Mephedrone - an end to the madness?

By Prof. David Nutt

Barring an outbreak of common sense in the Lord’s when they debate the bill today, it appears that mephedrone and some analogues will be made illegal very soon following a rushed passage through the Commons yesterday. This will mean that being caught in possession of the drug for personal use can result in a maximal 5 years in prison and supply/dealing can result in up to 14 yrs in prison. The decision to make mephedrone illegal as a Class B drug has been made based on a series of cases where it has been alleged mephedrone contributed to the death, although none of those deaths have yet been officially attributed to mephedrone.

So where now? The ACMD report on mephedrone was published at the end of last week and is remarkable for the almost complete lack of hard data on the drug itself or its presumed harms. The decision to make it illegal is based largely on a magazine survey of users and the structural and psychological resemblance of mephedrone to amphetamine (also a Class B drug), whether mephedrone has caused significant problems or not. Certainly if there were medical issues they should emerge soon given the high usage of the drug in recent months.

It was particularly disappointing that so little is known about the basic pharmacology of the drug especially the fact that no studies have conducted on the since its arrival on the drug scene in mid 2009. This failure to study the science of new synthetic drugs is something we should rectify in anticipation of newer ones becoming available and legal in the next few months as manufacturers find ways to get around the mephedrone ban. In addition a proper assessment of the consequences of mephedrone being made illegal needs to be carried out in order to determine if use declines and to see if the goal of harm reduction is achieved. This latter assessment must take account of the harms of criminalisation of users which hopefully will be less than those of the use of the drug or the policy will have failed. It should also monitor any increase in criminal activity associated with dealing and importation of supplies and estimate the harms of these to society. If a proper assessment is achieved, we may be able to judge the mephedrone episode more clearly in a few years time and use it to improve ways of reducing future drug harms.