Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Mephedrone, the New Drug in Town
Bull market for quasi-legal designer highs.
Most people in the United States have never heard of it. Very few have ever tried it. But if Europe is any kind of leading indicator for synthetic drugs (and it is), then America will shortly have a chance to get acquainted with mephedrone, a.k.a. Drone, MCAT, 4-methylmethcathinone (4-MMC), and Meow Meow--the latter nickname presumably in honor of its membership in the cathinone family, making it chemically similar in some ways to amphetamine and ephedrine. But its users often refer to effects more commonly associated with Ecstasy (MDMA), both the good (euphoria, empathy, talkativeness) and the bad (blood pressure spikes, delusions, drastic changes in body temperature).
Some of the best stateside coverage has come from the anonymous NIH researcher who blogs on science topics as DrugMonkey. The whole business of what mephedrone does is complicated, he writes. The cathinone structure is “very similar to amphetamine and supports parallel modifications,” but there is clearly an “MDMA-like component to this mephedrone stuff.” (See additional DrugMonkey coverage here and here.)
Until earlier this year, mephedrone was in that weird state of limbo LSD found itself occupying in the mid-1960s: legal, but not for long. States are attempting to sweep synthetic drugs of abuse like Spice and other cannabinioid derivatives into a proscribed package that includes mephedrone. Federal authorities are able to prosecute under The Analogue Drug Act of 1986, which was designed to combat this dilemma in the United States by outlawing drugs “substantially similar” to any drug that is already illegal. However, “chemical experts disagree on whether a chemical is 'substantially similar' in structure to another chemical—so much so that Federal Analogue Act litigation often degenerates into a 'battle of experts,' which is founded more on opinion than on actual scientific evidence,” writes Gregory Kau in an article for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.
It is clear by now that this cat-and-mouse game is rigged in favor of the designers and suppliers of new drugs under the sun. Exploiting the gray zone of quasi-legality is extremely profitable. One outlaw chemist told Jeanne Whalen of the Wall Street Journal that by the time law enforcement closes in, “we are going to bring out something else.” At which point, prosecutorial mechanisms put in place for mephedrone must be laboriously recreated for the new drug.
This drug entrepreneur, and others like him, makes extensive use of the Internet, especially in Europe, since mephedrone is not universally banned. To keep the business technically legal, sellers label mephedrone “not for human consumption” and market it as anything from plant food to bath salts. Sometimes they draw unwanted attention to themselves through the purchase of lab equipment, like the rotary evaporator pictured above.
Mephedrone has lately been covered relentlessly by the British press, after the deaths of three young people in the U.K. and Sweden were attributed to mephedrone. Part of the difficulty in assessing the danger and addictiveness, if any, of these newer substances is that most of them have not been subjected to controlled clinical testing on humans. (One hardy purveyor of mephedrone snorted half a gram of the drug on a Belgian news program to demonstrate his side of the argument.)
Media hysteria in the U.K. led to reports of dozens of deaths due to mephedrone, none of which have thus far proven to be indisputably the result of ingesting mephedrone. As British politicians rushed to enact a ban, Danny Kushlick of the drug charity Transform told the U.K. Guardian in April: “The misreporting of mephedrone deaths is a crass example of the potentially lethal alliance between press and politicians that by default ends in a ban that often creates far greater harms than those caused by use.” In July, BBC News reported that the mephedrone crackdown was “floundering”, even though the ban had been widened to included a near-beer version of mephedrone called Naphyrone (sold as NRG1). But a spokesperson for Lifeline, another British drug charity, argued that “you can’t just ban your way out of a problem because it could result in far more dangerous chemicals coming onto the market.” According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which operates the EU early-warning system on new drugs in cooperation with Europol, “24 new psychoactive substances were officially notified for the first time to the two agencies in 2009.”
The National Drug Intelligence Center at the U.S. Department of Justice reported that early in the year, “several individuals in the Bismarck [North Dakota] area ingested or injected illicit products containing mephedrone and required hospitalization. In addition, the Oregon State Police Forensic Laboratory (Bend, Oregon) received two submission of white power that users referred to as ‘sunshine.’ Both submissions tested as mephedrone.”
And now comes a report from North Carolina of two fatalities allegedly linked to the use of mephedrone, as reported by David Kroll at Terra Sigillata.
Narcotics officials and toxicologists say that the raw materials for many of the new drugs appear to be manufactured in China and trans-shipped to other countries in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. DrugMonkey also notes that it will be interesting to see “if actions such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand finally getting serious about controlling the production of the safrole oil used as a precursor in MDMA manufacture is having a lasting effect on world markets.”
Photo Credit: http://www.ipfw.edu/