Queen of the ‘Legal Highs’

April 11, 2013

Mephedrone has proved to be the most successful of the recent wave of novel psychoactive drugs to have appeared on the European recreational market. The only ‘legal high’ to have managed to enter users’ repertoires even after being banned in most countries, it also raised the question of how ‘phantom’ narcotics are to be dealt with.

In 1929, a three page article in the Bulletin de la Société Chimique de France, authored by a scholar by the name of Saem de Burnaga Sanchez, described the synthesis of “toluyl-alpha-monomethylaminoethylcetone” or mephedrone, a derivate of the khat plant that grows in East Africa and on the Arab Peninsula and that is traditionally chewed in countries like Somalia, Yemen or Ethiopia for its stimulating effects. 

The drug then seems to have disappeared for about eight decades, only to make a glorious comeback in the pages of The Sun – in November 2009, the British tabloid daily ran an article titled “Legal drug teen ripped his scrotum off”. The news report described a teenager’s bad trip on mephedrone that had apparently made him hallucinate for 18 hours (seeing centipedes crawl over his body) and that finally led him to mutilate himself in the gruesome manner suggested in the title. Four months later, the tabloids were also reporting “a craze for the ‘meow-meow’ party drug” (Daily Star, 9/3/2010) that had seen 180 pupils in a school in Leicestershire missing classes “at a rate of two per day” after getting intoxicated en masse on the apparently new but actually old party drug. The two cases turned out to have been pure fiction, but mephedrone was framed as a ‘killer drug’, linked with a wave of fatal accidents and suicides, especially among teenagers. Only in two of the close-to-thirty deaths that the country’s Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs included in a report to the Home Office that recommended and preceded its ban in April 2010, did the drug prove to be the principal or sole cause of death. 

From plant food to recreational drug

Around the same time mephedrone was starting its infamous career in the UK, at the opposite end of the continent Gabriel got a phone call from a friend he used to shoot heroin with. A veteran drug user without even having turned 30, but with a near-fifteen-year history of intravenous heroin use behind him, he had no clue what ‘Special Gold’ was, when asked if he had ever done it. He had never heard anything about it on the streets of Bucharest, Romania’s capital, where his memories stretch all the way to ‘the good days’, to the hard but fun ‘90s when “cops would catch you with a heroin ball or syringe on you and wouldn't have the slightest clue what it was”. Later that day, in his friend’s apartment, he injected four lines of the white powder wrapped in a small package bought from a ‘dream shop’. He remembers an unexpected sense of euphoria growing inside him, sounds and colours experienced as never before and a sense of being shielded from any possible harm. “I told myself this is the drug I want to die with”, Gabriel recalls. The drug that he fell in love contained mephedrone and was banned by the Romanian government in February 2010.

In his 2012 book Drugs –Without the Hot Air: Minimising the Harms of Legal and Illegal Drugs, Professor David Nutt traces the rediscovery of mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone) as a recreational drug in the early 2000s, when Israeli scientists, hired by a pesticide company to find a chemical able to cause disruptions in the brain activity of greenflies and thus make them an easier prey for ladybirds, started to experiment with cathinones. The substance’s psychoactive effects stood out, and soon secured it a firm place on the illicit recreational drug market, before Israeli authorities made it illegal in 2007. Due to its origin, it got the street nickname ‘plant food’, which also proved to be both an efficient market label and good cover to fend off food safety regulations. It also acquired street names like ‘meow meow’, ‘bath salt’, ‘bubble’ or ‘M-Cat’. Nutt, who was sacked from his position as chair of the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs of the British Home Office after claiming that drugs like ecstasy and cannabis are less dangerous than alcohol, describes it as an amphetamine-type stimulant which promotes the release of dopamine, noradrenaline and possibly serotonin. He also observes that there was a big gap in the pharmacological data at the time when news headlines prompted the British authorities to classify it as a high-risk drug.

“Once it’s in front of me I have to have it all”

Both in Western and Eastern Europe, mephedrone’s legal status and accessible price made it the perfect drug at a time when the heroin supply was poor or completely cut off. It could be snorted, swallowed or injected. In the UK, it was sold for 10 GBP (11.7 EUR) per gram. In Romania, products like ‘Special Gold’, ‘Magic’ or ‘Charge’ would be sold in packages of 0.25 grams for as little as 25 RON (5.6 EUR). Heroin and crack users started to replace their drugs of choice with mephedrone, influenced by assumptions that a legal product wasn't going to be addictive, and was probably safer than what the underground market had to offer. After trying ‘Special Gold’, Gabriel decided to quit heroin altogether. “There was no point in doing it anymore, because with this new drug I had got rid of that withdrawal sickness. And I didn’t want to go back to it anymore, even if this new addiction was more mental. I had to take it over and over again”, he tells me.  

The risk of exposure to compulsive use did indeed prove to be a serious problem. A study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in September 2010 quoted 85 percent of mephedrone users as declaring that they experienced cravings for the drug. A recent article in Druglink magazine, based on data from the Druglink Street Trends Survey 2012, indicated that many British mephedrone users contacted drugs services, suffering from “horrific abscesses from injection wounds, and permanent damage to veins and body tissue”. This same article cites 48-year-old Freddie, an ex Army employee and father of five children from a small town near Cardiff, saying that the first time he tried mephedrone he went on a three month binge: “At the end of it I was so wrecked I couldn’t stop crying for two days, all the emotions flooded out of me. I never usually cry. I couldn’t stop. I take it whenever I have the money, me and my girlfriend have three bags a day. Once it’s in front of me I have to have it all,” he said - of a new drug habit which he nevertheless refused to call an addiction.

Drug workers also reported that this significant urge to re-dose was making it harder than ever to work with their clients. Heavy use led to acute mental health problems and fits, which sometimes seemed almost impossible to deal with. Emilian Voiculescu, who now works at a private rehab clinic in Bucharest and who used to do volunteer work for a state-administered medical facility for heroin addicts, recalls that when mephedrone’s effects started to manifest themselves, “The situation was quite serious”. “Some youngsters who appeared to weigh no more than 40 kilograms knocked down massive bookcases in fits of rage. There were people who would lose 30 kilograms in less than two weeks,” he remembers. He adds that the complete lack of information about the drug, and the absence of any known treatment, made things all the more frustrating back then.  

The designer-drug paradox

Some of mephedrone’s known mental effects are euphoria, talkativeness, a distorted perception of time, and even visual hallucinations. Some of the undesired effects include blurred vision and palpitations, post-consumption fatigue, dizziness, and even chronic depression.  Its long-term impact on the body remains largely unknown, but the fragmented data available at the time the drug became famous convinced most governments to ban it. In most cases, the result was obviously not what they had hoped for. In the UK, prevalence studies have shown that mephedrone was the only ‘legal high’ or ‘novel psychoactive drug’ (NPD) that entered club-goers’ repertoires two years after being made illegal and getting absorbed by the underground narcotics market. The Romanian Harm Reduction Network (RHRN) reported last year that, despite not many ‘dream shops’ remaining in business, a lot of the heroin sold by dealers in the country is currently mixed with mephedrone and other designer drugs, exposing naïve consumers to the risks and complications associated with multiple drug use.

Gabriel, who is now on methadone substitution treatment, says that he wouldn’t go back to heroin again, but that he would like to relive the sensations he got when he first tried ‘Special Gold’. “The way I felt back then, I will probably never feel again in my life,” he says. But the drug he experienced, good or bad, was replaced by other ‘legal highs’ after it became illegal. He feels that most of the new ones were a lot worse than what he had started with. “There wasn’t any of the panic and the paranoia that you get now. I see aliens and I see hidden cameras in my house. And I always have the impression that everyone is spying on me,” he explains. This illustrates the paradoxes of the designer drugs market – governments can ban one substance they think is dangerous, and it quickly gets replaced by a handful of others that can be equally or even more damaging. 

The big question that the appearance and growing popularity of ‘meow meow’ raised, is about what mechanisms should be used to regulate how new narcotics are dealt with. Recent years have seen the diversification of a highly volatile market in designer drugs. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), at least one new substance was identified each and every week in the EU, last year alone. Criminalising the possession and use of each and every one of these drug would come at an unreasonably high human cost, as vulnerable consumers would risk being prosecuted for no legitimate purpose.  It would also overburden law enforcement systems and courthouses with irrelevant cases and would only create more confusion.

A ‘silent pact’ for rational dialogue

Discussing the designer drug phenomenon, David Nutt notes in his book that governments should only consider changing the legal status of drugs when in possession of a minimum dataset about a substance’s pharmacology, basic toxicology (effects specific to different doses) and human psychopharmacology (the subjective experience of users). He also refers to the creation of an intermediate class of substances, as has happened in New Zealand, that would include new and insufficiently studied substances until enough scientific evidence is collected. Sales of drugs in this category are thus restricted to certain quantities and only to over-18s, in packaging that displays health-education messages. Finally, he turns to the Dutch policy model, which includes a ‘Drugs Information and Monitoring System’ (DIMS) which integrates a network of hospitals where users can take their illicit drugs to have them tested and get health and safety information without fear of legal repercussions. This also allows the authorities to monitor the circulation of narcotics, and eventually try to stop ‘bad batches’ of different substances from causing too much damage.

 But for all of these measures to work, another prerequisite that cannot actually be regulated would need to underlie any drug-related public debate. More attention to proven facts and a smaller appetite for sensationalism and moral judgments would probably help users more than any sense of irrational panic. It would also maybe allow governments to make decisions based more on science than on exaggerated tabloid headlines, as the British experience with ‘meow-meow’ shows. Against this background, mephedrone appeared at the right moment to prove this need for a ‘silent pact’ that would get all these actors to engage in rational dialogue. For that, if for nothing else, it deserves the unofficial title of 'queen of the legal highs'. 

Liviu Alexandrescu

The author is a freelance journalist and a PhD student in sociology at Lancaster University, UK. He is currently also involved in research on legal highs.