It’s hard to find people in London who have never used cocaine, be it for recreational use only or something slightly more recurring. In 2019, a study conducted by King’s College found that Londoners snort 23 kilograms of pure cocaine a day—more than any other European city. And surprise, surprise, it’s now been confirmed (because who ever thought of the contrary before?) that drug use is rife within Westminster.
On Sunday 5 December, The Sunday Times published a report which stated that all but one of 12 lavatory areas in Parliament that were tested showed traces of cocaine. As a response to these controversial findings, House of Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle promised the BBC today, Monday 6 December, that those who “flout the law” would face punishment.
More coverage of the news revealed that the House of Commons Commission (responsible for the running of the Palace of Westminster) is now considering the use of sniffer dogs to detect users. Sir Hoyle further told the BBC, “The accounts of drug misuse in Parliament given to The Sunday Times are deeply concerning, and I will be raising them as a priority with the Metropolitan Police next week. I expect to see full and effective enforcement of the law.”
He continued, “While Parliament provides extensive support services for any staff or Members who may need help with drug misuse—and I would encourage anyone struggling with such issues to take up such help—for those who choose to flout the law and bring the institution into disrepute, the sanctions are serious.” Separately, the Conservative MP Charles Walker, who chairs the administration committee, said that the issue would be discussed by the House of Commons Commission this week.
This news comes as the UK government aims to unveil Boris Johnson’s ten-year drugs strategy today, which would include a crackdown on so-called “lifestyle” users of class A drugs, allowing police officers to go through drug dealers’ phones and contact their clients with warnings about drug use in a bid to spook them into changing their behaviour.
Such attempts would include the right to withdraw drug users’ passports and driving licenses, specifically targeting wealthy professionals who the government will argue are driving exploitative practices with their demand.
According to The Guardian, the government’s strategy will also focus on targeting “gangs behind the so-called county lines phenomenon, which often sees young, vulnerable people turned into cross-country mules.” Below is a full list of what we know so far about the measures that will be included in the new drug strategy:
– Contacting clients based on drug dealers’ seized phones with a range of messages to discourage their drug use and direct them to getting support.
– A commitment to dismantling more than 2,000 county lines and making thousands of more arrests.
– Investing up to £145 million in the county lines programme, targeting the road and rail networks and protecting those exploited and supporting them to rebuild their lives.
– Expanding drug testing on arrest—supporting police forces to test more individuals.
– Developing out-of-court disposal projects to ensure those who misuse drugs face tougher consequences.
– The largest-ever single increase in investment in treatment and recovery, which is scheduled to be made available to 50 local authorities.
Drug reform campaigners have already criticised the UK government for going “backwards” by embracing a criminal sanction-led approach while other countries and federal states are adopting more progressive strategies, such as the legalisation of cannabis in Canada. Needless to say, further debate is bound to unravel as more of the public hear about Westminster’s secret relationship with cocaine.
The maximum penalty for possession of class A drugs, including cocaine, is up to seven years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both. Suppliers face up to life imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.
Speaking to The Guardian, Niamh Eastwood, executive director of think tank Release, said, “While New York announces the opening of drug consumption rooms, Germany moves to legalise cannabis, as many US states and Canada have already done, and over 30 countries have ended criminal sanctions for possession of drugs—Britain is going backwards, embracing a Nixon-style ‘war on drugs’ approach.”
Only yesterday, Boris Johnson told The Sunday Times, “What I want to see is a world in which we have penalties for lifestyle drug users that will seriously interfere with their enjoyment of their own lifestyles.” Sounds like a plan, BoJo. Shall we start with the House of Commons then?
Earlier this year, the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation (Eurojust) released a report addressing the stark rise in the production of ‘synthetic drugs’ that poses legal challenges for prosecutors across Europe. Citing 562 cross-border drug trafficking cases handled by the agency alone, the report highlighted how synthetic and other designer drugs make up for almost one-third of the number. “This phenomenon has increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with organised crime groups (OCGs) adapting quickly to an online environment using secured communication channels, crypto-phones, cryptocurrencies and darknet markets,” the report continued.
In short, synthetic drugs are flooding the market even before governments can identify and outlaw them. With fatal overdoses from illicit tranquilisers jumping six-fold in the US over the pandemic, law enforcements around the world are presently on a quest to stay ahead of the curve and anticipate these drugs before they even hit the market. How? Enter AI in all of its harnessable glory, here to give cops a heads-up that could help shrink month-long drug investigations down to days.
Before we embark on the innovative road to faster and better drug discovery, however, let’s break down the concept of synthetic and designer drugs. Remember the time when people across the US were overdosing on bath salts in their hot tubs? Designer drugs refer to substances like bath salts and synthetic marijuana that are engineered in a laboratory to recreate the effects of traditional illicit drugs such as amphetamines, ecstasy, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), ketamine and more. Basically, if you peek behind the scenes of such drugs, you would see a bunch of underground chemists playing around with new molecules that emulate the psychoactive effects of conventional drugs.
This particular factor is what makes the substance practically undetectable by law authorities. “Because their chemical structures are different from the drugs they are intended to mimic, designer drugs frequently escape regulation, making them easier to obtain by users,” noted DrugAbuse.com, adding how they are often undetectable by screening tests at the same time. This not only fosters the concept of a ‘legal high’—where manufacturers technically can’t be prosecuted—but also opens up various possibilities for new synthetic drugs, presently limited only by our imagination.
Now, researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) are dedicated to tackling the issue head-on—with a little help from the space-age technology we currently call AI. In a study published in the online journal Nature Machine Intelligence, Doctor Michael Skinnider and his colleagues fed an AI model with a database of known psychoactive substances contributed by forensic laboratories around the world. With the aim of training the model on the structures of the drugs, the algorithm used was inspired by the structure and function of the human brain. Based on this training, the model then learned to predict 8.9 million potential designer drugs that could be developed and eventually hit the market.
Researchers then tested the AI against 196 new designer drugs that had emerged on the illicit market—while the model was being trained. We’re talking about drugs that the AI didn’t even know existed at the time. The result? The model had already predicted the emergence of more than 90 per cent of those drugs.
“The fact that we can predict what designer drugs are likely to emerge on the market before they actually appear is a bit like the 2002 sci-fi movie, Minority Report, where foreknowledge about criminal activities about to take place helped significantly reduce crime in a future world,” said senior author Doctor David Wishart, a professor of computing science at the University of Alberta. In a press release, he mentioned that the software essentially gives law enforcement agencies and public health programmes a head start on the “clandestine chemists” and lets them know what to be on the lookout for.
Now, one question remains. Is the model capable of identifying completely unknown substances from scratch, rather than predicting from a set of data? According to the researchers, the AI has also learned to predict the sort of molecules that are more likely to appear on the market. “We wondered whether we could use this probability to determine what an unknown drug is—based solely on its mass—which is easy for a chemist to measure for any pill or powder using mass spectrometry,” said Doctor Leonard Foster in the press release.
The researchers, hence, tested this hypothesis by leveraging the dataset of the 196 new synthetic drugs. Using only the mass, the model was able to list the chemical structures that landed in the top 10 most popular drugs with 72 per cent accuracy. Little tweaks and bits of chemical data further boosted this accuracy to 86 per cent. When it came to just one guess, the model could predict the correct structure 51 per cent of the time.
According to Doctor Skinnider, similar models could soon be used to discover all kinds of new molecules—from identifying new performance-enhancing drugs for athletic doping to previously unknown molecules in human blood and urine. “There is an entire world of chemical ‘dark matter’ just beyond our fingertips right now,” he concluded. “I think there is a huge opportunity for the right AI tools to shine a light on this unknown chemical world.”
With some authorities already expressing their interests in adopting and using the model as part of their investigation, one fact is out in the open: AI undoubtedly has the higher ground than governments across the world when it comes to keeping up with new drugs on the market. And the role of technology in drug discovery might just be starting to live up to its hype.