Originally written for Student Direct.
In April 2010, after a media storm, the British government passed legislation to classify mephedrone as a Class B drug. Mephedrone is a stimulant somewhat similar in effects to MDMA and cocaine, and is chemically based on cathinones found in the African stimulant Khat, but which was sufficiently chemically different to not have been previously included under the Misuse of Drugs Act, which regulated drugs in the UK. The drug was actually first synthesised in 1929, but rediscovered in 2003 by chemists looking to manufacture a “designer drug” that could get round existing drugs legislation. Its effects are adverse enough to require treatment at addiction treatment centers for anyone who gets hooked on it.
What with all free publicity for mephedrone and so many stories reporting how fun and cheap it was, use soared. It suddenly became very hard to not buy mephedrone. One Students for Sensible Drug Policy activist visited a headshop in three different occasions in the first half of 2010 and was offered “Meow-meow” every time, whether she was looking for stimulants, psychedelics or even just rolling papers. Mephedrone was available at every house party and headshop and accessible from just about any house with an internet connection. You could buy anything up to 20 grammes at a time from online sellers, giving you a bulk buy price of £4 a gramme. Purity was high, and dosage cheap. However in April 2010, despite the misgivings of several advisors of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, including its former chair, Professor David Nutt, who protested that mephedrone and its effects were unresearched and a much longer timeframe was needed to investigate it, Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, made it illegal, claiming, “Mephedrone and its related substances have been shown to be dangerous and harmful”.
After mephedrone was banned, use did indeed drop among recreational drug users. One said, “Mephedrone was alright, but its advantage was that it was legal and you didn’t have any of the difficulties of supply and waiting around on dealers that you get with MDMA or ketamine. People just turned up with it at house parties and were very open about it. I know a lot of my friends who weren’t comfortable with taking illegal drugs were thrilled to get an MDMA-like experience that was cheap as well. Now it’s illegal, they’ve all stopped. I’ve largely stopped taking it as well. MDMA is far better when you can get hold of it.”
You can, of course, still buy mephedrone in Manchester, though the price has gone up to £20 a gram from £10 when it was legal. However, purity has dropped significantly since control of the supply has shifted from people buying it off wholesalers on the internet and into the hands of people who have a financial incentive to cut it with anything from talcum powder to concrete dust. So you can still take mephedrone if you have the cash, it’s just now more dangerous. James Jackson, Education Officer for Manchester Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a UMSU society, said, “Most recreational drug users don’t stop taking drugs because they’re illegal or because they are potentially harmful. We have to accept this. But they do try to take substances that they know are safe or that are safer than other drugs available. People want to get high, they don’t want to die or end up in hospital. That the government has made mephedrone illegal has actually endangered the health of drug users, because now no-one really knows whether the the stuff being sold as mephedrone is actually the drug they wanted.”
Other drugs have been in the pipeline since the banning of mephedrone. NRG-1, or naphyrone, a stimulant chemically similar to mephedrone, was banned two months after mephedrone on the same grounds. “Ivory Wave” was the latest legal high to hit the headlines in August, though no-one’s really sure what it is. Producing intense euphoria but with a vicious comedown, some test samples have discovered MDPV, or methylenedioxypyrovalerone, a cathinone which was banned at the same time as mephedrone. Mephedrone itself was banned shortly after the well-publicised proscription of GBL, BZP and Spice last December. So with those out the way, we can just wait for the next legal high, and the next one, and the cycle of discovery-use-popularity-ban can continue.
The race between amateur chemists to develop new designer drugs that exist just outside the law and the government to try to ban them without any understanding of their long-term effects and use has now been running for forty years – and the chemists are winning. But as recreational users are pushed more and more onto drugs about which we know less and less, a better question than “Who are the winners?” might be “Who are the losers?”
- Cuts prompt police to call for debate on drugs and redirect resources
- Ivory Wave: The new meow meow?
- Banned mephedrone cleared of blame for two deaths
- Ban on NRG-1 ‘legal high’ recommended by drug advisers