Three years ago the country was gripped by a strange mania. Whipping each other into a frenzy the media, the politicians and the chattering classes set about propelling a little known, little used substance to national prominence. Mephedrone Madness was not an isolated incident but a moral panic in a familiar mould. And one which demonstrates conclusively why the tactics employed in the war on drugs benefit only paper sellers, the politicians and the dealers.
A few years back word on the street was that “legal highs” were making a comeback. The ever decreasingly quality of what was being punted as “ecstasy” in clubs was also encouraging some to look further afield. Characteristically the phrase “legal highs” is associated with bags of useless smelly herbs found in shops down the Barras which give you a sore head & throat or with glorified caffeine pills which make you buzz around jibbering for a bit before coming crash down to earth weeping. They are often sold at festivals to people already too smashed to mind spending £20 on bugger all. By the mid-naughties advances in geekery meant some of the products on the market were apparently quite good. The powers that be were having none of it.
To understand what happened next it’s necessary to go back to 1968. This was the year when our relationship with illegal substances took a turn for the worst in the UK, a turn from which we have yet to recover. This was the year we stopped treating drugs like a social issue and began to treat them purely as a criminal one. Prior to this point Heroin was a little used drug. It was big in the US and had been since the turn of the 20th Century where a series of scares about Black people, then Chinese people, then Black people again had helped advertise the drug to a large audience. Its criminalisation in 1914 reduced its supply in the short term but given that during the prohibition era it was no more or no less illegal than booze its legal status was a moot point. In the 60s it was Britain’s turn for moral panic and despite there being a whole 500 addicts in the UK at the time (who could get heroin on prescription from their GPs) it was decided we should dedicate vast resources to advertising the dangers of this drug and clamping down on those who used it. Today in the UK there are one thousand times more addicts than there were then. The problem is literally one thousand times worse because we chose to advertise a drug, criminalise it and hand control over its production and distribution to the black market.
Skip back to late 2009 and the legal high fiasco. Running with “legal highs” as the new Satan is a bit weak. Some of these products are/do/claim to do nothing at all other than not being illegal. And what is it that is being criminalised or targeted? The idea of being a bit spaced out? What about all the other legal ways to get high like tea, coffee, red bull, smoking, alcohol, exercise, holding your breath for ages, spinning round? To hit the target they needed to narrow it down. Mephedrone was undoubtedly the most popular of these new drugs. At £10 a gram (a quarter of the price of cocaine) it was cheap and readily available online. The perfect target.
A rational society would instantly start to assess what to do in a situation such as this. Asking questions like what is in this drug? What effect does it have on users? What are the health risks? But we don’t live in a rational society so even now we still don’t have the answers to these questions. Absolutely no scientific studies have been done. During this period the word on “the street” on mephedrone is that it makes you jibber, you enjoy music but can’t dance because you’re too busy talking, it lacks the sense of empathy you get from MDMA, its physically exhausting and has a pretty harsh comedown. All things which would generally give the reader the idea that it’s not worth bothering about. This would be my broad intention.
The media had rather different intentions. They could have encouraged scientists and the government to invest in finding out the facts about Mephedrone to allow people to make safe choices. But the press already knew what effect this drug would have. It would make them look really powerful and help them sell their papers. In November 2009 The Sun led the charge, warning its readers of a new substance which made you RIP YOUR OWN BALLS OFF. Not content with publishing claims of the ludicrous effects of the drug, they also needed an equally fictitious name. On “the street” it was called what it was called; Mephedrone. Literally no-one called it what the papers went for… “meow meow.” Quite where this made up name came from no-one knows. It does make the drug infinitely more appealing to children though so congratulations for that, tabloid editors.
Just a few months later, 52 people were said to have died as a result of the drug. The actual details of each case are too vast to deconstruct. In only one of the two recorded cases where Mephedrone was found to have been a potential factor, the user had been injecting it intravenously. No scrotums were ever reported missing. The two teenage boys whose images which were (ab)used as the face of the anti-Mephedrone campaign in the Daily Mail, The Sun and the Daily Record were found to have died as a result of taking heroin substitute, methadone. No apology or retraction for their exploitation or any of the other lies told will ever be printed by the tabloids.
By early 2010, the politicians decided they knew what effect the drug had as well. It made them look proper hard and proper tough on crime in the run up to the General Election. Labour had grown increasingly tired of the meddling of “scientists” and “experts” on drugs policy and in particularly the government’s own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). Just a month prior to The Sun’s outburst the government decided to sack ACMD Chairman Dr. David Nutt for daring to suggest that maybe when the Advisory Council advised on drugs, the people they were advising should listen. Nutt has been a keen proponent of reclassifying drugs based on the actual scientific evidence of the harm they do (what the law says it does anyway) rather than on the whims of tablod editors (what the law actually does). In February 2009, then Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith forced Dr. Nutt to apologise for pointing out that more people die from falling off horses ever year than from taking ecstasy. When he slammed the government for “distorting” and “devaluing” the importance of actual science he was finally axed. It was clear that the government and not Mephedrone users were the ones running around ripping bits of themselves off in a drug related frenzy.
In the wake of Dr. Nutt’s ousting many of his fellow ACMD members followed and were replaced by others more suited to the government’s agenda. This new committee was asked to investigate Mephedrone and in March 2010 the stooge committee recommended it be banned along with a host of other substances. Even then the government’s decision to proceed down this path saw two further resignations. On hearing that Mephedrone was to be made illegal ACMD member Eric Carlin declared “I am not prepared to continue to be part of a body which, as its main activity, works to facilitate the potential criminalisation of increasing numbers of young people.” The Bill was brought to parliament the day after the General Election was called and was nodded through without scrutiny. Tory, Labour & Lib Dem politicians lined up to talk “tough” on drugs. Since coming to power the Coalition Government has shown their commitment to placing science and harm reduction at the centre of their drug strategy by introducing The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 which removed the need of the ACMD to contain any actual scientists.
Since being made illegal we all know what’s happened – the same thing that has happened with any other drug. Reaping the benefits of a massive kitty based advertising campaign scumbag dealers now sell “Mephedrone” cut with whatever other substances they like for whatever price they fancy. The quality of the drug has diminished, the health risks have dramatically increased and the price has gone through the roof. Current street value is around £25 a gram (a 250% increase). This is the free market economics of the prohibitionists at work. The only people who have benefited are the powerful drug gangs, the police who get to hassle young folk they don’t like the look of and the politicians who get to sit on their moral high horses while their policies make the problem worse. I doubt that consumption of Mephedrone will ever emulate that of Heroin and get a thousand times worse but you can’t say they didn’t try.
Meow for now.
Very interesting article, thanks :)
I once saw one of those “Follow the polis around with cameras because it makes easy telly” shows where the cop was like “well they call it plant food, so imagine what it must be doing to them running around drinking Baby Bio”
Hahaha, love the name of this article, first off! Secondly very in depth, well done over all. Mephedrone is my personal drug of choice. Keep up the great work!
Great article, your points about the media’s influence over drug policy and the ever increasing criminalisation of people (not just young) by counterproductive laws, which have at any rate failed, are bang on.
One thing I would say though is that your statement of there being no scientific research on the subject is incorrect. There is research into the toxicity of mephedrone and we know exactly what mephedrone is – a semi synthetic cathinone derived from the chemical structure of the plant extract khat. We are still along way from the amount of research we have on drugs like cocaine or ecstasy however, for obvious reasons.
There is also a lot of great research into the use patterns and motivations for use of mephedrone, particularly by Fiona Measham et al. Most of this provides evidence (which is conducted mainly in London and also Ireland, I am currently in the process of writing up my own research on mephedrone and NPS use in the West of Scotland) which runs counter to what you said about mephedrone still being available, and I think this is an important point to make: mephedrone was still widely available for several months after it was banned, and although you are correct about reductions in purity and price increases, some research shows that this was also occuring before mephedrone was classified.
More importantly, on the apparently rare occasion that mephedrone is now available for sale on the illicit market, this is most likely not mephedrone but instead similar (or not so similar, but still legal) substances. Interestingly, mainly due to the phenomena of mephedrone originally being available from the internet, prohibition has widely succeeded in curtailing mephedrone use through denying availability (not that I agree that it should have been made illegal), unlike previous ‘legal highs’ like ecstasy or ketamine, which which continued to be available and consequently in use after prohibition, mainly due to the route of supply to users.
Anyway sorry to go on a bit of a ramble there, not often I get to discuss the subject outside my own head with sensible people. As I said great article, keep up the good work!