Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Meow meow should be regulated, not banned

Following the tragic deaths of Louis Wainwright and Nicholas Smith in Scunthorpe this weekend it was inevitable that there would be calls for the currently legal drug mephedrone (also known as meow meow) to be banned. Indeed the government has now announced that the legal status of the drug will be examined. Lord Mandelson has been quoted as saying that it will be reviewed "Very speedily, very carefully".

Putting aside the fact that Mandelson's statement is a contradiction in terms (you can either review it carefully, or speedily, not both) the government is at risk of making the same mistake with this drug as it has made with all the other currently illegal ones.

There is no evidence that making drugs illegal makes people less likely to take them. Indeed there is evidence from Portugal who have decriminalised all previously illegal drugs that under a more liberal regime, use can actually fall. What making mephedrone illegal would however do is ensure that any chance the government had of controlling the supply and distribution of the drug which could ensure harms were minimised will go out of the window.

It would also ensure that some children and young adults would end up with criminal records for taking it which would blight their future careers.

There is a good example of some pretty muddled thinking in the BBC News article linked to above which we often find around drug debates in this country. The General Secretary of The National Association of Head Teachers said:

This drug clearly has the same inherent dangers as any Class A drug and I think serious consideration should be given to banning it.

The problem with that is that you then criminalise the people who take it, so we need to think very carefully about what we do, but act with some speed.

Firstly, there is an implicit assumption that "banning" the drug will reduce use and improve the situation. I would like to see the evidence for this. Did that happen with ecstacy for example, another drug that became popular and was made illegal in the recent past? Secondly within two sentences there is a call the ban the drug but a worry about the consequences of criminalising its users.

It is a seductive idea for politicians to "ban" things. However it is not really within their power to do so. They can make them illegal but that will likely have little effect on its supply. It will however look like they are doing something which I think is the desired effect to pacify the Daily Mail brigade.

As I have stated before, I think that all currently illegal drugs should be brought under regulatory control by the government. There is an excellent outline of how this could happen on the Transform Drugs Policy Foundation's website called "Blueprint for Regulation" which cuts through the hyperbole and examines the possible options.

To come back to Lord Mandelson's statement, I agree the government should look very carefully at the status of illegal drugs. They should review the current status of all of them, look at the evidence from across the world dispassionately and examine all options with the aim being harm reduction.

If they were to do this rationally, then I would expect them to conclude that the current "banning" regime has utterly failed and a totally new approach is needed.

Sadly, I fear this will not happen and an opportunity to draw a line in the sand with a new drug which could be regulated and controlled is looking likely to be missed.


manwiddicombe said...

As I understand it these two young men were experimenting with a cocktail of substances including methadrone which is already a class A drug. If people think that adding mephedrone to the list of banned substances will restrict its supply then they are sadly misguided.

ceedee said...

Great post, Mark.

@manwiddicombe: 'methadrone' is poor slang for 'mephedrone'. And there's so far been no official suggestion there was any involvement of methadone (the heroin substitute) in the young mens' unfortunate deaths, contrary to what the media will have you believe.

Anonymous said...

Apparently it was Alcohol, Mephedrone and Methadone? Now Methadone and Alcohol are a risky combination which I'm sure they knew. Although terrible for the parents their comment they wouldn't have know Mephedrone was risky because it was legal is ridiculous. The same thing happened last year with the girl who died from GBL. The fact of the matter is that young people will always take drugs, they know it's risky which is part of the excitement. When it goes wrong we need to be looking at giving out information to keep them safe not wasting time and money in meaningless legislation which will make no difference other than to placate the parents and those members of society who have no clue and are so far removed from the realities.

The media frenzy has already contributed to an increase in use of Mephedrone in my opinion and if they go ahead and ban it it will further draw attention to it. I hastily blogged about it this morning.

Today has driven me insane. All the usual boring ignorant comments. The hypocrisy, the poor grieving parents, the moral panic that does noone any good. People will always take drugs. Our laws are not a deterrent. When will they get that?

Anonymous said...

Maybe the mention of Methadone was just because of the confusion in the similarity in the names?? Reports say the Police believed it was also Methadone. I suppose we shall know when the reports come back as to cause of death and what they had actually taken.
(I'm hoping in a way that it has nothing at all to do with Mephedrone at all, two deaths from LEGAL drug Alcohol would make it far more interesting!)

English Pensioner said...

I don't see what purpose there is in making a drug "illegal". This particular drug is not approved for human use, and by definition anyone who takes it does so at their own risk. For the parents of the boys who died to blame the government for not making it illegal is ridiculous. No one in their right mind should take an unapproved drug, and if they do, it must be at their own risk.

Anonymous said...

Actually, in this country, MDMA (ecstasy) did not become popular and get made illegal; rather it was the other way round; pretty much all phenethylamines (of which MDMA is but one of hundreds) were scheduled in Class A in 1977, but MDMA didn't really begin to catch on as a recreational/dance drug until about the mid-80s. This, of course, strengthens your original point about there being little good evidence of correlation between the legality of a drug and its popularity.

David, Blairgowrie