Following the death of two teenage boys this week, the papers were awash today with knee-jerk calls for the banning of the legal high mephedrone. The Tories have promised an urgent review into all legal highs, while the National Association of Teachers has branded the drug as dangerous as heroin and cocaine, and called for an outright ban.
It is infuriating to see that, despite years of failed policies, public figures refuse to accept that the prohibitionist ‘war on drugs’ has caused much more harm than good. One particular problem is that prohibition breeds ignorance. Little is known about any new drug, and under a system of prohibition there is no incentive for suppliers to offer a 'safe' product and no mechanisms in place for consumers to demand this: in essense, there are no market mechanisms. Because of this, the ‘man on the street’ knows very little about important things such as a dangerous level of dosage, or drugs that mephedrone definitely shouldn’t be taken with.
It is ironic, therefore, that mephedrone’s popularity is a direct result of the government’s drug policy. In a study by Professor David Nutt on the danger and damage caused by various drugs, ecstasy was ranked far below substances such as tobacco, alcohol and even cannabis. Despite this, it is categorized as a Class A substance. Police crackdowns on the suppliers of the popular club drug MDMA, which is pure, powdered ecstasy resulted in its street price rocketing while its quality plummeted. Enter mephedrone; a component of plant fertilizer with effects similar to ecstasy and cocaine, but which comes with a smaller pricetag and is legal to possess. People can now purchase vast quantities of mephedrone with ease, and consume a substance they know very little about.
In a few months the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs will report its findings on the danger of mephedrone. However, to ban the drug if it is potentially dangerous would most likely lead to another obscure drug emerging to take its place, and a rise in drug-related criminal activity.
Instead, the death of these teenagers should be used as a catalyst to examine how, and why, prohibition is ineffective. In this case, the absurdly punitive classification of a relatively harmless drug has turned clubbers in to criminals, and encouraged them to take greater risks with their health. This is, however, just one of the UK drug policy’s many, many failings.