in Drugs and drugs policy, In the news



Last week the British Government made clear its intention to ban the currently legal stimulant 2-methylamino-1-p-tolylpropan-1-one also known as mephedrone.

For anyone who lives in a cave, mephedone is a chemical that has stimulant properties when ingested and has recently become very popular on the club scene as a ‘legal high’.  It’s from the cathinone class of compounds.  This class also includes the active ingredient in khat, a plant whose leaves are chewed with great enthusiasm in Yemen.  It’s not difficult to see why mephedrone has purportedly become so popular (no figures actually exist).  It’s been legal up until now so has been extremely easy to acquire without consorting with grubby drug dealers.  Further it’s cheap and the quality of supply is reasonably reliable, unlike illegal equivalents.

Some things about the mephedrone story are quite novel.  Legal highs, which once had a reputation for poor efficacy are now causing a great deal of interest.  The internet is making the drug much more easily available than it would have been under similar circumstances twenty years ago.  The emergence of China’s economy has meant that there is plenty of capacity for manufacture.

What’s less new is this reminder of quite how much we British like getting off our heads.  The stereotyped response from the media and UK Government also comes as no surprise.  The media have focussed their attention on a number of deaths with which mephedrone has been associated, although no causal link has established.  The Government’s actions in banning the drug appear dictated by tabloid furore and based on moral panic and a wish to seem decisive with an election six weeks away.

The use of psychoactive substances of unknown toxicity being used recreationally is a legitimate focus for government concern.  However the advice to ban this drug was provided by an advisory council (The Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs) on which three places remain unfilled and prohibition under these circumstances may not be legal.  The ACMD’s report on mephedrone has not been made available for public scrutiny.

The ACMD’s enfeeblement may matter little to the Home Secretary. He appears not to listen to his advisors anyway.  Another AMCD member yesterday over the affair.  He wrote in his resignation letter:

“We had little or no discussion about how our recommendation to classify this drug would be likely to impact on young people’s behaviour. Our decision was unduly based on media and political pressure”

Unfortunately evidence based drugs policy does not exist in this country.  If it did any deliberation of this new drug would surely have been more considered and we’d be able to admit that mephedrone is a side show compared to the damage done to health by alcohol and cigarettes.  It is also inconsistent to ban mephedrone and not khat, which was omitted from the ban presumably to avoid pissing off ethnic minorities.

It’s true that based on its chemical class mephedrone use is unlikely to be without hazard.  However banning it will throw up another set of issues from fatalities owing to adulterated supply to deadly turf wars.  Moderate voices, including the former head of the ACMD, suggest that the most appropriate way of dealing with drugs of unknown toxicity is a ‘class D’ whereby a drug is “quarantined” and sale of it to anyone under 18 is prohibited.  Thereby allowing time for a thorough examination of harms.


Further reading:

Druglink blog: Media muddle over mephedrone


(August 2018 update – I note that khat is now banned)

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  1. I think that there is no point to ban using some drugs and chemicals. It can even increase number of people interested in taking illegal products.