The legacy of the rush to pass a 'tough' new law on mephedrone may ultimately be its unworkability
It was Abraham Lincoln who said: "The best way to repeal a bad law is to enforce it strictly." The enforcement of the new law on mephedrone may eventually prompt its own self-destruction.
The law making mephedrone illegal to possess or supply was passed in both houses of parliament yesterday and will come into force on 16 April. The order specified the home secretary had first consulted the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). He did, albeit in rather perfunctory manner. But the problem, legally, is that the ACMD is not constituted as required by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Following an exodus of scientific expertise, the council appears to lack two of its statutory members. (Naturally, I have asked the relevant officials at the Home Office for clarity on this point but without reply.)
This technical detail may not hugely concern the fretful law makers in parliament as the leviathan of an election looms. But it is likely to be at least of passing interest to large-scale dealers of mephedrone; the uncertainty over the safety of this law could effectively be their insurance against future conviction.
Similarly, the nation has few qualms about the outlawing of the drug because of the extraordinary lurid media stories about deaths, overdoses and severe addiction. But what do we actually know about the drug when the depleted coterie of experts have produced such a dismal report?
I have experienced, at first hand, several ACMD investigations (ketamine, cannabis, qat, methamphetamine). The ACMD's mephedrone report maintains an intellectually coherent structure, but is devoid of many of the fundamental measures for assessing any drug's dangers.
Dr Les King, the former chair of the ACMD's working group on legal highs, said the report is, "long on the chemistry, but short on almost everything else". He suspects, after losing its core of scientific experts, the bulk of the work has been done by co-optees. "I wonder what existing ACMD members contributed – not a lot I think," he said. It's rather like expecting a Premiership team to excel when most of their players have been hauled in on loan deals.
The report has serious gaps in basic information. For example, there is "no purity data available", so we do not know how strong the drug is. The epidemiology is based, in part, on an article for the New Musical Express. Data on prevalence was derived from a survey conducted by dance culture magazine Mixmag and is also based on bare numbers of hits on the Talk to Frank website. That does not amount to a measure of its use.
It is quite astonishing there are no studies on dependency, treatment or prevention. The evidence referenced from Guernsey, where controls have already been introduced, indicate mainland Britain could soon face a sudden emergence of street dealing, a leap in price and plummeting purity with plenty of associated violence. But this potentially disastrous development was reported blandly without even recognising it as a negative outcome.
Three new statutory members were shoe-horned in (on the same day as the report was published) with precious little time to consider much of the evidence. The latest of seven members to resign, Eric Carlin, reported new papers being tabled but without time to consider them fully.
The interim ACMD chair, Les Iversen, is a highly respected neuropharmacologist; his books on cannabis and amphetamines are definitive works. But this is a picture of chaos and corner-cutting in the ACMD which I do not remotely recognise under the previous chairmanships of Michael Rawlins or David Nutt.
Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrat spokesman for home affairs, said the government, in controlling mephedrone, was "pandering to tabloid newspaper editors". It is worse than that – their advisers are actually using the inflammatory news reports as source material. The ACMD study says "media reports from 8 March indicate secondary school children were missing classes". This Daily Mail report, about 180 pupils in Leicestershire falling sick on mephedrone has already been exposed as, "not recognisable as any school in the county". Dr King also described this section on "societal harms" as "a hotchpotch of anecdotes, media reports and speculation".
So bereft of useful material was the ACMD that they felt compelled to inform us that mephedrone "has no efficacy as plant food" as often advertised and so retailers, they suggest, could attract prosecution under the Trade Descriptions Act. A more bathetic point about a "killer drug" is hard to imagine.
The ACMD has been denigrated by the government, who are guilty of their intellectual abuse. But the legacy of this rush to establish a new "tough" law may be more serious; a law with a fault line running right through it.
April 9, 2010
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Flawed thinking on mephedrone ban