Science | Comment – Mephedrone, not for human consumption

Mephedrone, more commonly known as MCAT or Meow Meow was the first of a new type of drugs, and it will not be the last. A synthetically produced research drug belonging to a group of drugs known as cathinones; MCAT erupted onto the UK drugs scene possibly as a result of international prohibition involving a mass capture of safrole oil. Safrole oil is the precursor of choice for MDMA, also known as Ecstasy. It is used as it is easy to synthesise into the end product and also results in a high yield. These properties allow it to be transformed into a highly profitable illicit drug with minimal skill or expertise required.  The 2.5 tonne seizure of safrole oil in Brazil resulted in a global drought in MDMA production.

This absence resulted in an enormous gap in the international illicit drug market. MCAT spectacularly filled this void and emerged as one of the most popular drugs in the UK in a matter of months. The rate at which MCAT became established in the market was unprecedented; the same drugs had occupied popularity for generations and any new drug typically took many years, sometimes decades to establish itself within drug culture.

Reasons stipulated for its success were its potency at low doses, low manufacture cost, short half life resulting in users requiring multiple doses in one night, the internet enabling easy purchasing and most importantly its initial legality. It skirted around drug laws by occupying a distinct new category of drugs previously not covered in law. Other newer generation research drugs evade the law by slight chemical changes to their structure creating powerful analogues of illicit drugs.

The research drug scene was once the niche domain of psychonaughts and chemistry enthusiasts. The internet and social media revolution combined with the catalyst of MCAT, has changed the drug culture of the masses forever. “Not for human consumption” was and still is a novel way of avoiding food safety legislation and drug laws. The legislators have been agonisingly slow to respond in policy to the adaptive new analogues that have come onto the market.

This is in part due to the fact that tightening laws regarding these drugs can be seen as an infringement on the scientific progress into drugs used against conditions such as depression. The independent panel that looks into drugs, The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), takes long periods of time to weigh up decisions on drugs. It does this in an evidence based manner before making a recommendation to the government. The government can then choose to take on board and act on these recommendations as much or as in the majority of cases as little as they want.

The panel has had lots of embarrassing press recently with the unfair dismissal of Professor Nutt. As a fall out of this many other panel members resigned and it puts in question its independence, if anyone who conflicts with policy message is seemingly dismissed. The government continues to not inform its drug classification system based on evidence.  Important considerations do not seem to be about dangers to the individual and society but on moral judgements from voters and political peers.

New analogues are being produced at a far greater rate than can be legislated against. There have been efforts to resolve this issue in the form of a ban, known as a temporary drug class order (TDO). TDO’s have been in effect from 15th November 2011 according to the home office and aim to tackle the issue of new research drugs. The order is time consuming for all involved and subject to parliament agreeing it within 40 days of the home secretary making the order. The order has a maximum duration of 12 months for the ACMD to have time to give advice on its potential dangers. Maximum penalties for dealing drugs under TDO are of 14 years of imprisonment. The point of review for the ACMD seems totally pointless, as the government completely ignores there guidance. Making any psychoactive drug legal, regardless of whether it is safer or more harmful than routinely prescribed drugs would be a paradigm change of approach from the government.

The legal high market was once the mainstay of lame horses in the form of herbal extracts. The new generation of research drugs that have surged into the market can be more potent and hazardous than illegal class A drugs. The lame horse has transformed itself overnight into an unregulated roid raged stallion. The legality does not mean they are safe, as the legal status of a product normally implies. Legal high shops cannot give any advice to the customers as that would imply they are selling a product to be consumed and used recreationally. Potentially lifesaving advice such as the correct dosage, method of ingestion and possible side effects cannot be given. A Russian roulette must be undergone instead if users decide to take these chemicals.

Research has shown that education does not encourage drug usage but actually the converse. The more informed individuals are about drugs the less likely they are to actually take them. Many organisations currently endorse harm reduction in their substance misuse clinics. Harm reduction is the philosophy that in society people will inevitably take drugs and its aim is to help reduce the negative consequences as a result. It uses resources such as access to support and quitting programs such as step down therapy with methadone. Methadone is a long lasting heroin replacement.

A pressing example of the research drug scene is the availability of the drug White M&M from the internet and legal high shops in the Leeds area. It is the best selling powdered product at a local vendor in an easily accessible area. According to online sources such as the reputable drug advice site of Erowid; M&M is thought to contain analogues of MDA and MDAI. These drugs have similar effects to both Ecstasy and Cocaine, and are available for only £10.99 for 0.5 grams.

No-one knows exactly what the product contains unless you were to get it checked out in a chemistry lab. The short and long term side effects are unknown. And of course they are not for human consumption. The point is that drugs as powerful as and more potent than illegal class As are available and accessible both on the high street and on the internet.

While we are on the topic of class A drugs, consider the fact that more people die annually from horse riding than ecstasy overdoses, and almost every case has made headline news in major newspapers. Many reports in the media have attributed death to an illicit drug whereas at post mortem the findings were actually unclear and typically a cocktail of legal and illegal drugs have been present. Tobacco and alcohol also cause considerable damage to both the health of the individual and society as a whole. Why has a big legal and moral red line been drawn across drugs of different forms? Both alcohol and tobacco can be both physically and socially addictive, as are many illicit drugs.

There is some evidence to suggest that ecstasy can be used in therapy; patients were able to express and share their deepest concerns and issues far more rapidly than traditionally used methods. Marijuana can be medicinal for certain conditions, such as arthritis and is legalised in some parts of the world for this reason.

So, in conclusion, illegal drugs are not always dangerous and legal drugs are not always safe. As with most controversial issues most open minded individuals lie on a continuum between the two poles of an argument. A world without mind altering drugs would probably be more advantageous for society. It is an idealistic viewpoint though and is incredibly hard to police. The rigidity in governmental approaches is rarely pragmatic. The new jerk attitude to the prohibition of new chemicals has lead to even more dangerous replacements, akin to of a hydra’s head. The dangers for users are greater. This is due to the lack of genuine knowledge on these substances and as a result makes giving advice about their effects and side effects harder.

Maybe more debate and discussions with experts in the field would lead to a more dynamic and progressive approach? A change may have either a positive or negative effect depending on your viewpoint. We will not know unless it is tried, and existing methodology has not yielded great improvements, the other side of the so called war is changing its weaponry. Einstein was once quoted “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.  I hope this article will facilitate debate and has been educational. All facts were correct as to the best of my knowledge at the time of writing.


Jonathan Derrick

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