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Racking up the truth on Mephedrone

Mephedrone has become a popular choice amongst clubbers and students due in part to its easy availability and media exposure. (Photo: thephoenix.com)

For those of you familiar with the programme “Brass Eye”, the current media portrayal of Mephedrone can seem absurdly similar to the fictitious drug ‘Cake’.  If you are misfortunate enough to remain unaware of this great series, it was one which very successfully satirised the media’s depiction of various social ills including drug use, and made fun of the sensationalism and moral panic we have become accustomed to in today’s newspapers and documentaries.  How much of what we read can we truly believe?

Mephedrone is one of many ‘legal highs’ which can be bought legitimately through companies over the internet, collected in person or even delivered.  The main difference between this and illegal drugs is that rather than meeting with drug dealers in alleyways or side streets the weekend’s entertainment arrives by Royal Mail.  Perhaps more bizarrely, it can be collected in person from a central London location whereby, having filled out the requisite form, the buyer is presented with their drugs and an After-Eight mint to see them on their way.  If a person looks to be under the age of eighteen and cannot provide proof of age, they are turned away.

The reason it can be sold in this way is that it is such a new drug and has largely caught the authorities unaware.  Despite this, a recent Mixmag survey placed it as being the fourth most commonly used drug by clubbers.  It is described as being an analogue of methcathinone, itself an analogue of methamphetamine meaning that it is chemically similar without being the same substance. As such it is not a controlled drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.  Similarly, as it is most commonly sold as ‘plant food’ and ‘not for human consumption’ it can avoid any legal difficulties with the Medicines Act 1968.

With reports from the ‘The Sun’ that “legal drug teen ripped his scrotum off” it seems surprising that the drug could ever become a drug of choice for so many users.  However, for a generation that has tired of the scare mongering surrounding drugs, stories such as this are often met with derision.  Indeed, ‘The Guardian’ has reported that “the key side effect of the Mephedrone scare has been a spike in sales”.  This is hardly a surprising conclusion when considering that it is described by the same paper as having “the same effect as ecstasy and cocaine” whilst also highlighting the relatively low price commanded for the substance.  Mainstream media sources are motivated by profit and naturally alarming stories of teens tearing their genitals sell newspapers.  This results in unbalanced, sensational stories which do little to enable people to make sensible decisions about the substances they ingest.

Unfortunately there has been little or no research into Mephedrone as of yet and so it is almost impossible to ascertain exactly how much we should believe from the various media sources.  Professor David Nutt, former chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has stated that “these chemicals have never been put into animals, let alone humans” and suggests that people are “better off taking ecstasy or amphetamines”.  The only information available is supplied on internet forums by the users themselves who report their own experiences.  A frequent comment is the “moreishness” of the drug, a term which has become a useful euphemism for the compulsive desire to re-dose.  For low-income users of cocaine this feeling is familiar but is overcome by the lack of financial power to continue using the drug in this way.  The affordability of Mephedrone means that users can frequently re-dose over a period of days.  Being a stimulant, this places huge pressure on the heart and can lead to the formation of severe medical problems. There have already been instances of people requiring emergency medical treatment following use of this drug.

Other problems include vasoconstriction which occurs when the blood vessels narrow, which increases blood pressure.  This typically leads to a numbness of the hands or feet and often a bluish tinge to the skin.  Users have reported being unable to move one of their feet or of feeling extremely (and unnaturally) cold having used the substance.  Perhaps of more concern is damage to the brain, especially when we still know so little about how it works.  Due to the compulsive nature of the drug heavier users often binge in excess of three days without sleep and so creating a worrying picture whereby serious mental health problems can develop for the remainder of someone’s life.  As an extremely new product the longer term effects are only just beginning to materialise although at the Royal College of Psychiatrist’s Faculty of Addictions conference reports have emerged of users developing psychosis.

Whilst the media are in part to blame for the sudden escalation in use of Mephedrone, it is instead recent successes in the ‘War on Drugs’ that have been the largest contributor.  Regardless of the media intervention, the use of legal substances such as Mephedrone was already increasing as drug users became disenchanted with low quality ecstasy and cocaine.  The recent drought in the ecstasy market also assisted considerably as drug using party goers have been forced to look to alternative substances.

The current situation is ludicrous as people are moving from substances of which they have informed knowledge of the short and long-term side effects and into the hands of a new substance with a high addiction potential and one which may cause severe physical and psychological damage.  The relentless progress of science can only result in the proliferation of “analogues” of illegal drugs as dealers recognise the benefits of huge profit margins without the risk of incarceration.  The recent ‘successes’ claimed in the war on drugs are exposed for the fallacy that they really are.  Perhaps the most appropriate way to sum up the current position for the government is a quote from the late Bill Hicks; “We are losing the war against drugs. You know what that implies? There’s a war being fought, and the people on drugs are winning it”.  Surely it is now time for a change in failing drugs policy?

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