Mephedrone: classifying 'legal highs'

By chillinwill · Mar 2, 2010 · ·
  1. chillinwill
    Until we know the real harm of legal recreational drugs such as mephedrone they should be put into a holding 'class D'

    A couple of weeks ago, seven students from Lancaster University were arrested for possession of a drug, even though the policeman leading the arrest team made it clear that the drug was not illegal. This was not the first time the police had exhibited such behaviour in relation to this drug, so what is leading to this apparently irrational police behaviour? The drug in question is mephedrone [not to be confused with the opioid substitute treatment methadone], a synthetic stimulant drug that is relatively new on the UK drug scene although it has been popular in Israel for a number of years.

    Mephedrone is one of a number of so-called "legal highs" – these are drugs that users find pleasurable but which are not yet illegal, and indeed may never be. Mephedrone goes under various trade names such as "meow meow", "plant food" and "bubbles", terms derived from its chemical structure, commercial uses and subjective effects respectively. It is readily available from "head shops" and is popular with university students and other groups of clubbers. Its pharmacology is hardly studied but it is chemically related to the amphetamines. Users describe effects that suggest its actions are between those of amphetamine (speed) and MDMA (ecstasy); it activates, energises and makes them feel good but is relatively short-lasting.

    There are several reasons for its current popularity. Mephedrone is sold as the pure substance, so users know what they are getting. This contrasts with current street supplies of ecstasy and speed, which are often very low quality after being cut with inactive agents and may even contain some other, more dangerous, drugs such as methylamphetamine. Another reason for its popularity is that it is legal, so can be purchased without having to make contact with drug dealers who may pressure buyers towards other drugs, and currently there is no risk of a criminal record from being caught with it. In contrast, being caught in possession of MDMA and other class A drugs means one risks up to seven years in prison, and for amphetamines [class B], five years. Users see benefits in avoiding the limitations to their careers that a prosecution for drug possession would bring. Prior to the rise of mephedrone, another stimulant known as BZP was popular, but the government has recently made this a class C drug, which may have displaced users to mephedrone.

    Is mephedrone harmful? Because its use is so recent there is relatively little evidence on this point, but from its pharmacology we could not make the assumption that it would be completely safe, especially at high doses. Users report effects such as a faster heart rate as one would expect from a stimulant. In the UK, there have been scare stories of mephedrone deaths, but so far none has been proven, though mephedrone was involved in the death of a Swedish teenager in 2008. The Israel experience was that it could lead to repetitive use and stereotyped behaviours in some users consistent with the likely release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain.

    The European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Abuse (EMCDDA) is currently gathering Europe-wide evidence of use and harms to decide if mephedrone should be made illegal by the EU. The government would be advised to wait until this report is published, rather than rushing now to make changes to the classification system.

    Last year, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) suggested that new drugs of uncertain harm might be put into a holding class – such as the "class D" approach adopted by New Zealand several years ago to deal with BZP with some success. Drugs in class D are allowed to be sold in limited quantities to adults, with appropriate warnings of health risks and advice on safe use. Manufacturers are licensed, provided they comply with quality control of manufacture and report sales on a regular basis. This allows an accurate knowledge of the use of the drug against which harms such as hospital presentations can be compared so that a good estimate of harm/use ratio can be obtained; an informed decision can then be made whether to make the drug illegal or not. Mephedrone would seem an ideal candidate for instigating such a holding class in the UK.

    David Nutt
    March 1, 2010

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  1. snapper
    A halfway reasonable article on mephedrone. The usual erroneous background information aside, the suggestion of the new classification and controlled distribution is a really good one. SWIM bets it just becomes prohibited anyways. Unlike BZP which was of limited recreational value and made one feel like crap with any kind of prolonged use, mephedrone allows its users to indulge in excessive drug-taking marathons. This kind of compulsive behavior is usually considered a very threatening quality in a drug and will be the strongest argument for controlling it.
  2. Synesthesiac
    Written by Proff Nutt I should point out to anyone who missed that fact, the ex head of the ACMD before he was sacked for speaking up about the dangers of alcohol compared to many illegal drugs. I think its a very sensible article and would not disagree with anything from it, apart from maybe the prohibitionist system its written to conform to.
  3. Burgersoft777
    BZP as you rightly point out, had the sort of hangover that kept a lid on its abuse potential. Saying that Swim really liked BZP, and was surprised when a better stimulant came along. The downside of Mephedrone seems to be the very moreish nature of the drug, there certainly is a hangover of sorts but at moderate dosage it very mild indeed. It would be really good if it was put in Class D with restrictions on the amount a person might buy, but what is the chance of such a mature outcome, when the press is full of horror stories?
    There is a slightly better chance of a common sense solution if a Conservative government is elected, as it has a large libertarian wing, which dislike placing restrictions on adults. As we have seen banning one group of drugs only leads to another group being developed and sold. In this case we have a substance that is untested becoming very popular almost overnight. If any nation is going to buck the trend and stop the knee Jerk banning of all recreational drugs then it will be the UK. Saying that swim am not holding his-her breath, sanity seems to be a long time coming.
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