We need a rapid reaction drugs unit
As recent deaths linked to mephedrone prove, we need a better way of dealing with the fast-moving world of street drugs
My friend had not even heard of "meow meow" or mephedrone when the head of her children's leading London day school decided to take the law into his own hands – well before the tragic mephedrone deaths hit the press last week. He was not prepared to wait on the government. At a PTA meeting before Christmas he informed her and every other parent in no uncertain terms of this new and dangerous drug, one that went under several names and guises. It was legal, cheap and freely available, he warned; they must warn their children and impress on them how dangerous it was; for his part he had already explained to the school, that its legality notwithstanding, any pupils found with it would be expelled forthwith
Until earlier this week, the official response to mephedrone has ranged from the non-existent to the casual to the downright irresponsible. It is an indictment of the government'sAdvisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) that it has taken several deaths to finally galvanise it into action. For this is a drug described by one former student user as the most addictive substance he had ever come across, one that led him into "the darkest depression", that left his friends, "good straight-edge kids who barely used to drink", with their eyes rolling around in their heads, turning into "crazed drug fiends". Not my words; but his.
Yet lrecently on Cif we had David Nutt, the former chair of the ACMD, expressing his outrage at "irrational" police behaviour for arresting kids at a club for possession of mephedrone "as though it was not illegal". He also told us that this drug was safe and pure; that mephedrone deaths were scare stories; that the drug had the benefit for young people of "avoiding the limitations in their careers that a prosecution for drug possession would bring." Since then, Nutt has said that, "it is virtually impossible to police the problem … the crime and justice side of things would get out of control. The police would spend their whole lives just arresting teenagers with mephedrone in their pockets" This of course is both disingenuous and wrong: it is "because this stuff is legal, they ... are prepared to take it", desperate father, Stephen Welch, strove to explain in a plea for action on a recent Today programme.
Indeed it is its very legality that has turned the UK into the world mephedrone capital in less than a year. This drug (and its associated compounds) is not impossible to ban or police. Several other countries – including Germany and the Netherlands, have demonstrated that. The Swedes banned it over a year ago, on 15 December 2008, one day after an 18-year-old girl died of convulsions and hyponatremia induced by the drug. This was no kneejerk reaction; they already had a dedicated force of internet detectives in place tracking every new drug as it appears. The Swedish National Institute of Public Health had already added it to their list of illicit drugs, some two months previously, following an EU warning. Nor did the Swedes find this time gap before legal enforceability acceptable. So right now the Swedish parliament is considering changes to the law to give police immediate powers to detain legal drugs for as long as it takes to investigate each.
Here, though, nothing. Indeed, the Foresight report Nutt cites actually praised the new generation of psychoactive drugs as safe potential pharmacological alternatives. It discussed ways to normalise use along with changes to the regulatory environment needed to give the pharmaceutical companies control of the market. That is what his new holding category D is about: a subtle back-door approach to licensing recreational drugs use.
What should we do? First, we must recognise that the very process of ACMD's risk assessment of new drugs is unfit for purpose in today's fast-moving internet drugs world. Classifying a new substance can take up to two years or more, as was the case with GBL. So even if the AMCD creaks into motion this week, after Iverson's statement of intent, it is likely to take months while they establish the scientific evidence to determine which class mephedrone should go into, and even more time before it gets on the statute book.
Second, the police and the Home Office must get ahead of what is happening on the street, as they do in Sweden. Today it is mephedrone. Tomorrow another noxious, toxic substance will emerge. If the government is not to leave the public bemused, children unprotected and teachers frustrated, it must scrap the archaic processes of the ACMD and set up a rapid reaction drugs unit with powers to detain these drugs – and those who manufacture, import and sell them – while they are investigated. For the choice is stark. It's between that and children dying.