It’s hard not to have heard about mephedrone. You’ve either heard mention of it in the media, know of friends who’ve tried it, or experimented with it yourself. With the recent deaths of several users, it’s in the news again in a big way. So what’s the fuss about?
From nowhere this synthetic ‘designer’ drug has become the UK’s number 4 recreational pharmaceutical of choice (after weed, ecstasy and cocaine and obviously excluding caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and chocolate), and is – somehow – still legal. The effects have been described as similar to ecstasy and amphetamines, yet you can legitimately order a sack-full (literally!) of it off the internet. However, it is illegal to sell specifically for human consumption and is sold under the vague descriptor of ‘plant food’. The absurdity of the matter takes another step towards bizarre-ville, when you learn that in some cities 24-hour alcohol delivery companies sell it; meaning that one quick phone-call can have a gram promptly to your door: Day or night. Which – I suppose – is handy if your house plants need an emergency 3am pick-me-up.
The reason that it’s not legal to sell the stuff for human consumption is that it hasn’t been clinically tested on humans…or indeed animals. Basically; anyone taking a hit of the stuff is a guinea pig. By default, pretty much any new chemical compound is ‘legal’, as it is simply not viable to unilaterally ban everything that comes out of a laboratory, (although it’s illegal in the US due to its chemical similarities with E).
The concern is that the drug is far from harmless. That is fairly open to question, and nobody knows the answer because there simply isn’t much data available. As the drug – sorry: plant food – originates from the shady world of legal highs rather than from a pharmaceutical company’s labs, there has been no published trials. Mephedrone is too new to have long-term effects that we know about, and even short-term side-effects are word-of-mouth rumours. Essentially though; any drug that causes heart palpitations and circulatory changes can cause you to drop down dead with a heart attack. That’s not taking into account any other effects or toxicity. So there is argument these for a ban in defence of public health, but you could perhaps say exactly the same about Red Bull as well.
Deaths which have been attributed to mephedrone by the media are also somewhat open to question. The most recent death – that of John Sterling Smith – is actually the first that has been directly medically attributed to mephedrone poisoning. Another recent case linked to the drug in the media was medically diagnosed as being nothing to do with the stuff, while the coroner’s reports on two more deaths have not been released yet, and the deceased were reported to have been heavily drinking. With only one death to its name, banning of the substance on the grounds of public safety seems at first look to be a little questionable. You could also point out the massive hypocrisy of banning a fringe drug with unknown quantities while raking in tax on the legal sale of cigarettes; which we know are lethal.
One could argue that the government has no right to ban a substance that has not been proved to be harmful. But that seems to be dangerous ground too, because if it’s not at least banned for the duration of clinical trials, then in five years time an awful lot of people could be suffering from very unpleasant and unforeseen long-term side-effects. Not that clinical trials are likely to happen anyway: They’re expensive. There is no real motivation for anyone to shoulder that cost at present because it can be bought legally. If the drug is banned, then it would be an uphill struggle for the drug to be de-regulated even in the event of clinical trials giving an all-clear, and thus still little motivation for anyone to cough up for trials. Frankly, it would be cheaper, easier and more convenient for a lab to just to modify the chemical structure slightly and simply roll out another upper masquerading as plant food.
Regardless of the uncertainty over health risks, one thing is for sure: It’s now a political issue that’s in the media spotlight. And nothing seems to make the government move faster than screaming tabloid headlines and the prospect of losing votes. It might irk you that the drug is likely to be banned, but our demographic isn’t renowned for lobbying, standing on soap boxes, or getting down to the polling station. So realistically, it seems that it’s not so much a case of ‘if’ mephedrone will be banned for sale as ‘when’. You might think that would be very soon, or surprised that it hasn’t happened already.
But, there’s a problem for the government. Two years ago things would be a little different, but they’ve managed to screw themselves over in quite a spectacular manner. Remember the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs? If so then you’ll remember that last year the chairman – Professor David Nutt – was fired because he criticised the distortion of facts regarding drugs in order to meet political goals. In the wake of that farce five other committee members quit the council. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is a body which was set up in order to provide drug-related guidance to the government. However; last year’s drama threw the organisation into chaos, and has delayed its work. As a result, the council’s report on mephedrone and other legal highs has been delayed and will not be released until the end of the month. If that report recommends banning, then there’s a real possibility that the recent shake-up may have cost lives. It’s really not a good situation.
We’re now in a bit of a quandary, because the drug is freely available, cheap, legal, effective and massively popular. There’s a real temptation for existing narcotics users to switch, and for those who previously avoided drug usage because of legal consequences to experiment. But just remember: Nobody actually knows what this stuff really does. We’ve had over thirty years of experience in observing side-effects of other narcotics such as ecstasy, and the hospital knows what to do if you get stretchered in there with an OD. Do you think they know how to even spot a mephedrone overdose or medical complication yet; let alone what to do about it?
Read about mephedrone on wiki.
Watch a video about methedrone.