Hysteria and hubris: lessons on drug control from the Scunthorpe Two

The announcement today of data obtained several weeks ago that the “Scunthorpe two” – the young men who supposedly died of mephedrone (meow meow, M-cat) poisoning – had not taken this drug raises a number of fundamental questions over the decision to make mephedrone a Class B drug just before the election. The ensuing media hysteria over their deaths that was fuelled by the local police holding an international press conference was probably the tipping point in the decision to ban mephedrone, that was made by an incomplete ACMD in an intemperate and rushed manner. At the time, it seemed unlikely that mephedrone was to blame as the two young men had been drinking heavily until the early hours of the morning and stimulants like mephedrone usually attenuate counteract to some extent the sedative effects of alcohol. What appears likely is that they took some other sedative drug – probably methadone – which is highly dangerous in combination with high levels of alcohol. It is too late now to reverse the government decision to make mephedrone Class B but we do need to learn the lessons from the debacle of its being banned.

These are:

  • That the police should not make pronouncements and certainly not hold press conferences on mere conjecture.
  • The media should wait for evidence and allow the scientific process to take place before claiming harms of new legal highs.
  • The government and their advisers should have the courage to face down media hysteria and let the truth evidence drive decision making.
  • Proper investment in the science of new drugs is required - we at the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs are currently developing guidelines on the minimum data set that will be made public and should be acquired for any new drug before a decision to ban it is made.
  • There is a real need for a new approach to the drug laws; the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act is forty years old, fatally flawed in its current classification system and not fit for purpose in this new internet-based environment in which it must be used; it needs fundamental revision or better still, a completely new approach should be taken.
  • The message must be conveyed to anyone who drinks and takes drugs that alcohol itself is very toxic (killing by acute poisoning, hundreds of young people each year through stopping breathing) and these actions are magnified when in combination with other drugs that lower breathing. If you do consider taking drugs whilst drunk then avoid at all costs other sedative drugs such as opioids and GHB/GBL.

If the media, the police and the government are serious about reducing the real harms that drugs are causing in the UK, they need to address the drug that is killing a young person every day purely through poisoning: alcohol. Until they do, no sense can enter the debate.