Mephedrone: lethal scourge of teenagers or just a 'legal high'?
The favourite new drug of clubbers and schoolchildren hit the headlines last week when two young men died after taking it. Sold under a range of street names – meph, miaow miaow, MC, drone and bubbles – and easily available on the web, mephedrone is not illegal. But should it be? Here, four people from different sides of the debate – a user, a mother, a dealer and a doctor – have their say on 'the poor man's cocaine'
The user: Jack Starks
The first time I encountered mephedrone, meow meow, plant food or whatever you want to call it, was about a year ago at a friend's house in south London. We were back from a night out at the student union and all wanting to continue the party when my friend's flatmate, Brandon, got back from work and, with a sly smile, disappeared into his bedroom, to return with a huge box. He dumped the biggest pile of powder I had ever seen on the table. "This, my friends, is mephedrone," he said with relish. "And this is the future."
The drug Mephedrone also known as 4-MMC is legal in the UK and readily available on the Internet
Like many students, I've never been one to say no to a new experience. We all end up running into drugs at some point, so I decided to see what all the fuss was about. I've always enjoyed a spliff and, on occasion, a little more, so I assumed this was just another casual substance I would be bumping into.
Nicknamed by users as "poor man's cocaine", mephedrone has swept through our nation's youth like a strong dose of salts, permeating every aspect of the party and night club scene. In less than six months, it has come from obscurity; everyone knows someone who's on it. Paradoxically, it was given a chance to become popular because of an EU restriction that prevented the importation of two substances necessary to the production of MDMA (ecstasy to the layman) that made it impossible to make or purchase any MDMA in Britain from late 2008. Mephedrone filled the gap in the market, and at half the cost of MDMA; it was everywhere.
You can snort it, drop it in "bombs" (rolling papers filled with it), and I've even come across people who eat it. The effect is euphoric, in some ways similar to ecstasy but much shorter-lived; you need to take a lot more of it a lot more often. The first time I took it, I could feel my heart pounding; everything seemed as if it was about to explode into life and I was up till the early hours in a wild rampage of excitement. But there any comparison ends. With mephedrone, the romance period is very short: after taking it just a couple of times, your tolerance increases dramatically, to the point that you're doing three or four times more than you were in the beginning to get high. Your appetite for the stuff also increases.
Brandon was well ahead of the curve. He was importing it from China at about a £1 a gram and selling it to students at £15. By mid-October, when our student loans had still failed to appear and finance was getting tight, we hit on the idea of doing the same. We could simply make a trip down to a seedy office in Victoria where we could buy it in bulk at wholesale price and then sell it on to our friends at a profit. Doing this you could turn £100 into £400 in a weekend and have a bit left on the side for yourself.
It became a crash course in drug dealing for beginners, and we weren't the only ones at it. Hundreds of students had spotted the gap in the market. You couldn't set foot in a club or house-party without someone walking past offering you "drone".
Whether or not this was legal is a good question, because although mephedrone isn't covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act, it is illegal to sell it for human consumption. Companies get round this by putting stickers on their product saying just that. When selling it, we would always tell people that it was not to be used to get high – it was almost a running joke. A very dangerous joke indeed.
When on it, you get very edgy (hence the comparison to cocaine) and you constantly crave more. It is possibly the most addictive substance I have ever come across. What makes it far more dangerous is that it is the first of a new breed of designer drugs, made purely to evade the laws surrounding controlled substances.
No one has considered what this will do to people in the short or the long term, and no one cares. Mephedrone might be called "plant food", but it is a plant decomposer, so what it does to your insides I dread to think. I once accidentally left a spoon in a bag of the stuff and came back three days later to find it had stripped off the outer coating and my mephedrone scattered with tiny silver bits of spoon. We still snorted it.
My stance was changed dramatically by my experience of prolonged use. After three or so months of using it at least a couple of times a week, I found myself in the darkest depression. I stopped taking it and suddenly found myself looking round at my friends with their eyes rolling in their heads and realised how much rubbish we had all been talking to each other. Good, straight-edge kids who barely used to drink have become crazed drug fiends, sitting in their house snorting plant food five days a week.
One friend of mine took it once and now has to use an inhaler, because he has permanently damaged his lungs. Another has almost ceased to be a friend, and is now a socially apathetic zombie, chasing mephedrone around London with his girlfriend, no longer able to interact without it, constantly asking if he can borrow 20 quid.
We've always been happy to get wasted on a night out, but I've never seen anything creep into so many everyday lives like this. I am horrified by the effect this drug has had on the people around me, and would urge anyone thinking about taking some tonight to change their plans.
Jack Starks is a student in his early 20s who lives in south London
The mother: Sophie Radice
For all those parents who have read with sadness about the deaths of an 18-year-old and a 19-year-old in Scunthorpe, but allowed themselves to be even slightly reassured that their own teenagers can't have come across mephedrone because they are so much younger, not yet clubbing and living very different lives, think again.
I first heard about mephedrone six months ago, at first from another north London mother whose son had ordered this "plant food" off the internet and who had roused her suspicions when he couldn't explain why he had suddenly developed an interest in gardening.
Then from my own daughter, aged 14 at the time, whose friends had discovered this legal high. She described them as "talking rubbish as if it is the most interesting thing in the world, and that they dribble and lick their lips and gurn and grind their teeth".
She said that people shook, bit holes in their lips and cheeks, were unable to feel their legs, were frightened because their heart was beating too fast and that their skin looked grey.
This might seem like any teenage group that has discovered harder drugs. It is rather like a description of my own group of friends at that age. What is different is that, in those six months, those friends who thought they were just experimenting seemed to need to take greater amounts of mephedrone on more and more occasions. Mephedrone is often sold in five gram bags and, as it is so "more-ish", it seems to be easy – even common – for a user to go through a whole bag.
Surely that kind of ever-decreasing, short-lived high is what makes dealers extremely rich and leads to the kind of desperate endless addiction of the crack-user?
Should all of this mean that we should immediately ban it? Well, I have always had a liberal view about drugs, believing that the criminalisation of drugs just creates an underground. I look at how making ketamine (a horse tranquilliser) a class C drug didn't stop its use among the young.
On an intellectual level, I agree with Professor David Nutt's measured suggestion of creating a "holding" class of D drug category. Within this category, sales would be limited to over-18s; the product would be quality-controlled, at doses limited as far as possible to safe levels; and it would come with health education messages. I also agree with Nutt that what we should look into is why teenagers are so drawn to taking drugs and why binge-drinking is so prevalent in this age group.
On a much more visceral, instinctive level, this "let's wait and see how harmful this drug is" D category doesn't comfort me at all. For this younger age group, the legality of mephedrone is a real attraction. While they can get hold of "weed" to smoke (mostly through older siblings, and even parents), because they are not yet going to clubs but to each other's houses or private parties they are rarely able to get their hands on harder drugs.
They can buy mephedrone off the internet or from headshops (shops selling drug paraphernalia) or stalls. Teenagers of this age seem to think that its legality means that it is safer than other drugs, which might also contribute to the wild abandon with which it is taken.
Health warnings wouldn't do a thing (my daughter says that, perversely, the deaths in Scunthorpe have made her friends even more determined to take the drug) and surely an over-18s rule on the net would be just like those porn sites that ask you to click a button to say that you are over 18 and that's all the proof you need. Prosecution of those selling to under-18s would be almost impossible in cases of website dealing.
For this age group, making mephedrone a class B drug would at least put up some sort of substantial hurdle and make it much harder for them to get hold of.
Just making it so much more difficult to track down may cause enough of a pause for some sort of easing-off from the enthusiastic consumption of what seems to be a particularly addictive drug.
Oh, and while we are waiting for a decision on this, look out for a fishy smell in your teenager's sweat, nose bleeds, restlessness, headaches, insomnia and a traces of yellowy powder on the surfaces in their room.
Sophie Radice is a journalist and mother of two who first came across the drug last year
The dealer: Mark
I have no background in narcotics. My worst offence is a puff on a joint in college, which I found unpleasant. I am at heart "anti" substance abuse, though I am in favour of free choice.
I own and run three normal, legitimate businesses, all of which, thanks to the recession, have had their troubles. Have you ever laid off a loyal member of staff? It's the worst feeling in the world. I was looking for a lifeline.
I first heard of mephedrone in September. A friend heard about a new chemical that was originally a kind of plant food. It was legal and its effects mimicked cocaine and MDMA. I started searching for information on Google and within an hour I knew this would be a winning business.
From the start, I wanted to run this completely legitimately. No shady cash deals, pay tax, give excellent service with a quality product at the right price. Was I comfortable with the concept? No. Did I want to lose my home to the bank? No. Decision made.
In the first weeks, I bought my stock inside the UK, but very quickly I began buying direct from a manufacturer in China. I registered a company and contacted a web designer.
This is where the problems started. Even before the press discovered mephedrone, it was not possible to find good professional help. Undaunted, I built my own website. No banks would touch the credit card side of the business. I fudged round this and I was up and running. I launched the website and within an hour had five sales. My first week I turned over £8,000; the second, £10,000.
Then, last November, mephedrone hit the headlines. Its use was blamed for the death of a 14-year-old girl, although this turned out not to be the case. I thought it was the end. How wrong I was. That week, sales doubled. When mephedrone is in the news, demand rockets. Last week came the death of two boys. (I cannot comment on this tragedy, except to say I do not believe mephedrone was the cause.) One of my websites, which usually gets around 1,200 hits a day, received more than 20,000. The media have made mephedrone what it is.
Before you leap to judgment, do you drink alcohol? It is deadly, with 8,000 deaths directly attributed to it in the UK in 2008. There is a huge trade in illegal drugs in the UK. But people do not have to be criminals. They don't have to buy bags of drain cleaner from dodgy blokes in pub car parks.
The process of importing has become difficult lately, as UK Customs has begun withholding shipments. I have had 40kg seized. No explanation has been given and Customs has made no contact. This is surely illegal.
Mephedrone looks likely to be banned. This is the most dangerous thing that can happen. It is essentially a very safe substance. There is no addiction and to date I know of no deaths directly attributed to it. There are suppliers online such as me who treat this as a genuine business and supply a quality product pure to the customer.
The day mephedrone is banned, I will shut up shop. The taxman will lose hundreds of thousands of pounds and the criminals will step in. Prohibition has always failed. And the genie is really out of the bottle this time. Millions have used mephedrone in the UK. If they are stopped from getting it legally, they will either buy illegally or, even worse, try something new.
No British government would have the courage to exercise the level of common sense needed to keep it legal, what with an election looming and swarms of horrified Daily Mail readers to impress. This government has already sacked the moderate, sensible and knowledgeable Dr David Nutt. Mephedrone will be banned – and be dammed.
Mark is a businessman and owner of several websites that sell mephedrone
The doctor: James Bell
I first heard about mephedrone last July. The young man sitting opposite me told me that it had just arrived on the nightclub scene. He had tried it at once. He was well-educated and from a prosperous and stable family (who knew nothing about his drug use). He was in my clinic to withdraw from another "legal high", GBL. After using GBL for a few months, he had been dismayed to discover that he had become dependent. His lament "I didn't know it was addictive" could have been uttered by most doctors and policy-makers.
We are all playing catch-up as new compounds are recognised, banned – and new drugs appear, the risks of which slowly become apparent. Legal highs are mostly compounds closely related to known (and banned) psychoactive drugs. Mephedrone is chemically very similar to ecstasy. The slight variation in structure makes it legal, but also means that mephedrone has different pharmacological effects and toxicity.
This makes difficulty for the advisory council on the misuse of drugs, which advises the government on whether a drug should be banned, as it has little information to go on. It takes experience to find out about the harms of particular drugs. It was only in the late 1990s, after years in which cannabis was regarded as a fairly harmless drug, that studies demonstrated it caused the development of psychosis in some vulnerable adolescents. News that two people died after using mephedrone suggests it may be dangerous, but we don't know enough. Mephedrone can cause cardiovascular problems, but I suspect that the post-mortem findings will identify other contributing drugs.
GBL, which was classified in December 2009, is a case study in legal highs. Many users overdose inadvertently and a small proportion progress to dependence. On trying to stop, users can experience severe withdrawal symptoms. Throughout 2009, most GPs and drug services knew nothing of GBL, and were unable to offer treatment. It was to catch up with this need that a "party drugs" clinic was established in south London . Attendees have reported that, since being banned, GBL is still readily available for same-day delivery, from internet sites outside the UK.
Mephedrone and GBL both enhance confidence and sociability and reduce sexual inhibitions. However, it is easy to lose the plot. The first dose of mephedrone produces intense euphoria, but repeated dosing produces decreasing pleasure and increasing paranoia and irritability – yet some people keep chasing the initial high until exhausted. This binge pattern of use maximises risks and minimises benefits of drug use.
A pre-election environment is a bad time to initiate a discussion about drugs policy, as there is a risk that any debate will degenerate into which party is going to ban more drugs, more rapidly. "Legal highs" are an easy target for moral outrage, precisely because they are legal and something can be done about that. More difficult is trying to address Britain's prodigious demand for drugs, legal and illegal. A non-partisan debate about reducing the harm would be valuable.
Dr James Bell is an addictions consultant at the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust
Mephedrone: The facts
■ Mephedrone is one of a group of drugs derived from cathinone, a powerful stimulant related to amphetamine compounds like ecstasy. ■ The drug costs about £14 a gram. Dealers in Britain spend up to £2,500 to ship 1kg from China, a profit of £11,500. ■ The Psychonaut Research Project, an EU-funded organisation that trawls the internet for information on new drugs, first identified mephedrone in 2008. Its research indicates the drug became available the previous year. ■ A recent survey found that one in three readers of dance music magazine Mixmag had used the drug in the previous month. ■ Mephedrone's surge in popularity is reported to have coincided with a scarcity of MDMA – ecstasy - after the seizure of 33 tonnes of sassafras oil in Cambodia in 2008. UN officials said the amount of oil, one of ecstasy's principal ingredients, could have produced 245m tablets. ■ Side-effects include nose bleeds, hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, circulation problems, abnormal heart beats, rashes, anxiety, paranoia, fits and delusions. ■ Positive effects are said to include a sense of euphoria and wellbeing, with users becoming more alert, tactile, confident and talkative. ■ In the past year, mephedrone has been banned in Germany, Sweden, and Denmark. In Britain, the home secretary has asked the advisory council on the misuse of drugs to establish the scientific evidence and to recommend whether it should be banned.
The Observer, Sunday 21 March 2010