It may be the end of the line for legal mephedrone, after a brief and controversial high, but that doesn’t mean the party’s over, as Ed Cumming discovers.
On a Thursday evening in early March a group of Oxford students are preparing for a night out. Though exams are looming, lectures are about to take a break for a few weeks, so it’s a perfect opportunity to kick back. In a couple of years’ time they will be bankers, lawyers, doctors, government aides, and they study hard the whole year round. They play hard, too, but they don’t take drugs. At least not what most people think of as drugs – cocaine or MDMA (Ecstasy), for years Britain’s party drugs of choice. Sitting around a comfortable flat in the suburbs, they are eating pizza, chatting and taking ‘drone’. Lots of it. Conversation is fluid and fast: they flit from politics to art and back to whimsy, refilling each others’ glasses with rum and ginger ale as they go.
Eventually, Laura, an elegant grey-eyed classicist in her second year, stands up. ‘We’re just going to pick up again,’ she says, as her boyfriend puts on his jacket. Nobody bats an eyelid. Half an hour later she returns, blustering. ‘It’s absolutely ridiculous,’ she says. ‘Five minutes to pick up, 25 minutes to get a cab.’ Four grams of mephedrone, more than enough for all of them, has cost £50 – the same price as a single gram of cocaine. She neatly racks six lines of white powder; 10 minutes later they have all sent it up their noses and are sitting back, more animated than ever and ready to go out.
‘I’d never really take anything else, but this is so easy,’ Robbie, a medical student, says, as we walk towards a club off George Street. ‘It stings your nose a bit, but then it’s a nice rush, and it’s so reliable. It works the same every time. You can rely on its effects.’ The club is full of others just like them. Bright, good-looking young people: dancing, drinking, smoking Camel Lights on the kerb outside and talking rapidly. Many have taken mephedrone. ‘Drone is so normal now,’ Laura says. ‘People are taking it all the time. In some ways it makes me miss the days I used to take MDMA, though at least you don’t get a big comedown with drone.’
Over the past few months the drug has become so prevalent that it’s almost commonplace. One physics undergraduate I speak to, James, complains that ‘everyone is on it’. Standing outside the club, he points down the road towards a group of giggling girls. ‘They’re definitely on it for a start.’ James is starting to find drone too ‘gritty’, too ‘up and down’. ‘You keep wanting more,’ he says. ‘It makes you long for proper drugs.’ Evidently mephedrone, the ‘legal high’, does not count as ‘proper’.
Not for much longer, it seems. Last month Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, announced that following a series of high-profile deaths connected with mephedrone use, he was rushing through a ban on the drug that would come into effect within weeks, classifying it as a class-B substance (the same as cannabis). Supporting the decision, Les Iversen, the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), the public body that recommends classification of new or existing drugs to the government, said, ‘It is being taken by young people who have never taken drugs before… because they think it is legal and it is safe. It isn’t.’
Mephedrone, or di-methylmethcathinone, is a cathinone – one of the family of drugs derived from the khat shrub, chewed widely in Africa to produce a stimulant effect. Dr Paul Dargan, a consultant toxicologist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital in west London, and an active member of the British Pharmacological Society, has seen mephedrone rise from being unknown to an increasingly frequent cause of poisoning in his patients. ‘It’s a phenomenon of 2009 and 2010 which we weren’t seeing prior to 15 months ago,’ he says. ‘The pattern of toxicity is very similar to other stimulant drugs such as Ecstasy or cocaine. Patients are presenting with significant agitation – they often have a fast heart rate, high blood pressure and chest pains. There’s a small but significant minority that have convulsions or seizures.’ He says that the problem is growing. ‘We saw 30-40 patients who had taken mephedrone up to January 2010. But the figure for the first quarter this year is higher than the final quarter of last year.’
Though the drug’s precise human effect remains unstudied, doctors seem in agreement that the effects of the cathinone family are similar to those of amphetamines, which work by increasing the uptake of stimulant chemicals such as dopamine and noradrenaline. Dr John Thompson, a clinical toxicologist from the University of Cardiff, says, ‘What’s happened with amphetamines is that people have taken the basic structure and modified it, and by modifying the molecule they’ve affected how the drugs work. The evidence at the moment is that cathinones are very similar. The differences depend on how each drug affects the neurotransmitters – there’s a suggestion that these cathinones last longer than amphetamines. Whether that’s because there’s something inherent to the drug or if they haven’t worked out how much to take, I don’t know.’
Though mephedrone has only recently hit Britain, its earliest recorded widespread production was by an Israeli company called Neorganics, which sold it as Neodoves until January 2008, when the Israeli government banned it. Since then it has been available from limited websites, most of them originating in China and south-east Asia. Though it is advertised as plant fertiliser, or ‘plant food’, it was always designed to be a human stimulant. But it didn’t take off in Britain until the early summer of last year, when it became popular at music festivals after the supply of MDMA suddenly and acutely dried up across Europe.
‘It was just like that,’ Sophie, a final-year student at Cambridge, says, snapping her fingers. ‘One week mandy [MDMA], next week none. Then a few of the more hardcore takers started arriving with this new stuff, mephedrone, which was legal and which had a kind of halfway effect between coke and mandy. Then it got really big at Oxford at the start of Michaelmas [the term beginning in October]. It’s got bigger since then – I reckon on some big nights maybe a quarter of students have been on it.’
The MDMA shortage was caused by successes in the war against drugs. In June 2008 Cambodian authorities working with Australian agents burnt 1,278 barrels of sassafras oil, hidden up and down the Cardamom Mountains. Extracted from the roots of the sassafras tree, this slick light-brown oil is the diesel fuel of the euphoria industry. This is thanks to safrole, a chemical found naturally in the oil which is one of the foundation blocks of amphetamine production.
Although there are lots of sources of safrole – the United States and South America are both producers of the oil – the MDMA industry depends mainly on its supply from less regulated shores, such as Cambodia. Authorities claimed that their actions destroyed a potential £2 billion worth of MDMA. Six months later, this was followed by a secondary clampdown, in which forces destroyed factories in the forest. This paroxysm of success at stopping the drug at source had a knock-on effect down the production line. It was felt in Britain a few months later, and the supply first weakened and then almost vanished.
As ever, freed from the effects of marketing and legislation, the drugs industry provides a very clear demonstration of the workings of the free market. As the quality of MDMA fell, mephedrone – less strong but far more abundant – stepped up to take its place. It was quickly clear that something different was happening. Its legality meant that it was both readily available and also stripped of the taboo surrounding other narcotics. Those who didn’t want to run the gauntlet of being busted for cocaine or Ecstasy could take mephedrone without fear of punishment. Those frightened by the idea that illegal drugs must be dangerous felt that a legal stimulant must be largely harmless, and were inclined to give it a try.
A broad demographic began using it, found it a positive experience, and told their friends, who did the same thing. Use accelerated to the level of widespread and casual consumption. The tabloids would later call it an epidemic.
It’s not only the people who take mephedrone who do not fit the stereotype; neither do the dealers. Until now, there has been none of the griminess surrounding mephedrone’s distribution that is associated with banned drugs. Its legality has meant that the dealer is simply a middle-man, like a car salesman. One I spoke to, a polite Old Etonian entrepreneur, Harry, put it like this: ‘Me and some mates heard about it last summer, and then saw that you could buy a kilo for £3,000. We bought it and then sold it on for £5-10 a gram.’
Drugs such as cocaine and MDMA are often ‘cut’ (mixed) with other substances (talcum powder, painkillers, laxatives) to produce a larger quantity, but Harry has always kept his supply pure. ‘There’s no point in cutting it,’ he says. ‘It’s so cheap anyway, and everyone else is selling the pure stuff so people would notice pretty fast.’ This purity, along with the accessibility, has been a core part of the drug’s appeal. The students I met said they could call any number of companies and dealers and have mephedrone delivered within the hour. Harry beams at the inventiveness of some his rivals: ‘There’s one company that brings it over in a pizza box, and another that offers to help you start your own franchise.’
Such was the demand, that Harry’s mephedrone business quickly expanded. ‘Eventually it didn’t make sense getting on my bike to go across town to make a fiver, so we started selling it in 20g bags for a bit more. We got a few more kilos after that.’ He reckons he made a ‘few grand’ from the enterprise, but wouldn’t dream of selling anything else. ‘It’s not worth the risk. It was just about cash – when it becomes illegal I’ll stop. I don’t think the price will go up that much if the law changes – people will just stop buying it. Why? Because it’s not that great. And people who use it become really annoying.’
It’s mid-March and Lucy, a final-year history student at Cambridge, is telling me about the scene at the end of last term: ‘It was carnage. Groups of people were staying awake for four nights in a row, taking about five grams each. They just stayed up and partied.’ She divides users into two categories: regular users, who ‘take it once in a while to boost themselves a bit for a big night, when they want a halfway experience between booze and proper drugs’; and ‘livers’, who use mephedrone habitually. ‘Because the effect is quite mild you can use it as a pick-me-up. You can have a little line in the morning, like a coffee, and it doesn’t make you weird. You can write essays on it, you can go to supervisions [the private tutorials that are the bread and butter of Oxbridge academic life] on it – you can just use it to keep you going during the day.
‘I think drone suits Oxbridge really well. Cambridge doesn’t have that much of a partying culture. People have to work hard – they want to be able to have a good time without a two-day comedown. And they don’t want to get into trouble. At Leeds or wherever I think they’re more into mixing drugs and taking stronger stuff.’
She can’t really see a downside to taking mephedrone, until her friend Tom points out an obvious flaw. ‘It smells terrible,’ he says. ‘I mean, really bad – and it hangs around.’ Lucy, Tom and a couple of friends then take out their wallets and purses, sniffing everything to provide a suitable sample. ‘Ugh – yup, that’s it,’ Lucy says. ‘Horrible, see?’
Like Lucy, most users are flippant about the dangers, despite the toxicology of the drug being completely unknown. ‘Enough people have taken it and been fine,’ Robbie the medical student says. ‘Your body tells you when things are going wrong.’
But not everyone who has taken mephedrone has been fine. A fortnight after my trip to Cambridge, mephedrone became the tabloids’ favourite story. Two young men, Louis Wainwright, 18, and Nicholas Smith, 19, were found dead at their homes in the Scunthorpe area after taking it on a night out. Over the following weeks there were reports of at least 20 more young people who died having taken mephedrone. Newspaper headlines proclaimed mephedrone to be ‘the new killer drug’, and the horror stories came thick and fast (‘Man blasts himself in face with shotgun after mephedrone party’, ‘Boy rips off own scrotum after taking mephedrone’). Editorials demanded that it be banned before it claimed any more lives.
Some of the users I spoke to felt that the press reaction was over-the-top and inaccurate. ‘For a start, nobody’s ever called it “meow-meow”,’ Laura says. ‘Maybe one person once called it that and told a newspaper. At Secret Garden Party [a boutique music festival in Suffolk] two years ago, some people were taking something called “meow-meow”, but that was a mixture of ketamine and MDMA, not mephedrone. You knew when people were on that, trust me.’
Some of the doctors I spoke to don’t entirely support the media view either. ‘It’s not clear at the moment whether many of the
But the mood was changing quickly, and some of those who had previously been happy to speak openly about mephedrone for this article become suddenly apprehensive, and asked for their identities to be obscured. ‘I know it’s still legal,’ one said, a few days before the Home Secretary announced the ban, ‘but you know that people will look at you and be judgmental.’
Following Johnson’s announcement, which included an immediate ban on importing mephedrone from overseas, a student at Bristol told me, ‘The story’s over. Mephedrone was just a substitute for real drugs. People took it because it was cheap and because the MDMA was crap. Nobody will take it if it’s illegal. It wasn’t that good.’
By coincidence, the crackdown on mephedrone seems to have come at the same time as reports of a recent surge in the quality and quantity of MDMA in Britain. The timing, perhaps, gives credence to the notion that mephedrone’s rise was triggered by the one-off event in Cambodia.
A simple case of supply and demand. Rumours ripple quickly through the drug-taking community: ‘Some guy in Amsterdam has been sitting on all the MDMA for a year,’ one user tells me, conspiratorially. Another says it was part of a big plan by China, where almost all mephedrone is manufactured.
As the ban comes into force, it’s possible to assume that mephedrone was a blip – a brief chapter in the long history of recreational drug use. But will those people for whom mephedrone offered the first taste of a chemical high move on to other, more dangerous drugs? Will some continue to use mephedrone, buying it in impure form from less scrupulous dealers? Is it possible that the decision to ban it was a little hasty?
Eric Carlin, who has spent a distinguished career working with young people and drugs, resigned his seat on the ACMD in disgust at the ban last month. In a letter to Alan Johnson, he explained that he was ‘not prepared to continue to be part of a body which, as its main activity, works to facilitate the potential criminalisation of increasing numbers of young people’. He felt that the public health issues related to mephedrone had been completely overlooked.
‘It was made quite clear to us that the chairman [of the ACMD] had to present a recommendation to the Home Secretary that afternoon,’ he says. ‘He’d left for the meeting before we’d even discussed the public health issue; we just talked about the chemical structure of the drug. With Ecstasy and cannabis we made a proper, reasoned recommendation. We need to do that with mephedrone – but without pressure from the Government or the media.’
Carlin is pessimistic about what comes next. ‘The chemists will just come up with another drug,’ he says, ‘and the media will come up with another scare story. I’m not arguing mephedrone is safe, we just need a proper review. There were a couple of policemen on the committee who raised the issue of criminalising young people; they were ignored. We need to look at the whole of UK drugs policy. Making things illegal just doesn’t work.’
A week after the ban was announced, I speak to Laura again. ‘I never thought of bulk buying before,’ she says. ‘But I’m considering getting a kilo now. I’m sure the price will soon rocket, but more than that, if it’s illegal I just wouldn’t trust it any more. I like knowing that what I’m taking is pure. I’ll probably buy some and then just keep it for myself and my friends.’ And if she doesn’t?
‘I might go back to coke and MDMA – when they work they’re both better. It’s just that you never know what you’re getting.’
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