THE recreational drug mephedrone, aka miaow-miaow, was banned in the UK last week, a month after front-page stories of still unproven links between it and a number of deaths. By the time the law came into force on 16 April, online dealers were already selling new legal alternatives.
It's a well-established cycle: the authorities crack down on illegal drugs or ban legal ones, underground chemists do some molecular tweaking or dust off old research chemicals to create a new legal high, dealers order in new stocks from primarily Chinese manufacturers and set up shop online, the police encourage the media so that political pressure builds up, a ban follows, and around we go.
So far, so predictable, but the cycle is speeding up. The UK's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was pushed into recommending a mephedrone ban when there was little hard evidence of its effects although its chemical similarity to amphetamine and anecdotal reports suggest large doses probably are dangerous, and potentially fatal. A ban might save lives, but it may lead mephedrone users to try more impure, illegal drugs, boost the trade of criminal gangs and certainly drive the development of legal alternatives.
The European Commission-funded Psychonaut Research Project monitors the web for novel recreational drugs. It has already identified MDAI, developed as an antidepressant, and NRG-1, prescribed as an appetite suppressant in France, as candidates for the next wave of legal highs.
Prohibitionist approaches to such drugs have long been seen by many as futile at best harmful at worst. What few in power seem to have noticed is the game-changing role of the internet. In today's connected world of social media, reactionary, prohibitory policies are increasingly irrelevant.
Experimental chemists and "psychonauts" chat in web forums. Young people who used to ignore their parents and politicians in favour of friends now get their drug information from Twitter, Facebook or myriad other social sites. In the US, 18 to 30-year-olds trust non-government websites more than their parents. The free flow of information on the web is exposing not only the wild exaggeration and speculation of much mainstream media reporting, but also undermining populist politicians whose instincts are to ban first and ask questions later, if at all.
If governments continue to tailor their drugs policies to pacify loud but ignorant newspaper editors, their policies will soon cease to be relevant in the real world. If they want their drugs policy to work, it must be thoughtful, rational and evidence-based, not a cynical, politically motivated stunt to pacify the editors of tabloid newspapers.
New Scientist magazine - editorial,
- 21 April 2010
- Magazine issue 2757
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