Mephedrone and drugs policy

It’s now just over a year since mephedrone was made illegal in the UK so it’s a good time to reflect on the effect of this change in policy.  Many of the internet suppliers have stopped selling it but the drug continues to be used and is now available via dealers although at a higher price (http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(10)62021-1/fulltext).  It would be wrong, however, to think that dealers are the only source of the drug.  A recent study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=BMJ%20342%20d1629) by Simon Brandt and his colleagues has shown that it can still be obtained over the internet but under new guises.  They purchased “green granules” and “jelly bomb caps” from internet suppliers and showed that the only active compound in these products was mephedrone.  Users of mephedrone now, however, run the risk of criminalisation if they are caught with the drug. This could blight a young person’s life for doing what is being done by thousands every weekend.  So the saga of mephedrone continues to reflect on drug policy in the UK and I have tried to summarise the story in an accessible way in an article published on the Naked Scientists web site (http://www.thenakedscientists.com/HTML/articles/article/letting-the-khat-out-of-the-bag/).

So what should be done about drugs like mephedrone?  Current policy doesn’t seem sensible in that, although the drug is illegal, it is still freely available and being used by many people.  Because the drug is being made in labs in the Far East and some supplied through dealers the purity is poorly defined and users run a risk each time they consume the drug.  Little is known about the effects of mephedrone in the short and long term adding an additional risk for users.

This is a difficult situation for policy makers.  People need to be protected from the harmful effects of drugs and you might expect that making a drug illegal would deter people but it obviously doesn’t.  It seems that people like the effects of drugs like mephedrone enough to take the risks.  Perhaps we need to take on board the idea that whatever the law “people want to get high”, so the only answer is to control the situation and criminalisation does not seem to be the solution.

A framework for decriminalisation of drugs in a tightly controlled legal manner has been proposed by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a Bristol-based body.  The proposal (http://www.tdpf.org.uk/blueprint%20download.htm) is full of common sense and seems to me to provide a good alternative to our present confused situation.  Many have endorsed the proposal from Transform.  Interestingly, there has recently been a call from the Global Commission on Drugs for decriminalisation and abandoning of the “war on drugs”.  The Global Commission contains some big names so perhaps the tide is finally turning against the “war on drugs”.   

Many people, especially politicians, will fear decriminalisation because of an apparent loss of control.  They expect decriminalisation to result in an orgy of uncontrolled drug use.  It’s always good to have evidence to support policy and here we have the experience of Portugal where a decade ago the laws regarding drug possession were changed.  Now someone found in possession of a drug must attend a “dissuasion board” where the person’s use of drugs is explored and the outcome tailored to the individual.  Drug possession is seen as a social rather than a criminal issue.  Following this radical change in policy, Portugal has not seen increased drug use, the country has not become a haven for drug tourists and the number of drug-related deaths has decreased.  Surely this is enough evidence.

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