"They can even kill," shrieks the tagline for a new public information poster warning against the dangers of legal highs. You might have seen it at a bus stop or in a train station – it’s the one with a picture of a basin daubed with thick red blood and a photograph of a bag of mephedrone with its now-infamous disclaimer printed on the label: ‘Not For Human Consumption’. It’s intended to scare you. But should we be frightened?
Although the number of people using mephedrone has sky-rocketed over the past year, this is the first time there’s been an official campaign to discourage its use. According to the West Yorkshire police, the poster’s creators, the campaign will “dissuade young people from taking substances which, though legal, can cause damage to their mental and physical health, and even death”.
These are bold claims to make about a drug government scientists are yet to test. Despite the Daily Mail linking the tragic death of 14-year-old Gabrielle Price to mephedrone, a police report later identified the cause of death as bronchial pneumonia. There have been no other British deaths associated with mephedrone use.
The Chinese whispers about mephedrone’s effects are a result of the warp speed at which it has become popular. In 2008, mephedrone didn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Now Google is chock-a-block with advice, messageboards of personal experiences and, crucially, suppliers – willing to deliver this legal drug to the door of anyone with a debit card.
So is mephedrone the kick up the arse your endorphins have been waiting for or a dangerous chemical that plays Russian roulette with your brain cells?
Sometimes called ‘miaow miaow’ (in the north of England where it’s often mixed with Ketamine), ‘bubbles’ (in Scotland), ‘cat piss’ (by London hipsters bothered by its litter-tray stench) or, most commonly, ‘plant food’, mephedrone isn’t mentioned in the Misuse Of Drugs Act – the government legislation that outlaws substances such as cocaine and cannabis. It can be sold legally as long as it’s not explicitly for human consumption.
That’s why online retailers with names like Happy Plant Shop and The Midnight Gardener label it as plant feeder. And in Britain’s far-flung provincial towns, places where hard drugs have been difficult to come by, mephedrone is arriving by next-day delivery. It has caused a seismic shift in Britain’s attitude to drugs; it is a bona fide youth culture phenomenon.
Mephedrone’s availability is key to its popularity. At around a tenner a gram, it’s cheaper than a big bottle of vodka and around a quarter of the price of cocaine. And the anonymity, security and accessibility of online ordering makes it as easy to get hold of as ordering a DVD from Amazon. If you’re under 18 and you have access to the internet, mephedrone is easier to purchase than cigarettes or alcohol.
After festival-goers gave it the all-clear, mephedrone exploded last September. Online dealers watched a word-of-mouth chain reaction. In Birmingham, they went from getting one or two orders to several hundred in a week. The same happened in London. There are towns where it has yet to catch on, but it’s only a matter of time.
Mephedrone is like coke in that it gives you the arrogance and articulacy to talk to strangers. But, like ecstasy, it also amplifies the emotion of music. Hardened drug-takers will tell you it’s not as good as what they had in their day, but that’s probably because they’ve built up such a tolerance that they have to snort dishwasher descaler to get a high.
So is ’drone the first drug to come without side-effects? Of course not. For a start, it’s particularly painful to take, grinding up your nasal passage like a rusty chainsaw. It’s also more-ish.
And that’s not all. Mephedrone has a number of miserable side-effects that even Frank won’t tell you.
One of the biggest drawbacks is that you have to poo. The second is the comedown. Mephedrone doesn’t have the rush-back-to-earth feeling people get after taking ecstasy, so people say it’s comedown free. How wrong they are. Users complain of depression, waves of obsession and paranoia and a sense of removal from their surroundings.
So if mephedrone is a drug with unpredictable side-effects that puts your mental and physical health at risk, why don’t the government ban it tomorrow?
The short answer is because drugs legislation takes months. After the government announced they wanted to ban legal highs such as BZP it was a further year before they were able to pass legislation. It will be impossible for them to get a bill banning mephedrone through before the summer.
As this process draws out, legal drug dealers have already started working on new chemical compounds that will be just different enough from mephedrone to fit through the loophole. Drugs messageboards are already awash with tips for mephedrone’s sucessor and this is one prediction poll where Ellie Goulding doesn’t stand a chance.
If this is just the beginning of a never-ending game of cat and mouse between drug manufacturers and the government, it might be best if you don’t get too attached. Mephedrone can only ever be a fad. Like your Pokémon cards, Tamagotchis and Vines albums you’ll eventually throw it in the bin, wondering why you ever bothered.
Mephedrone - the pros and cons
“The reason people are taking it is because it’s cheap and legal. At the festivals last year they had legal high stands with people just going round saying, ‘Yeah, it’s amazing’. On the club side it just filtered down from that.” (Mark Wilkinson, promoter for Ministry Of Sound).
“I saw one guy who’d been to a few parties and taken quite a bit of mephedrone over the New Year period, and when he got back to work he said he was like a zombie. He was saying, ‘A few nights after I’d stopped I wanted to die’." (Dr Ken Checinski, Frank).
“The worst thing about it is the gurn. You may feel great, but to everyone else you look like you’ve done 20 pills. Everything is far more uncontrollable. You look like the kind of person you and your mates might see, turn to each other and go, ‘Oh dear’.” (A veteran clubber who asked not to be named).
“How’s it affecting me? Well, I’m not selling any coke. Why would you buy coke from me when you can get something just as good on the internet that’s legal?” (A drug dealer).
“The government is committed to cracking down on ‘legal highs’ that pose a significant threat to health. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs are looking at the dangers of mephedrone, and the related cathinone compounds. It’s a priority and we will report back to government as soon as possible. Their advice will inform our response.” (Home Office statement).
“Plant food is popular because a lot of people are finding it hard to get MDMA. Mephedrone is filling that void and the general consensus is that people can do it without conscience because it’s legal. But one of my friends did a huge bump and couldn’t see for about five minutes. It’s dark shit.” (Community worker Hayley Joyes).