It goes without saying that the deaths of Louis Wainwright and Nicholas Smith, apparently after having taken the legal high mephedrone, is a matter of deep regret. But it’s also a matter of sad predictability that the news has been hotly followed by calls for mephedrone to be banned; speaking on Today this morning, Chris Grayling, the shadow Home Secretary, spoke about launching a review into legal highs “with a view to banning some of these substances“. James Naughtie was quick to point out the uncomfortable parallels with the government’s treatment of David Nutt in the autumn; but the wider point here has been missed, which is that the default position in drugs policy is prohibitionary.
It’s possible that I’m just getting old, but the strategies used by some people to get caned stagger me. I know that you don’t need too many degrees in chemistry to notice that A is similar to B, and that it might be fun to ingest it – but, still, I can’t quite get my head around the fact that mephedrone is plant food, and someone decided that they’d give it a go anyway. What we can see in full colour that, no matter how tight you draw the net, some ingenious person will find something in his bathroom or shed that he can use to get off his chops. Renton’s speech in Trainspotting – “We would have injected vitamin C if only they had made it illegal” – seems apposite here; you can’t ban people into sobriety.
What a ban does do is criminalise people, and prevent a genuine public health programme related to the use of drugs. Moreover, it’s patronising, because it removes responsibility from the user. After all, illegality means that information is difficult to find (and difficult to winnow from misinformation); and this artificially elevates the danger while at the same time forcing users underground (and so making them reluctant to seek professional advice, which multiplies the problem by itself to boot). This artificially elevated danger, in turn, feeds back into the clamour for a ban… and so it goes on.
A brave government, it seems to me, would try to break this circle. Doing so doesn’t mean giving up on drug use: it means taking effective steps to educate and discourage, based on a cool assessment of the dangers and benefits of a given substance. (And, let’s face it – there must be benefits to mephedrone, otherwise noone’d take it.) Such a policy is perfectly compatible with the idea that taking mephedrone – or ketamine, or anything else – is incredibly silly and potentially dangerous; but the same applies to playing scrum-half, and there’s no real pressing reason to ban that.
UPDATE, 19:40: See Tom Bull’s very useful clarification on the nature of mephedrone in the comments.