The new drugs taking mephedrone's place
More risky alternatives have sprung up in wake of the ban, showing that education is a better way to deal with drug use
In the pre-election ferment, one of the last actions of the outgoing government was to ban the "legal high" drug, mephedrone. This occurred in a climate of rabid press calls for regulation partly fuelled by the deaths of two young men supposed to have taken the drug. It now turns out that this evidence was incorrect and they had not taken mephedrone. Nevertheless, given the febrile atmosphere, the ban may have given some people the comfortable feeling that a situation was under control. At the time there was speculation that other "legal highs" were waiting in the wings to replace mephedrone. It is perhaps too soon to know what effect the mephedrone ban has had, but there are signs.
For example, in the window of a prominent alternative cafe in the town where I live there is a neat handwritten notice entitled "2-DPMP (desoxypipradrol)". The notice warns strongly against taking this drug as it causes profound hallucinations and has led to the hospitalisation of several local users. It seems that the drug has come in from Holland and is being used as a "mephedrone substitute". Desoxypipradrol is a highly potent stimulant drug with actions related to those of methylphenidate (Ritalin), but unlike other stimulant drugs it stays in the body for a long time. This makes it very difficult to judge the dose to take and overdosing may lead to hallucinations and prolonged insomnia. There are alarming reports on the internet of the experiences people have had with this drug.
This is only a snapshot of what may be occurring with stimulant drug use following the mephedrone ban. It does, however, highlight some issues about drug policy in the UK that are not being addressed by these simple bans.
Banning drugs such as mephedrone may give the illusion of control, but the cheapness of synthesis in the Far East coupled with internet supply has changed drug availability forever. New drugs will become available as others are banned. The banned drugs may still be available. Because of a lack of regulation, we cannot be certain of the purity of the drugs supplied in this way, so that users may be consuming unknown mixtures of chemicals.
These new substances have often not been tested for toxic effects, such as neurotoxicity, carcinogenicity or birth defects. We also have only a rudimentary idea of how the new drugs work and no idea how they affect the brains of young people after prolonged use. These substances are not going to disappear, so we need to obtain this information. A good solution here would be for the government to set up research programmes to study these new drugs. The research programmes should aim to understand how the drugs work as well as establishing their possible long-term effects.
Despite the potential dangers, people clearly want to take drugs to change their mood and perception. We must try to understand this need and manage the situation – by putting in place public education programmes to make people aware of the risks they run when they take these drugs.
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 2 June 2010 10.00 BST