This is the text of an article that appeared in the magazine “House” published for the House of Commons in London (http://www.epolitix.com/house-magazine/housemag-article/newsarticle/plant-foods-with-an-unknown-yield/ ).
In the pre-election ferment, one of the last actions of the outgoing government was to ban the “legal high” drug, mephedrone. This occurred in a climate of rabid press calls for regulation, partly fuelled by the deaths of two young men from Scunthorpe, supposed to have taken the drug. It now turns out that this evidence was incorrect, they had not taken mephedrone. Nevertheless, given the febrile atmosphere, the ban may have given some people the comfortable feeling that a situation was under control.
I doubt, however, that the situation is under control. There was stockpiling of mephedrone before it was banned and some of that will now be circulating. Some users will have switched back to cocaine or ecstasy of dubious purity. Drug availability has, however, been changed forever by the provision of cheap synthesis in the Far East coupled with internet supply. At the time of the ban there was speculation that other “legal highs”, provided via the ingenuity of chemists in the Far East, were already waiting in the wings to replace mephedrone. We can now see some of these advertised by internet suppliers and all you need is a credit card to place an order. Naphyrone was one of these and it has very recently been recommended that this should become illegal. Other examples of new drugs are MDAI, 5-IAI and 2-DPMP, all of which are currently legal; others are under development such as 6-APDB So, banning mephedrone may have reduced its use but may have lead to switching to other, in some cases newer, drugs.
It is important to emphasise the uncertainty surrounding the use of these kinds of drugs. Firstly, the psychological effects of the new drugs are not well established and there are some alarming reports circulating on the internet. Secondly, we have only a rudimentary idea of how the new drugs, including mephedrone, work biologically and no idea how they affect the brains of young people upon prolonged use. The new drugs have often not been tested for toxic effects such as neurotoxicity, cardiotoxicity or causing cancer or birth defects. Thirdly, for all of the drugs I have mentioned, there is the issue of their purity. The suppliers on the internet claim high purity but there is no guarantee that the figures are accurate and samples obtained elsewhere may be cut with undefined substances. A recent report showed that there was extensive mislabelling of these drugs. Users may, therefore be consuming unknown mixtures of chemicals.
People are, therefore, ingesting compounds of undefined biology, uncertain purity and unknown toxicity, acting unwittingly as human guinea pigs. This unregulated situation is reminiscent of the mid 20th century era of pharmaceuticals.
Despite these potential dangers, people clearly want to take drugs to change their perception/mood. We must try to understand this need and take action to protect people from the dangers. The government should urgently set up research programmes to study these new drugs. The research programmes should aim to understand how the drugs work as well as establishing their possible long term effects, including toxicity. Once this information is available, the government should intensify public education programmes to make people aware of the risks they run when they take these drugs.
We should also consider one potential, but I believe unlikely, outcome of the research suggested above. One or more of the substances mentioned above may turn out to be safe to use. There would then need to be a debate about whether it might be better to supply these drugs in a regulated manner rather than allowing the present unregulated situation to prevail.