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.

Chemical Structure of Mephedrone

Mephedrone first started hitting the news in late 2009, but the scare-mongering grew and by early 2010, the papers were full of tales of people who had allegedly become addicted to the drug, with The Sun even publishing a story detailing how a man had ripped off his own scrotum under the influence of mephedrone (which later turned out to have been an internet hoax taken seriously). The General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers called for a ban after two teenagers in Scunthorpe died after allegedly taking the drug. After the ban, the coroners’ report for the two discovered that neither had taken mephedrone and they had, in fact, been out drinking alcohol the night they died, and subsequent studies have determined that, of the dozens of deaths “linked” to mephedrone worldwide, only two have ever been conclusively proven to have actually involved mephedrone as a cause of death – but the media wasn’t going to let facts get in the way of a campaign against this “deadly killer”.

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”.

Impounded illegal mephedrone
Impounded illegal mephedrone

Neil Harvey, a community sergeant in Exeter, welcomed the ban, saying: “Use of the drug has been on the increase locally, as well as nationally, and we are aware of young people using it and the consequences of that. We are also aware of how easy it is to buy from shops and once the ban is formalised they must immediately stop selling it or we will prosecute as soon as it becomes law. … The law is going to prevent young people coming to harm and that can only be a good thing. We are always concerned that something might come along to replace it and we would need to be quick dealing with that if it happens. We have been very lucky so far in Exeter that no-one has been killed. But it has been luck. It is not designed for human consumption and anyone using it is taking a big risk with their health and safety.”

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.”

A leaf from a Sassafras tree.
A leaf from a Sassafras tree.

People also forget why mephedrone suddenly became popular so quickly: more than the price, mephedrone’s perceived purity was much higher than other available street drugs and that appealed to users – no-one chooses to take worming powder, after all. Cocaine purity had fallen from 60% in 1999 to 22% in 2009; people were literally getting less bang for their buck. More significantly, 33 tonnes of sassafras oil, the precursor to MDMA and a vital ingredient, was seized in Cambodia in June 2008. It has been estimated that it could have been used to make 245 million doses of MDMA. Such tightening of controls on sassafras oil and other substances meant that purity tests in mid-2010 have revealed that virtually no pills seized by the police contain MDMA at all – and 20% of pills seized since 2009 contain mephedrone. Market forces drove people to mephedrone, and when the cost and the convenience became too high, people just moved onto something else.

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.

A half-smoked cigarette.
The only drug that will kill you if you follow the instructions.

Of course, in the excitement of talking about the dangers of mephedrone and Ivory Wave and the next deadly designer drug that will come along, people forget about the most lethal legal highs, simply because they are embedded into our culture: alcohol and tobacco. Tim Hollis, the serving Chief Constable of Humberside Police and chair of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ drugs committee is currently the most senior police officer to call for the decriminalisation of possession of drugs for personal use. His greatest concern, however, was not illegal drugs. “My personal belief in terms of sheer scale of harm is that one of the most dangerous drugs in this country is alcohol. Alcohol is a lawful drug. Likewise, nicotine is a lawful drug, but cigarettes can kill,” he said. “There is a wider debate on the impacts to our community about all aspects of drugs, of which illicit drugs are one modest part.” The facts bear Hollis out: 25,000 people are killed a year by alcohol-related illnesses, and 106,000 people from smoking. By contrast 3000 people a year die as a result of all illegal drugs combined, including 10 from ecstasy every year, and precisely none whatsoever from mephedrone, LSD, or even cannabis, the most widely used illegal drug in the UK. Despite strictly regulating advertising, taxation, and labelling, however, no government has sought to ban either alcohol or tobacco.

An advertising campaign for Guiness in the 1940s.

It seems likely that the endless government attempts to ban every drug that is sold for recreational use will continue to push users into more and more unknown, and therefore more dangerous, drugs. The research done on the more conventional street drugs, such as ecstasy and LSD, now fills whole libraries – more recent research is even starting to turn up medicinal uses for drugs that have previously been the exclusive remit of trippers. LSD, for example, was discovered in 2006 to be unexpectedly effective at curing cluster headaches, an condition where sufferers can have headaches painful and debilitating that some have committed suicide. It seems unlikely that LSD will be available on prescription anytime soon; however, through long study and, yes, usage, science has determined that LSD is safe and in some cases, useful. The same can not be said about mephedrone or any of the legal highs.

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?”

A graph of relative harms of common drugs produced by Professor David Nutt.

News reports:

Subscribe to SarahMcCulloch.com via Email! (or via RSS!)