Is MCAT grinning in the face of the law? Mephedrone use after the ban and the battle against research chemicals

By Mihaela Ivantcheva

Double-dip recession? No business opportunities? Not for the illegal drugs trade.

MM explore the use and sale of mephedrone, or ‘MCAT’, since the ban and chat to those who use the drug, and those who offer help to addicts.

The birth of the Dangerous Drugs Act in 1967 and of its successor, the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971, cemented Britain’s ‘prohibition’ policy towards drugs.

Many claim that if these measures were meant to cut the number of users and addicts and reduce harm, they failed spectacularly by creating the perfect soil for a new illegal economy.

As access to hard and soft drugs was driven completely underground, the drugs economy developed fast – it is flexible, able to react and adapt quickly to market changes.

Now, as soon as a substance is banned, a replacement – potentially more harmful and dangerous – is already lurking around the corner.

“There is a history of each new stimulant that comes along, as soon as it’s banned there is already one taking its place,” said Michael Linnell, alcohol and drugs expert at Manchester-based organisation Lifeline Project.

The drugs market always finds ways to get around the law and to be a step ahead of it. On the contrary, the law is not able to keep up with the developments on the scene.

There are hundreds of substances and their analogues banned as class A, B or C drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act – yet still the market is proliferating more than ever before.

“The more things that get banned the worst the things that are produced,” said a user, later referred to as the Source, who agreed to share his experience under the guise of anonymity.

Ban of the drone

One of the recently banned drugs is the former ‘legal high’ mephedrone, which was included as a class B drug in the Misuse of Drugs Act in 2010.

Despite government efforts, this semi-synthetic stimulant also known as meph, drone, MCAT and meow, never left the drugs scene.

“Usage carried on after the ban quite considerably. Now a lot of that might have to do with the fact that people have ordered a lot before the ban but it has also carried on after.

“The reports that we have are of slightly different type of mephedrone, it is a different stuff on the scene. But the scene has carried on,” said Mr Linnell.

As an economy on its own, the drugs market operates on supply and demand principles, depending also on quality, availability and popularity of a product.

Mephedrone demand has fluctuated but not necessarily due to the ban, rather because of other market forces.

Mr Linnell explained: “In many parts of the country, there has been some really good quality of ecstasy about. A good quality of ecstasy has meant that mephedrone has gone up and down a bit so we don’t have accurate figures to say how many people are still using it but it is a considerable number.”

The Source said: “Those around me are using drone less than previously. This I’d largely attribute to the massive rise in quality in MDMA [ecstasy] and the availability of it.

“At the height of the drone problem, MDMA was hard to produce due to the new European legislation making the pre-cursors harder to get.”

One of the key reasons for the growing popularity of mephedrone in 1990 was that the quality of ecstasy and cocaine had come down so much that mephedrone was seen as a reliable alternative.

It was half the price of cocaine, longer active, readily available and it was said to produce effects similar to those of ecstasy.

As any other banned white powder, mephedrone is not more difficult to import than any other drug.

“In 2009 when we did the research on mephedrone, we already discovered that is was being sold in Middlesbrough by cocaine dealers because it was more reliable and it was half the price,” Mr Linnell said.

“It is around, there are stocks around, it is still being produced, it is not illegal in every country in the world.”

The Source confirmed that mephedrone was still ‘pretty easy to get hold of’ on the internet, through underground sources and on the streets. Price has remained more or less the same at £20/g in singles but that the quality has suffered since the ban.

“Each area has its own drug culture I know it’s particularly popular in Wales,” the Source said.

Not a baby drug

In the last couple of years, there has been an increased focus on collecting data about mephedrone.

Users have reported that it was very painful to sniff and was causing heart and heat stroke problems.

A study by the University of Hertfordshire and St George’s University of London found that mephedrone was specifically mentioned as being present in 59 deaths in the UK. The drug was formally included in the cause of death in 18 cases and implicitly in 10 further cases.

“This is a very high figure and alarmingly a large number of those were quite violent deaths. They were to do with suicide or some kind of violent incidents,” said Mr Linnell.

“There might be something in mephedrone that is responsible for the large number of deaths.

“Because mephedrone was a legal high, there is still this feeling that it is a baby drug and not that serious. But there are people who are addicted to it.”

The Source, whose friend allegedly died on mephedrone, shared his experience with the drug: “Meph was addictive, horrible comedown, sweats and burns like hell up your nose or on your throat.

“It is more addictive than crack and I’ve even met one person who did so much it was giving him burns all over as he sweated it out. Horrible.”

What will replace mephedrone?

The Source added that many more harmful products were trying to imitate the effects of mephedrone, such as MDPV, methiopropamine (MPA), methylone, butylone and amphetamine derivatives.

In essence, along with mephedrone continuing its existence on the scene, there are new substances emerging to take its place – and some users have already changed over to them.

“Popular ones at the moment are methiopropamine and ethylphenidate, these are both being bought as powders.

“Ethylphenidate is a ritalin-based drug. If you were to take ritalin and drink alcohol, your liver would not be able to metabolize them. We already get people with problems from methiopropamine,” said Mr Linnell.

“People are certainly using mephedrone less. But many have tried other things like MPDV, MPA or pre-packaged highs like Ivory wave. These all have even more negative side effects,” added the Source.

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