Hysteria and inaccuracies have been the main ingredients of the media coverage of mephedrone
Even Chris Morris might have had trouble making it up. In 1997, the celebrated satirist tricked public figures including Rolf Harris, Noel Edmonds and David Amess MP into warning Britain's teenagers of the dangers of taking "cake", a new "made-up pyschoactive compound" also known as Basildon puke plates and loony toad quack. Bernard Manning told how one girl had thrown up her own pelvis. Amess later tabled a parliamentary question asking the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to look into banning cake.
Thirteen years on and the ACMD is in the news again, this time advising the government to ban the all-too-real drug mephedrone (on Friday, Eric Carlin, an ACMD member, resigned in protest). Most people in the UK had not heard of the substance until three weeks ago, when police said they believed Louis Wainwright, 18, and Nicholas Smith, 19, had taken it shortly before being found dead on 15 March. The media went into overdrive, reporting a suspected death toll of six within a week and 26 within a fortnight. Children as young as eight were reported to be on it and 180 pupils from just one school in Leicestershire had apparently gone off sick after taking it. The Sun launched a campaign for a ban.
Last Monday, Professor Les Iversen, the ACMD chairman, said the substance had been implicated in 26 deaths in England and Scotland. This formed part of the evidence in the ACMD report advising the home secretary, Alan Johnson, that mephedrone should be a class B drug. Johnson promptly announced the government's intention to seek all-party agreement for emergency legislation.
So everyone should be happy. The reality is that there is yet to be a single death that a coroner blamed primarily on mephedrone. Leicestershire county council says there is no school at which 180 pupils have gone off sick. And no teenagers from Durham or anywhere else have attempted to rip off their own scrotums while on the drug.
The media's coverage has angered some who work in the drugs policy field. "The misreporting of mephedrone deaths is a crass example of the potentially lethal alliance between press and politicians that by default ends in a ban that often creates far greater harms than those caused by use," said Danny Kushlick, of the drugs charity Transform, which opposes prohibition.
The most widely reported mephedrone case before March was that of Gabrielle Price, a 14-year-old who died "after taking" mephedrone in November. Few papers bothered to record the results of toxicology tests released in December showing the cause of her death was "cardiac arrest following broncho-pneumonia which resulted from streptococcal A infection".
Her case was included as one of 27 mephedrone-implicated deaths compiled by the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths. In one case, a woman died as a result of the "adverse effects of [the heroin substitute] methadone and mephedrone". Of the remaining 25 deaths yet to be ruled on by a coroner, the presence of mephedrone has been demonstrated in 10 cases, with test results pending in the others. "I'm not saying that 18 deaths in England can be attributed to misuse of mephedrone," Iversen said on Monday. "We don't know that yet, so let's not be too hasty in our conclusions."
In November last year, the Sun published a story under the headline: "Legal drug teen ripped his scrotum off". Quoting a police report, the paper said an unnamed teenager from Durham needed hospital treatment after mephedrone made him him "rip off his own scrotum". An internal police report had said: "One individual states that after using it for 18 hours his hallucinations led him to believe that centipedes were crawling over him and biting him, and this led him to receive hospital treatment after he ripped his own scrotum off." However, it carried on: "This information was taken from an internet blog and as such it should be treated with the credence such information deserves." The officer said he took the story from a website that sells mephedrone, and that his warning was not printed. The owner of the website that hosted this blog, mephedrone.com, says the posting was a joke.
Drugs advisers fear further escalation in the drugs war ahead of an election. A spokesman for the Home Office said: "The advice and recommendations made by the ACMD are based on evidence from academic experts, police and customs data, toxicology reports, scientific papers and overseas organisations."
April 5, 2010