Odd side effects of drugs

I was recently looking for some precision electronic scales – for this work – only to discover that apparently very accurate models are now available at absurdly cheap prices.

A couple of decades ago, obtaining accurate weights down to tens of or even single milligrams was a costly and difficult business. Laboratory and industrial models by firms like Oertling (who despite their German name have been British from establishment in 1847 until absorption by Avery in 1992-6) cost hundreds or even thousands of pounds.

I can remember weighing tissue samples to the nearest microgram, and colleagues trying to weigh small collections of single muscle fibres, even less than that. We worked with balances inside chemical ‘fume’ cupboards to eliminate all air movement, the equipment bolted to massive slabs of rock for stability.

Now, during a quick browse through online retailers like Amazon, you can buy scales which might be almost as accurate for less than £30, and they will fit in a regular pocket.

They are of course made in China, but it did not occur to me why they had become an everyday item until Amazon made its usual suggestions of related products which I might also like to buy. There were bulk packs of empty pharmaceutical capsules, and other supplies and consumables used to package, distribute, and sell illegal drugs, and a few less incriminating items relating to trade in jewellery and precious metals.

It had never occurred to me that the solution to my problems in trying to discover how much paint could be delivered by watercolour brushes, was also an essential tool for your local dope pedlar.

The only thing that is missing now is quality assurance. Labs which measure mass have their scales periodically calibrated, and those are carried out against standards which are in turn checked against others, until they trace back to a reference at somewhere like the National Physical Laboratory.

Maybe someone performs a similar service for the illegal drug industry, although I can hardly imagine its interest in getting accredited to ISO quality standards.

Still, it’s pleasing to discover a little good coming from the human carnage being wrought by drugs.