Banning mephedrone: The danger of drug laws

Dr Christian Jessen [Right]

Dr Christian Jessen

My own parents now sound like seasoned drug users, the way they talk about M-cat, plant food and meow meow.

Not because they are, I should add, but because the papers have been full of these terms for weeks. The latest is that Home Secretary Alan Johnson has vowed to ban the drug mephedrone before the election. He has said that he will rush through laws making the substance a Class B drug.

Great, there is nothing like rushing into things to ensure good results, especially in science. To me this is utterly futile and ill advised. Already reports are emerging of drug manufacturers in China working on several new legal high products, to be ready if the mephedrone ban kicks in, and it’s we Brits who are demanding them. The parent drug is cathinone, the active constituent in khat, a leaf chewed all over East Africa as a stimulant and appetite suppressant.

But surprisingly there is no significant clinical literature on the effects of mephedrone and the other cathinone derivatives. We really need to research it properly, so users can be safely and sensibly advised. Confirmed deaths involving mephedrone are currently in single figures, despite it being freely available for several years, and those deaths were almost certainly due to the effects of mixing several drugs together.

I ask this: can anyone point to a single instance where banning a potentially risky substance has actually reduced the harm to both the users and society at large? I can’t. As a doctor I need to be able to advise my patients on how to live their lives safely and healthily. They will take drugs, they will smoke and they will drink. Fact.

We should also be considering alternatives to outright criminalisation. Prohibition did not work, and making drugs illegal has not worked. Drugs expert Professor David Nutt argues the case for a legal, though regulated, supply of drugs like mephedrone, ecstasy and cannabis, to reducing the undoubted harms of drug taking, and I agree with him. Making a drug illegal implies to the public that it is dangerous and therefore anything that is legal must be fine. Cigarettes and alcohol clearly show that this is not so, and are the epitome of the hypocrisy of our drug laws.

Criminalisation is a thoroughly inappropriate means for seeking to protect individuals from the harms drugs cause. We need to be ensuring they have the right kind of information to make informed choices. It seems so obvious but pit a respected drugs adviser against kneejerk politics in the run-up to a General Election and guess who will win?

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