Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Mephedrones will keep happening until we wake up to our drug policy failings.

It was only a matter of time before mephedrone hit the headlines associated with the death of a healthy young teenager, and we sadly learned today of two teenage friends in Scunthorpe who have died after taking the drug. We also learned - but only if we read further into the various news articles - that the boys are thought to have been drinking, and also to have taken the class A drug methadone (commonly used as a heroin substitute in treating heroin dependency). While mephedrone may have been a contributory factor in their death, perhaps the sober piece of advice to be issuing at this stage would be for individuals not to mix alcohol, mephedrone and methadone over the course of an evening.

That said, I have considerable sympathy with calls for an immediate ban. Many of the testimonies I have heard or read speak of teenagers trying the drug thinking "it's okay because it's legal". All the evidence meanwhile points to mephedrone having similar effects and harms to drugs like cocaine and amphetamines. Were mephedrone to be brought into the current classification system it seems likely that it would be a class A drug with all the criminal penalties for possession and supply that go with that. We are hearing about mephedrone use becoming extremely widespread amongst young people and we have to ask ourselves whether we really want to criminalise these people if they wish to continue use after the drug becomes prohibited.

For me the greatest concern is the drug's availability. I have just googled mephedrone and found the 3rd listed website is offering half a kilo of the drug for just under £2000 (1st: compilation of news links reporting deaths attributed to the drug, 2nd: the drug's Wikipedia entry). There is apparently nothing to stop anyone with a debit card purchasing their choice of quantity from a gram (£13) upwards.

So what should be done about the situation? Sadly the ACMD still hasn't recovered sufficiently in numbers from the Nutt sacking affair for it to be able to make a formal recommendation. But can we wait for it to retain its competency?

I personally found my ease of access to the drug quite chilling, and given the press coverage today and again tomorrow: we can only expect further curious individuals to check out the website and have a dabble themselves. Surely urgent action is required, and probably the most sensible course would be to adopt the "Class D" approach that has been used in New Zealand. Here's David Nutt on Class D from tomorrow's Guardian:

"One approach would be a new class in the Misuse of Drugs Act – the class D model, adopted in New Zealand to deal with BZP. This is a holding category where drugs can be put before they are well understood: sales are limited to over-18s; the product is quality-controlled so users know what they are getting, at doses limited as far as possible to safe levels; and it comes with health education messages. Society can limit sales and collect data on use.
Manufacturers and shops that disobey these regulations are punished, and the young are protected, but not criminalised. Last summer the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, when under my chairmanship, suggested this approach in response to the growing use of spice and BZP. It was rejected, they were both made class C, and possibly as a consequence young people began to turn to mephedrone."

When the government instead prohibits sale and places the drug in class A a few months in the future, some unintended (but to be expected) consequences will arise. Anyone with half a brain will know that prohibition will lead to an increase in price. Those with less than half their scruples might seek to stockpile the drug in anticipation of prohibition and profit greatly from distribution to the existing customer base. Secondly: those who were previously enjoying the drug's legality would be committing a criminal offence after prohibition with all the risks that holds for their liberty and future employability. Thirdly: the trade would likely quickly be taken over by the dealers who currently market illegal drugs and these people would likely employ the same profit-maximisation practices of cutting and aggressive marketing that they currently employ for their cocaine and heroin. Fourthly: people who might never have tried class A drugs were it not for mephedrone's legality and availability might be tempted to try the other class A drugs it will be classified alongside. Fifthly: unscrupulous chemists will rush to discover the "next mephedrone" with which to make a quick buck at the unpredictable expense on the health of the nation.

The government should quickly act to create a Class D. We don't need any more young people being criminalised for what they consume in the hope of having a fun time (often misplaced from what I can tell). One thing the government cannot afford to do though is wait. The mistaken consideration of this drug's legality being indicative of its safety is risking the futures of too many children for inactivity to be an option.

If the government is to get it wrong in prohibiting mephedrone then I hope they do so soon. The experience with mephedrone must then be seen as further stark demonstration that current drug policy is not working. If the government plays it right they can use mephedrone as an excuse to review their drugs policy in the face of tabloid outrage. If we continue as we are, all the drugs that Britons use will continue to constitute a greater health, social and economic burden than they need to. And if we continue as we are, there will doubtless be many more drugs that will add to that burden in the same way mephedrone is doing now.

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