It would be easy to dismiss Ben Walters as just another casualty of illicit drug use. The 18-year-old student died at a house party in the small English town of Berkhamsted earlier this month after taking a stimulant known as Mephedrone.
But Walters hadn't consumed a banned substance. The white powder he reportedly took – which produces a euphoric high similar to Ecstasy – is legal in Britain and sold openly on hundreds of Internet head shops.
Mephedrone is a so-called "legal high": a synthetic substance that allows users to step out of their mind while staying within the law. Until a coroner's report is published, it's not yet known what role the drug played in Walters' death. But its use has sent dozens of users to hospital emergency rooms in the past year suffering from heart palpitations, circulatory problems, nose bleeds, panic attacks and hallucinations. It is perfectly legal for Brits to sell Mephedrone as long they tag its bag: "Not for human consumption."
Despite that warning, many Brits interpret the drug's legality as a guarantee of safety. "People think that because it's legal they won't get into trouble and that it must be less harmful than other drugs," says Gareth Balmer, project manager at the Dundee, Scotland, branch of drug and alcohol treatment charity Addaction.
Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Israel and Germany have all explicitly banned the potentially dangerous stimulant in the last three years. So why hasn't Britain followed suit? Blame the country's archaic drug laws. Before an intoxicant can be made illegal here, it has to be thoroughly studied by a scientific panel, and then new legislation must be enacted. That process can take well over a year.
In contrast, U.S. law rules that any chemical that produces a "substantially similar" effect to an illegal drug is automatically outlawed. As Mephedrone is chemically similar to the controlled substance cathinone, possession of the drug in the United States could land users in jail.
The intoxicant's above-board status in the United Kingdom has helped fuel its massive growth over the past 12 months. Addaction's Balmer says there's evidence that Mephedrone has started to replace Ecstasy as the ravers' drug of choice. "It makes sense," he says. "Why do something illegal when you can do something legal?"
According to a recent survey by dance music magazine Mixmag, some 42 percent of club-goers say they've experimented with Mephedrone, and 34 percent said they'd tried it in the last month. "It's everywhere at the moment," says Andrew, a 23-year-old recruitment consultant from Southampton. "I was at the O2 arena [a major London music venue] on New Year's Eve and loads of people were on it."
But Mephedrone – popularly known as "bubbles" or "meow meow," because of its chemical name, MM-cat – has spread far beyond the dance scene. As it's cheap (a gram of the stuff, enough for 10 adult doses, costs as little as $12) and easy to buy, a growing number of British children have started dabbling. "We've had reports of very young people, aged 12, 13 and 14, taking it," says Balmer. "Lots of parents have called us worried about how the behavior of their children has changed."
Perhaps ironically, the drug's rise has also been aided by the war on illegal drugs. While Mephedrone contains few cutting agents, the purity of Ecstasy has been declining since June 2008, when 33 tons of sassafras oil – which can be synthesized into MDMA, the pill's psychoactive ingredient – were seized and destroyed in Cambodia. "Over the past year, the quality of MDMA that I was getting got worse and eventually dried up completely," says clubber Andrew. "I see Mephedrone as a way to get MDMA-like effects without having to go through the hassle of trying to get good MDMA."
This booming legal high market has attracted a new kind of dealer. Mark, 23, started selling Mephedrone to friends in October, and recently set up an online Meph shop. He buys his product in bulk from a British supplier (who probably sources it from a laboratory in China, where most Mephedrone is produced) and shifts around 2 kilos a month, making almost $2,300 in profit. But Mark says he would never consider selling the drug if it were illegal. "I still work for a living – I'm an engineer, and in my final year at university," he says. "This is just helping me save up for a deposit on a house, which I would never have been able to afford otherwise."
Mark knows that he doesn't have long to bolster his savings, as it's likely the drug will finally be outlawed later this year. "I'm only in it for the short term," he says. "I'm not going to switch and start selling hard drugs."
As well as discouraging dealers, that law change will probably result in some users quitting Mephedrone. "I'll probably stop taking when it gets made illegal," says Andrew, "as the purity will inevitably decrease as dealers try to stretch out their stocks."
However, as Mephedrone seems to have addictive properties – many users report feeling the need to take repeated doses – it's certain that some people will continue to buy after the ban. And it's the health of these users that really has experts worried. As the drug only took off in the U.K. around 18 months ago, there's almost no scientific research on its long-term effects. Martin Barnes, chief executive of nonprofit drug research center DrugScope, points out that although the narcotic ketamine (originally a tranquilizer) was outlawed four years ago, it's only now that regular users "are losing bladders because of the effect on their urinary system. Long-term harms can take can take some time to show through."
A ban also won't end Britain's legal high dilemma. Chemists can stay one step ahead of the country's slow-moving law by slightly tweaking Mephedrone's molecules, creating a drug with similar stimulant effects but with just enough chemical differences to stay legal.
Until the U.K. moves closer to the U.S. system, it's likely to remain trapped in that endless cycle of flashbacks.
January 30, 2010