Meow Meow and The UK Situation.
On 2 March 2010, the Government decided to begin the process for declaring certain substances to be controlled. A large number of these are products sold at head-shops as legal highs, but the most well known are mephedrone and methylone, and other related cathinones products. Cathinones derive from the khata plant and the increase in control was justified on the basis of their similarity in structure and effect to amphetamines.
The British government stepped up its mephedrone control in March, making it a Class B substance, meaning that those found in possession of the substance can receive prison sentences of up to five years, while dealers can receive sentences of up to twelve years. The ban came after the UK Government received advice from the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs Act, which stated that ‘the harms associated with the cathinones most closely equate with other compounds in Class B’.
However, due to the relative novelty of cathinones in widespread use there is, as yet, little evidence of their danger in public consumption. Indeed, even the amphetamine connection is not necessarily solid; the ACMD also stated that ‘There is a need for more basic research to examine the similarities and differences between the cathinones and their amphetamine equivalents.’
The argument on harm to users is similarly unsure. As the ACMD reports, ‘Most data regarding the harms of the cathinones (mephedrone in particular) are self-reported and there are very few clinical data available.’ Given the lack of data, the scientific analysis is relatively light, and there has been assertions from several former members of the ACMD that it is political pressure rather than medical necessity that has pushed through the ban. The data reliant on self-reporting is relatively unserious. A study of 25 people who presented themselves at hospital with toxicity due to mephedrone over a one-year period found that 16% required medication for agitation, while 80% were discharged without treatment. One was sent to the Intensive Care Unit for toxicity due to another drug.
Similarly, despite intense media coverage of legal highs leading to deaths, there have not been any deaths that have been proven to be caused by mephedrone or other cathinone derivatives. Although seven of eighteen deaths in the United Kingdom have found mephedrone at time of death, only one post-mortem implicated mephedrone as the cause of death, and this was a combination of mephedrone and methadone. Similarly in Ireland, where there have been no post-mortem confirmations of mephedrone caused death.
This is not to say that cathinone-derived drugs have no negative side effects. There are several that are similar to amphetamines and particularly to MDMA, especially tachycardia, which is an accelerated heartbeat and vasoconstriction, the narrowing of blood vessels, can increase the body internal temperature. Although there are no signs of the substance being inherently addictive, some 85% users do report strong cravings to re-dose to maintain the high, which exacerbates any health dangers of the use.
Tachycardia is another serious symptom, reported as afflicting one in two users. Agitation and paranoia, common effects of stimulant use, are also experienced, and a quarter of users have reported anxiety and low mood in days following use, which would indicate short-term depletion of serotonin in the brain. This is also experienced in the use of MDMA.
Eric Carlin resigned from the Council after the ban was pushed through, complaining that members had not even had time to read the complete report before the chairman left the meeting to brief the Home Secretary on the issue for a press conference. Similarly, Polly Taylor resigned after complaining that there was undue political interference with the process. The mephedrone scandal was preceded by the sacking of David Nutt, previously chair of the ACMD, for question the efficacy of criminalisation of drugs. He notably warned of the danger of equasy, pointing out that horse-riding deaths in Britain outnumbered those due to ectasy considerably.
He was dismissed by the Home Secretary Alan Johnson, who said that he strayed beyond the line by criticising government policy. Subsequent reviews found that he acted within government policy for advisers, and the inability of Johnson to give assurance on the future independence of scientific advisers led to five more resignations, meaning a total turnover of 7 of 21 advisers in recent months over governmental interference.
Mephedrone has in recent months become the fourth most popular recreational drug in the UK & Ireland, excluding alcohol and tobacco. The reasons suggested for this include diminishing supply and quality of illegal amphetamines, which supports the contention of the ACMD that mephedrone is used as a substitute for this type of drug. This is also supported by the surge of arson attacks upon headshops in Ireland, which have been blamed on drug gangs. It is likely, then, that criminalisation of mephedrone will serve to help drug dealers whose margins were sufficiently threatened for them to attempt violent acts.
The scientific basis for the control of mephedrone is, as of yet, inconclusive. The ACMD report draws on a shallow pool of evidence, leaning especially heavily upon self-submitted data from a mixmag.com survey and records from 25 hospital attendees with problems from mephedrone use. This is not sufficient to clearly ascertain the risks associated with the drug, nor is it sufficient to assess if control through prohibition is necessarily the most suitable way of mitigating these risks. Mephedrone and the other cathinones do seem to have health risks which require greater investigation, but neither the UK or Irish governments has shown that public health and safety would be best protected by prohibition. As such, it seems that government policy is being driven by considerations other than the stated aims of drugs policy and may be a response to media coverage.
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