Going Deeper Into Prohibition

In April 2010 UK Government decided to ban mephedrone (a former “legal high”) motivating its decision by public health concerns. The ultimate goal was to limit availability of the drug and eventually eradicate it from the market. The same as in the time when the ban was being passed the counter arguments are piling up today. For example, knowing the trends of supply and consumption for other banned substances (i.e. marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines etc.), is it a really reasonable move? Can we expect people to turn away from mephedrone and magically stop seeking unofficial sources of it? Having in mind that the mephedrone was introduced as a legal alternative to cocaine or ecstasy, shouldn’t we be worried about potential reversal to those substances by consumers? Eventually, observing the growing speed in which producers are able to come up with another alternative, wouldn’t it be safer for the society to keep the drug open for use? This article seeks to give a basic answers to some of these dilemmas and present today’s situation on the illegal mephedrone market.  

Mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone) also know under popular names of Meow Meow, Bubbles and M-Cat became available on the market as a legal alternative to the illicit drugs like ecstasy and cocaine. It is chemically related both to amphetamine and to the cathinones and is usually sold in the form of white or yellow powder. Substance is sniffed or swallowed giving an effect of enhanced mood and increased heartbeat. So far however this is pretty much it when it comes to the knowledge on mephedrone and its effect on humans. Although we can understand the motivation of the government to ban the substance with unknown ramification, it is highly probable that once the mephedrone is illegal it will follow the path of lower purity and addition of extra substances which as methadone itself will pose a mystery to the unaware consumers.   

Straight Statistics go even further in criticizing the ban on mephedrone. Although the research is still unfinished, they claim that potentially use of mephedrone could save lives of people rather that put them in danger. So far they discovered that since the introduction of mephedrone the rate of deaths from cocaine overdose fall app by 28% in the first semester of 2009. Although it is still too early to proof that this trend can be observed among wider population (so far research was based on the mandatory drug test among soldiers), it may soon appear that “the decision in April 2010 to make mephedrone illegal may have had the unintended consequence” (Straight Statistics).

Adam Winstock and co-workers from the King’s College London pursed a research in June this year between the mephedrone users to check how many of them kept using the drug even though it became illegal. According to their results 63% of mephedrone users continued to use the drug after the ban, among which 55% intend to use the same amount as before. Moreover research assumes that the mean price for a gram of the substance is nowadays around £16, being app. £6 more than a price before legislation. It is further assumed that in total the ban did not construct a solid barrier for the consumers to obtain mephedrone. Another worrying fact is that Winstock et al, predict that, “in time, there are likely to be reductions in purity, and increases in health harms”.

Interestingly, despite the ban, mephedrone derivatives are still easily obtainable by internet. Researchers from the Liverpool John Moores University, the University of Liverpool and Lancaster University, say many drugs being sold as alternatives for mephedrone are also cathinones. The most common example of the “second generation” products is the NRG-1. According to scholars, in most of the 17 substances bought from the website vendors after the ban was introduced, 70% of them contained traces of illegal substances usually being the methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV). Problem which arises is that MDPV, if used, has to be taken in much smaller doses then mephedrone.  Another issue, as authors claim, is that "these products are offered as legal substitutes for the recently criminalised 'legal highs' […]. This suggests that both consumers and online sellers are, most likely without knowledge, at risk of criminalisation and potential harm".  Consequently the law enforced does not bring desired effects, leaving the mephedrone still on the market.

Concluding, the mephedrone ban introduced in April 2010, did not manage to discourage consumers from using the mephedrone. Similarly, like in the case of other illicit drugs, users are offered this substance from alternative sources (dealers or website) with no control on their content and potential harm. Frightening fact is that on many occasions buyers are not aware of what they bought, also not knowing how to use it. Although mephedrone is one of the most well-known examples of the “legal highs” it is definitely not the only one.  National drug policies tend to follow the path of prohibition not only in case of mephedrone, but also in case of other substances like synthetic cannabis (banned toady in the US). As mentioned, government’s intention might be very noble, but the mean in which it is operated can unfortunately bring more harm than good.