Jeremy Sare on NRG1

Jeremy SareThe Fly Agaric mushroom, depicted in many a book of fairytales, is a powerful hallucinogen but still perfectly legal. The reason why successive governments have not sought to ban it is because its effects are so deeply unpleasant, even the most avid “stoner” does not want to take it. At least, not more than once.

The same could be said of the intensely strong stimulant, NRG1 (naphyrone) which the Home Secretary has this week agreed to bring under the control of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA). The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs‘ (ACMD) report, published 7 July, indicates it has, “approximately ten times the potency of cocaine.” For drug users, that is not the good selling point ministers may think it is. Ten times the strength means simply, er, too strong.

Internet sellers of “legal highs” are certainly advertising NRG 1, partly to show they are defiantly still in business, post April’s mephedrone “ban.” There seems no prospect of the new drug developing any significant demand. The ACMD could not even measure its prevalence – they referred solely to two small seizures in Sweden.

The ACMD is desperate to re-establish its relevance after haemorrhaging much of its scientific expertise in recent months. But, here, they have elected to attack a straw man. The drug may be highly potent but if no-one is taking it then where is the harm and why the urgency?

Professor David Nutt, the council’s previously sacked chair, said,”The evidence on which NRG1 was banned makes a mockery of the presumed scientific basis of the drug laws. There was little evidence of use, no demonstrable harm and an assumption of cocaine equivalence based on limited and over interpreted pharmacology.”

An ACMD member, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “The UK Government does have a history of criminalising whole categories of drugs with very low prevalence and very low existing harms like MDMA and a whole bunch of related chemical cousins in 1977 when there was no street trade in the UK at that time. So banning NRG1 did not relate to existing prevalence or existing problems.”

But there’s little which pleases a new drugs minister (James Brokenshire) more than the chance to talk tough on drugs and “send a clear message” to young people. It is macho, simplistic, and pointless.
Poly-drug users need no greater deterrent from taking naphyrone than speaking to others about its effects. Drug user sites like Partyvibe and Bluelight provide a plethora of highly negative anecdotes about NRG1: “monster comedowns…did not sleep for two days,” “unbearable depression… stuck with no escape.” One obviously highly experienced drug user also mentioned deeply disturbing circulatory and other vascular problems leading to, “blue hands and burning feet.”

NRG1 is perhaps one of the first drugs to display “addiction without pleasure” (which one commentator compared to listening to the Archers).

ACMD Chair, Prof. Les Iversen merrily listed his Council’s findings to the BBC on Monday, saying NRG1 presented, “a huge risk of overdose,” and again indicated it was, “ten times the strength in potency than cocaine.”

What is certainly puzzling is why a drug which appears to be, by an order of magnitude, stronger and riskier than an existing Class A drug, is to be classified as only Class B. NRG1 which presents such potentially lethal dangers to the user will be categorised along side cannabis – hardly a “clear message” to young people about the rationale of drug control in the UK.

The Home Office did not feel they could expand on this apparent inconsistency and simply batted back the text of the ACMD report, “the harms associated with naphyrone and related compounds are commensurate with those of mephedrone and therefore those substances in Class B.”

Brokenshire denies they are impotent in this “battle” as he attempts to command the waves of “legal highs” to retreat. His plan to compel the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) to “close these [websites] down,” is a strategy that would have certainly been carried out by Home Secretaries David Blunkett, John Reid, or Jacqui Smith if any had thought it would have made much impact. SOCA is fully aware it would take only a matter of hours for the owners to re-establish a new website and, if necessary, an entirely new network of supply.

At least Prof Iversen has conceded the Government is, “floundering” in its attempts to contain the influx of new synthetic stimulants. But the ACMD’s naphyrone study demonstrates a descent of the intellectual authority of the Council, now seemingly supplying ministers with enough material to bark out a few familiar cries about the scourge of drugs.

The council’s report includes some pharmacological consideration on what the effects of the drug are in vitro. But here the council’s work itself could be seen as experimental or academic, and not relevant to the world of drug use around it.  ACMD needs to show it can be in vivo again.

Jeremy Sare is a freelance journalist and government consultant. He is a former secretary to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and head of drug legislation at the Home Office.