Mephedrone ~ from legal high to Class B
In making the drug illegal, the government only succeeded in compromising its quality and hiking up its price, making it not only more unaffordable, but more dangerous.
Circumventing the Medicines Act
Mephedrone (a.k.a. drone, meow meow, MCAT) is one of the lesser known illicit substances, or at least to the man-in-the-street. Its effects have been described as a hybrid of cocaine, MDMA and amphetamines, with some users going so far as to say it produces a better quality high than cocaine, while being less addictive. Its high lasts for about an hour, and so users tend to dose repeatedly as they feel its effects wearing off. Mephedrone, like many now prohibited narcotics, used to be legal, and its promotion to class B classification has not been without controversy.
The first recorded synthesis of mephedrone was published back in 1929 in Bulletin de la Société Chimique de France – a French medical journal. The substance remained in obscurity until 2003, when it was re-discovered online and distributed accordingly. Circumventing the Medicines Act, consumer standards and the Misuse of Drugs Act, mephedrone was disguised as plant food and labelled as being unsafe for human consumption. The exploitation of this loophole meant that both distribution and possession of it were legal.
Sensationalist headlines boost popularity
Not long afterwards, the story was picked up in the media, and the sensationalist headlines began to appear. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) have suggested that the media coverage of the drug actually led to its increased usage, particularly throughout 2009. In attempting to warn against the existence of a cheap, very strong, easily available and totally legal drug, the media inadvertently drove users in their thousands to the internet in search of it.
Drone’s rapid growth in popularity was believed to be related not only to its availability and legality, but also due to the decreasing purity of other street drugs at the time, such as cocaine and ecstasy.
After a string of highly publicised MCAT related deaths and hospitalisations, the drug was put into a state of emergency illegality in the UK and in April 2010 was eventually controlled and classified. The ruling catapulted Mephedrone from being a legal, available high to a Class B prohibited substance, and therefore against the law to have for yourself, to give away or to sell. To this day, possession can warrant five years in jail and/or an unlimited fine, and supplying, can mean an unlimited fine and triple the jail time.
Purity plummets from 98% to 37%
Following the ruling, the drug immediately went underground and out onto the streets, the first novel psychoactive substance to do so on such a large scale in the UK. The price doubled and purity initially plummeted from 98% to 37%, due to the nonexistence of quality control on the illicit drug market. Current analysis data suggests that it is now cut with a range of white powders to bulk it out including monosodium glutamate, caffeine, creatine and benzocaine. The corrupted purity and mixtures of unknown ingredients are what make today’s mephedrone so dangerous.
The ban did nothing to dampen the popularity of mephedrone, with some outlets suggesting that its use has actually increased. In July 2010, three months after the drug was made illegal, a study conducted across two London nightclubs was published by the university of Lancaster in conjunction with researchers at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS foundation Trust.
The study found that the popularity of mephedrone had surpassed that of all other drugs, with 27% of people surveyed having already taken it, or were intending to take it that same night. A follow-up study, conducted at the same two clubs a year later, found that mephedrone had become even more popular, with the amount of club-goers stating they had either taken it or planned to increasing to 41% – an increase of 14%.
Fiona Measham, a senior lecturer in criminology who led the research, said “these findings question the consequences, if not the intentions, of a drug policy that focuses primarily on banning a drug and presuming that legislation will result in a reduction in supply and demand.”
The research found that for the users, legal status didn’t really matter, and so in making the drug illegal, the government had only compromised its quality and hiked up its price, making it not only more unaffordable, but more dangerous.