The media’s mephedrone coverage has been at best misinformed, and at worst wilfully misleading
A decade ago, a legal party drug was slaying teenagers all across England. The drug’s street name was ‘cake’, and many of its users died after crying their entire bodily fluid through their eyes. Still more copped it after contracting something called ‘Czech Neck’, a swelling of the neck until it engulfed the brain. One addict threw up her own pelvis bone.
If it sounds made-up, well, that’s because it was. Comedian Chris Morris invented the ‘drug’ to show how easy it is for a misinformed media to whip the public into an outraged frenzy about absolutely nothing at all. His stunt worked. Gullible celebrities flocked to condemn cake on camera. Rolf Harris denounced cake on Morris’s show, Brass Eye; Noel Edmonds was filmed lamenting the death of a cake-addicted Prague teenager who’d died after losing his sense of time; and gullible MP David Amess actually raised the issue in the House of Commons.
This is hilarious, we all thought, but presumably a one-off. Surely this wouldn’t again happen without Morris’s meddling?
But this year, it did. A few months ago, the media – entirely of their own accord – starting getting hysterical about something called mephedrone. The drug, they said, apparently nicknamed ‘meow meow’, ‘M-cat’, or ‘plant fertiliser’, was slaying teenagers all across England. “‘Meow meow’ drug teen ripped his scrotum off’”, screamed The Sun. “Man blasts himself in head with shotgun ‘after meow meow party’,” countered The Mail, before raising the ante with “Aspiring soldier hangs himself from tree ‘hours after taking meow meow’.” In total, newspapers have linked twenty-six deaths to mephedrone usage, and flooded their pages with countless more near-misses.
Tragedies, all of them. But, here’s the thing: tragic though they were, only one of these deaths was ever linked directly to mephedrone. Reading beyond the headlines, it turned out that many so-called meph victims died after taking a plethora of drugs in a single burst, only one of which was drone. And several more supposed mephedrone victims might not have even taken the drug in the first place.
All these scare-stories were therefore rooted in mere conjecture. Journalists were simply repeating things which had no concrete factual basis. They even got the names wrong. We were continually told that mephedrone had street-names as far-fetched as ‘meow meow’ and ‘M-cat’, but in both London and Cambridge I have never once heard it called either of those things. People call it ‘drone’, ‘meph’, and – occasionally by those confusing it with heroin-substitute methadone – ‘meth’. (Journalists presumably weren’t helped by policemen like chief inspector Mark Oliver, who lazily told reporters that one victim’s death was “linked to M-cat.” Have you ever heard an on-record policeman daring to call cocaine ‘charlie’? I thought not.) The whole media hysteria – from the minor details to the central allegations – seems then to be at best founded on a mine of misinformation and ignorance.
But these stories weren’t just the result of uninformed reporting. They were often just intentionally disingenuous. Journalists were aware that no one knew exactly why these people died, and certainly couldn’t be sure of how much, if any, a role mephedrone played in their deaths. Journalists knew all this – they even included these mitigations in their articles – but they buried them at the bottom of their final paragraphs, beneath their misleading headlines.
Those of us who know drone-users are aware that the drug is not without its dangers. There are side-effects, and vile come-downs. And I do not doubt that mephedrone, like alcohol, will have very serious consequences when taken in excess or in combination with other substances. But to imply, at this early stage, that it is a mass-murdering, generation-culling poison is a myth created only to sell newspapers.
by Patrick Kingsley
April 26, 2010
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Meow. Meow? Media Mephedrone Coverage Has Been At Best Misinformed