The past week or so the media has been afire with moral panic about the drug mephedrone (aka mcat, miaow miaow etc). As I type it’s a legal substance, being sold in slightly dodgy circumstances to young folk – and not so young folk – looking for a bit of fun.
Some of those people have died, although there are conflicting reports about this. Some deaths attributed to mephedrone have been found to be due to other causes. I want to make it clear from the outset that those deaths are tragic, no question about it.
But the moral panic that has ensued is what’s pissing me off. And it’s my rant for today.
Now, this rant could go a few ways: I could rant about pandering politicians with their eyes on the election, or the farce that is the official drugs advisory body, or the media (but Charlie Brooker did that so much better than I ever could). No, today’s topic is the moral panic itself.
Here’s my thesis: in modern, Western society taking drugs is a normal part of life. More: it is such an entrenched part of our social order that not taking drugs requires effort. To arbitrarily call one chemical ‘good’ and one ‘bad’ is irrational, hypocritical and wasteful. Drugs, and all other chemicals, are neither good nor bad: they have both desirable and undesirable effects. They have a place in our society – including for consenting adult pleasure – and we need a rational way of managing our approach to new chemicals to ensure we can benefit from their good properties and minimise the harm from the bad.
Test my theory. Try to go a week without: alcohol, aspirin, caffeine, ibuprofen, nicotine, paracetamol, ventolin. Give up your morning joe, your soft drink, your energy shot, your sneaky half on the way home, your glass of wine over dinner. It’s hard work. And why would we want to deny ourselves those things?
So why get so upset about mephedrone? My suspicion is that the panic is to do with the fact that people are taking it for leisure and pleasure. We have a puritanical, reactionary fear of people enjoying themselves too much. What do we have against the idea of adults choosing to spend their leisure time having some chemically enhanced fun? The usual argument is that these substances are harmful to individuals and society but analysis of the facts suggests we have one rule for some substances and one for others.
Alcohol was directly linked to the deaths of over 9000 people in the UK in 2008. That’s pretty close to 25 people a day. And the statistical definition of alcohol death does not include suicide, accidental death or sudden death. So if someone was killed by a drunk driver, they don’t get counted as a death caused by alcohol, although most of us would agree that it was clearly a cause, if not the sole cause.
So: on one hand we have a substance that is, according to reports, the fourth most popular party drug-de-jour that (benefit of the doubt) has killed at most 25 people in the UK since it hit the scene in summer 2009. On the other hand, we have a substance that kills at least 25 people a day. Guess which one they want to ban?
There’s another substance that 90% of adults in the US (Wikipedia) consume daily. It is lethal, although in practice deaths are rare because the dose taken is so small. In moderate doses (well below lethal) it significantly increases the risk of miscarriage but we put it in sweets and soft drinks. It has been linked to psychiatric disorders. Caffeine, of course.
Here’s how it compares to the evil mephedrone:
Better general body coordination
Desire to talk
Nausea and vomiting
Increased heart rate
Increased sensitivity to touch
Nausea and vomiting
Abnormal heart rate
So why is one drug considered evil and one considered so safe that we put it in every day food items?
It’s not about dosage: 2 grams of caffeine is sufficient to cause hospitalisation. Nobody is even discussing whether mephedrone could be safe in smaller doses, whether different methods of consumption would make it safe. Hell no, it must be banned!
We persistently promote a myth that the only people who take drugs are somehow deficient: that they are depressed or from fucked up backgrounds or have no moral standards. But, going back to my point at the beginning, it’s just not true. We all take drugs, daily. We take them because they work. And even amongst the sub-group that will take illegal drugs the same rule applies. A raver who takes ecstasy every weekend does it because it feels so good that the ensuing mid-week depression is worth it, just as the middle-aged middle manager who goes out on Friday night and gets blattered on lager does it because taking the kids to football practice on Saturday with a hangover is worth it (and s/he can take another few drugs to minimise the symptoms….)
This hypocritical, irrational approach to drugs does not serve us as a society. We waste extensive resources on policing and monitoring our collective fears, resources that could be used for good. Think how much time is being wasted by bureaucrats and politicians trying to scrabble to ban mephedrone: and what a lovely distraction from coming up with real policies for the election! Mephedrone may not have any beneficial uses to society other than pleasure, and in the final assessment may be too toxic and addictive to be desirable, but maybe in a different form – perhaps as a liquid alternative to alcohol – perhaps the harm could be reduced and it could have a legitimate place in our chemically-altered world. And instead of this ridiculous panic, we could have an adult conversation about the appropriate place for recreational substances.
That’s my two cents.
 At the time of writing, various unconfirmed sources are citing numbers of between 2 and 25 people having died in the UK from taking mephedrone. For the sake of argument, I have taken the highest figure.
 I will confess to being selective in my choices here to make a point. But it’s all factual as far as I can manage – there’s not as much scientific information about mephedrone as caffeine though.
Postscript 15 July 2010
Further reading from the British Medical Journal, a proposal for a rational regulation of drugs, “An alternative to the war on drugs”