Clubbers don't care whether a drugs is legal or not, just how it makes them feel, research shows
Mephedrone, the former "legal high" sometimes referred to as "meow meow", has become the clubbing scene's favourite drug, according to the first research of its kind.
A new paper, published in the online version of the Journal of Substance Use, found the drug was more popular than cocaine and ecstasy among clubbers – despite being made illegal in April 2010. The research, carried out by a team at Lancaster University, raises important questions about drugs policy and the impact of classification on substance use.
It has been suggested that legal highs – substances that share many of the properties of illegal drugs but have not been classified – have become popular because their use carries no criminal sanctions. But Fiona Measham, a senior lecturer in criminology who led the research, said there was little evidence that making mephedrone illegal had affected its popularity among users.
"The legal status wasn't considered important," Measham said. "Among the people we spoke to, I was surprised how much they liked it, how much they enjoyed it. They wanted to take more and were prepared to seek it out and buy it on the illegal market."
Of the 308 people questioned in a survey at two clubs in south London one night last summer, 89% revealed that they had tried an illegal drug at least once in their lifetime. Half of the sample, 154 respondents, reported that they intended to use drugs that night – mephedrone was the most common drug, with 27% planning to take it.
Significantly, mephedrone was found to be the second most commonly used drug within the past month and past year (41% and 52% respectively), with only cocaine being used more frequently (44% and 59% respectively).
The surge in the drug's popularity on the clubbing scene appears to have been rapid. In 2009, an online survey of 2,220 readers of Mixmag, the clubbing magazine, revealed that mephedrone had emerged from nowhere to become the fourth most popular drug among British clubbers, with 42% reporting that they had used it at least once, 34% reporting that they had used it in the past month and 6% within the past week.
Surveys suggest that gay clubbers take more drugs than the general population, but Measham said her findings may be indicative of wider trends in substance abuse. "Gay clubbers tend to be early adopters, so from studying this group you may get an indication of future drug trends in the general population," said Measham.
Mephedrone's price appears to have remained stable since possession of it was criminalised with a gram currently costing between £20 and £25. Significantly, the findings did not suggest that users of mephedrone – which Measham said was sometimes referred to as M-Cat, but was only called meow meow by newspapers – switched to other legal highs when the drug was made illegal.
"Part of the legal highs debate is this idea that if you ban one, people move on to another," said Measham. "But this didn't happen. People liked mephedrone and were prepared to buy it on the street if they could no longer get it legally online. But the fact people hadn't started taking MDAI or naphyrone [now banned] or lots of the other legal highs, shows a certain discernment. People don't take anything because it's legal, they take it because they like it."
The researchers, who included toxicologists from King's College London, suggested the rise in popularity of mephedrone may be partly down to deeper trends affecting the illegal drugs market. They write: "The popularity of mephedrone suggested by this study should be placed in the national context of a recent reduction in the availability, purity, prevalence and associated deaths for established illegal drugs in the United Kingdom, such as ecstasy and cocaine."
Declining levels of MDMA, the chief chemical in ecstasy, have been attributed to the drug falling out of fashion on the clubbing scene over the past couple of years as disgruntled users seek alternative stimulants. Their decision to switch to mephedrone, however, is surprising. The drug conveys many of the experiences associated with amphetamines, rather than the more "relaxed" feelings common with ecstasy use. "Users told us there were terrible comedowns with mephedrone, but it was rather moreish," Measham said. "You would do a bag of it and then want another."
The Observer, Sunday 17 July 2011
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