The effects of criminalising a ‘legal high’ are being highlighted by the most recent ‘legal high’ to attract significant media attention, mephedrone, (or ‘meow meow’ as it is additionally known). Mephedrone first emerged in the UK in 2008, and grew in prevalence rapidly; it was made illegal in April 2010.
Many believe that the vast amount of media coverage of the drug encouraged a greater number of inquisitive partiers to experiment with it. Research suggests that mephedrone emerged in part as the consequence of the declining quality of ecstasy. However, knowledge of the adverse effects of mephedrone is slight, there are no published formal studies assessing the psychological or behavioural effects of mephedrone in humans*.
In fact data from two recent surveys, including one by the Home Office have shown that the ban on mephedrone has not helped to reduce either the harms or the use of this substance.
A survey by Morgan et al., (2010) questioned 1,500 drug users regarding their experiences and use of mephedrone in relation to its recent ban. They found that 58 per cent of the respondents said they were less likely to use mephedrone since the ban, but 45 per cent said they would still try to get hold of it despite the ban and 51 per cent said the ban had not affected availability of the drug. More than half of those questioned had noticed no change in the availability of the drug in their area. More worryingly it also showed that 44 per cent of those who have used mephedrone said the ban made them more likely to use the Class A, drug ecstasy instead.
Recent Home Office figures on UK mephedrone use drawn from the authoritative British Crime Survey 2010-2011 estimate that around 300,000 16 to 24-year-olds, or 4.4% of their age group, used mephedrone in the past 12 months. This is a similar level of popularity to the use of powder cocaine by teenagers and young adults. The BCS survey, shows that mephedrone and cocaine rank joint second in popularity behind cannabis for this age group. The study reveals that more than half of those questioned had noticed no change in the availability of the drug in their area.
The evidence suggests that classifying a substance through the Misuse of Drugs Act does not reduce their overall harm or even use.
The Beckley Foundation believes that making a new legal high illegal leaves a gap in the market, which is then filled by unregulated criminals with far fewer controls on manufacture and distribution and no guarantees that the drug is not cut with other potentially more harmful substances.
Unlike cocaine, cannabis, heroin, alcohol and tobacco, we know much less about the impact of this new generation of psychoactive substances. It is hard to think of a legal initiative that deals with any other aspect of social life that has failed so thoroughly without political or public repercussions, or at the very least, trying a different approach. The 40-year regime introduced by the Misuse of Drugs Act has been characterised by a non-stop escalation in the misuse of drugs. Surely it is time re-examine these laws?
Alan Travis Home affairs editor at the Guardian has written the following article on the issue:
Mephedrone the former legal high known as “meow meow”, is as popular as cocaine among teenagers and young adults despite being banned last year, according to official figures.
Home Office figures drawn from the authoritative British Crime Survey estimate that around 300,000 16 to 24-year-olds, or 4.4% of their age group, used mephedrone in the past 12 months.
This is a similar level of popularity to the use of powder cocaine by teenagers and young adults. The BCS survey, drug misuse declared 2010/2011, say that mephedrone and cocaine rank joint second in popularity behind cannabis for this age group.
Mephedrone ranks alongside ecstasy in popularity among all drug users aged between 16 and 59, with 1.4% of all adults reporting they had used them in the past year.
The results of the annual survey of drug use in England and Wales show that almost 3 million people (8.8% of adults) used illicit drugs in the past year. They also show that one million of them – or 3% – used class-A drugs, with a fall in the use of cocaine accompanied by a rise in the use of methadone.
Around 2.2 million people aged 16 to 59 used cannabis last year and the survey also indicates a rise in popularity in ketamine in recent years.
The use of illegal drugs among the younger age group of 16 to 24 has, however, undergone a long-term decline, from 29% of the age group reporting they had used an illicit drug in 1996 to 20% in 2010/2011.
Home Office minister, James Brokenshire, denied that the alarming figures for the use of mephedrone, which was made illegal in April 2010, demonstrated that the ban had been ineffective. He said the BCS figures covered patterns of use before and after the ban had come into force. He stressed that just because a drug had been sold as a legal high it did not mean it was harmless.
But the interviews undertaken by the BCS for this year’s report would have took place between April 2010 and March this year. Respondents were however asked about their illicit drug use in the previous 12 months, and so could have related to the period when mephedrone was a legal high.
Martin Barnes, the chief executive of drugs information charity DrugScope, said: “While the broad downward trends we can see in today’s figures on drug use among school pupils and adults are both welcome and encouraging, the UK still has high levels of drug use in comparison to many of our European neighbours.
“The inclusion of mephedrone in the British Crime Survey for the first time reveals conclusively the extent to which the drug has become established on the drug market.
“Evidence on the long-term harms associated with the drug is still unclear, as is information on the risks of using it in combination with other substances. Given the timing of this survey, it is likely to include people who used the drug before it was classified in April 2010.”
He said Addaction, a provider of young people’s treatment, had seen a rise in the number of young people coming forward with problems relating to alcohol, ketamine and mephedrone. “This is at a time when funding for young people’s treatment services is being severely affected by local authority cuts,” Barnes said. “DrugScope and a number of our member organisations have recently spoken out about funding cuts which appear to be disproportionately affecting young people’s drug treatment, education and prevention work.”
The detailed BCS figures show that other banned “legal highs” such as “spice”, which imitates the effects of cannabis, have not established themselves in the same way as mephedrone. The research shows that the vast majority of those who said they had taken mephedrone in the past year were existing drug users rather than new users.