Mephedrone Becomes Internationally Controlled Substance. So What?

The United Kingdom can congratulate itself on a job well done after successfully pushing for mephedrone to be scheduled internationally last month. But, does this really change anything? 

At the 58th Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna, 47 countries voted in favor of bringing mephedrone under Schedule II of the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, with no countries opposing. The UK hailed the move as marking an "important milestone in international action taken to combat the rise in dangerous and harmful NPS [new psychoactive substances]."

Leaving aside the broader topic of NPS for now -- one which countries are currently obsessing over -- the UK brought its crusade against mephedrone to the international arena in part because of the drug's emergence and subsequent surge in use domestically between 2009 and 2010 when there was a drought of MDMA.

In the UK, mephedrone exploded (relatively speaking) onto the scene as an uncontrolled substance; the Home Office’s annual British Crime Survey (BCS) for 2010/2011 showed that 1.4 percent of 16 to 59-year-olds had taken mephedrone in the past year, a similar prevalence rate to ecstasy. Concentrating the age group to 16 to 24-year-olds, this rate rose to 4.4 percent for past year use, the same level as powder cocaine.

If mephedrone use was still at or around these levels in the UK, and you accepted the argument that outlawing a substance internationally would significantly impact on use levels, then one could begin to understand why the UK was pushing the issue. But, this is far from the case.

By 2012/13, the rates of use for mephedrone in the past 12 months had fallen to 0.5 percent for 16 to 59-year-olds, and 1.6 percent for 16 to 24-year-olds, according to the BCS, with these figures remaining more or less stable for 2013/14's survey. MDMA purity and availability has crept back up and mephedrone use has fallen off a cliff. So, what is the point in controlling it internationally, particularly when the UK took measures domestically and made it a Class B substance in 2010?

What's more, it took the UK until 2014 to even raise the prospect of scheduling the substance when it would have known full well by that point that mephedrone had by and large had its day in the sun. Speaking at the CND, the UK delegation stated that mephedrone was a prevalent and persistent NPS, neither of which ring particularly true in 2015.

While this move will likely have a negligible impact on mephedrone worldwide, it serves as a worrying warning sign about where countries are looking to take the fight with NPS.

Many countries supported the move to make mephedrone a Schedule II drug mostly because of the precedent it could set for controlling other NPS rather than due to anything to do with mephedrone specifically. If states believe that they can schedule their way out of the issue, they're horribly mistaken, and only need to look at the impact putting drugs like heroin, marijuana and cocaine under international control has had on use rates -- practically none!

Countries may pat themselves on the back about the great job done scheduling mephedrone and decide they can do this with a host of other NPS, but it will only increase the harms associated with these substances as they slip further into the realm of criminal markets and outside of any proper form of control.

You would think that decades of evidence from other narcotics would be enough to teach governments otherwise. But then I suppose if we subscribe to the rhetoric being bandied about with regard to NPS, this is a whole other ball game ....