Pressure to ban the "legal high" mephedrone is rising in the United Kingdom, especially since it was linked to the deaths of two teenagers on Sunday. But the former head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is urging the government to move with caution, and perhaps to create a new drug classification for new drugs whose effects and dangers are not well understood.
Mephedrone is an amphetamine-type stimulant derived from cathinone, the active ingredient found in khat. When chewed, as is the custom in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, khat delivers a mild stimulant buzz that has been likened to drinking a cup of coffee or strong tea. But mephedrone, which has exploded in popularity in the last year or so in Great Britain, delivers a high that users liken to ecstasy or cocaine.
Known as M-Cat and meow-meow, among other nicknames, mephedrone is reportedly becoming a favorite alternative to ecstasy on the British club scene. It is available online and in head shops in tablet, powder, or liquid form, with a dose running between $20 and $30. It has been linked to three deaths, including the two on Sunday, but it is not clear that any of those deaths were directly caused by mephedrone.
The 18- and 19-year-old men who died on Sunday, for instance, ingested alcohol and methadone, as well as mephedrone, during a night of clubbing. And the cause of death for a 14-year-old girl who died last year after taking mephedrone was listed as bronchial pneumonia, not mephedrone overdose.
According to the British newspaper The Guardian, Home Office drugs minister Alan Campbell has said he will move to take "immediate action" after receiving advice from the ACMD at the end of the month. The ACMD already has mephedrone on its radar, having held an evidence-gathering meeting on the drug on February 22.
Campbell spoke amidst a rising clamor for an immediate ban from anti-drug campaigners and school head teachers. Campbell insisted that the Home Office was ready to "act swiftly," but not too swiftly. "It is important we consider independent expert advice to stop organized criminals exploiting loopholes by simply switching to a different but similar compound."
But former ACMD head David Nutt, who was sacked last year after repeatedly criticizing the government for valuing politics over science and evidence in its drug scheduling decisions, said mephedrone should stay legal for now and that Britain should consider adding a new category to its drug scheduling scheme.
"To make it illegal without proper evidence of harm would be wrong and might have unwanted consequences, such as a switch to more dangerous drugs or alcohol," Nutt said. There is an alternative, he added. "One approach would be a new class in the Misuse of Drugs Act -- the class D model, adopted in New Zealand to deal with BZP. This is a holding category where drugs can be put in place before they are well understood: sales are limited to over-18s; the product is quality-controlled so users know what they are getting; and it comes with health education messages."
Knowing the Labor government and its record when it comes to drug scheduling, however, chances are that mephedrone will be banned by summer.