a dealer who sold his daughter the DNP pills that killed her. Bethany Shipsey died after she overdosed on slimming tablets she ordered from Andrei Shepelev. He ran what has been described as a “Breaking Bad-style” drugs lab in Volochysk, Khmelnytskyi, western Ukraine. Shepelev was quoted as saying by the Daily Mail that while he was sorry for causing the death of Doug Shipsey’s daughter, sales of the slimming drugs that killed her rise four or five times after news of such fatalities appears in the media.

In 2018, there were 20 reported DNP cases and six related deaths attributed to DNP poisoning across the UK, which was the highest number reported to Britain’s National Poisons Information Service since 2015. This prompted the UK’s Chief Medical Officer to warn doctors to be on the lookout for people who may have become ill after consuming the drug, and resulted in local authorities launching an awareness-raising campaign about the dangers of DNP. In the US, a study published by the Journal of Adolescent Health in June warned that teenagers using dietary supplements could be exposing themselves to serious physical harm and even death owing to the fact that some may contain dangerous ingredients. In conclusion, researchers at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health recommended that proactive enforcement of regulations was needed “to reduce access and consumption among children, adolescents, and young adults”.

Meanwhile, seizures of illicit slimming drugs such as DNP continue across the globe, with Europol revealing in June that law enforcement agencies from EU members states had seized the equivalent of over 50,000 capsules of DNP as part of the latest edition of Operation Opson. One month later, it was reported that police in Thailand had seized enough sibutramine to make more than one million weight-loss capsules. Sibutramine is another drug used as a slimming aid that has been banned in several countries.

While it is of course appalling that organised criminals are willing to put users’ lives at risk by selling these drugs, what is most alarming is the fact that people appear to be more than willing to dice with death in order to lose a few pounds, in spite of the fact that the dangers of consuming substances such as DNP and sibutramine are so widely known. It may be the case that Facebook and Instagram’s new policy of preventing young users from seeing content that promotes weight loss products does have a positive effect on teenagers’ mental health, but it will do little to compensate for the role social media has played in creating a culture in which people are literally dying to be thin.

 

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