Last autumn, in the throbbing vaults of a mainstream Manchester nightclub, surrounded by a horde of happy, normal, affluent young people heavily intoxicated by recreational drugs, I saw for myself how pointless the current moral panic over mephedrone is.
The woman who took me there, Fiona Measham, a criminologist from Lancaster University, allowed the scene to speak for itself. Her research, the first of its kind, indicates that two thirds of British clubbers — ie, tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens — are routinely taking cocaine, Ecstasy and amphetamines at weekends before going back to work on Monday morning. Dr Measham, who is also member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), found that 98 per cent of clubbers had used drugs at some point.
This leads one to the inescapable conclusion that drug-induced dancing and socialising is a significant part of modern culture — and of the £30 billion night-time economy. And the inevitable follow-up question is: how on earth does one begin to ban that?
Mephedrone is being made illegal, like Ecstasy, GHB, GBL and ketamine before it. The Home Secretary says so; the Tories say so; anxious parents want it so. But the non-drug-taking classes should realise that the comfort they gain from such legislation will be largely for their own benefit; and is irrelevant to the hordes of people who will continue to get high regardless.
The reality is that we can, with the best of intentions, ban mephedrone, and with it the whole family of cathinones; we can ban the entire generation of derivatives that will surely follow from China; or indeed the generation after that. But nothing we do will alter the central, inescapable fact that people take drugs because they enjoy them.
Quite simply, large swaths of the young — and often the not-so-young — have an irresistible desire to get out of their heads on a Friday night. Be it right or wrong, that’s a fact of life. The American pharmacologist Ronald Siegel has described intoxication as the fourth strongest irrepressible human desire after food, sleep and sex, and few would challenge him — particularly on the miserable evidence of our relationship with that other well-known legal high, alcohol. (Interestingly, ACMD this week called for a ban on drinking games at university — potentially more deadly and destructive than any banned substance — but one does not expect a race to legislate.) All of which rather suggests that blanket prohibition of recreational drugs is destined to be a disaster, or at the very least an endless waltz between legislators and those who tweak chemical compounds for criminal gain. According to Measham, the debate needs to become much more sophisticated but also more realistic. Because of the sheer numbers of people involved and their desires, and because of the power of the internet, not to mention the ingenuity of chemists in China designing the next legal high, we have to be a lot more nuanced in our responses.
Her latest research from Lancaster University, published this month, shows that stricter security at ports and airports, together with recent drug seizures, have steered drug users towards more readily available legal highs, such as mephedrone, because of the reduced availablity and purity of Ecstasy and cocaine. Lack of supply doesn’t, one notes, curb anyone’s desire to get high.
The “perversity of prohibition”, Measham found, is that reduction in supply results in drug users turning to unfamiliar and under-researched chemicals — perhaps more dangerous than the last one.
So what are the sensible options?