The Significance of ‘Meow Meow’
The emergence of legal highs such as mephedrone (aka, meow meow, mcat, or ‘drone) might be the final stone that breaks the back of the beleaguered 1979 Misuse of Drugs Act. Controversy over the legislation has been highlighted most recently with the sacking of Professor David Nutt as the Chair of the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. There’s nothing unique about the chemical composition of mephedrone, but this ‘herbal high’ represents a key debate for future drugs policy.
It might sound odd to say, but mephedrone is testament to two fundamental human characteristics. First, it represents our ingenuity and technological prowess, this case, in the field of chemistry. Second, it represents the fundamental human desire for intoxication. Almost every culture in human history has used intoxicants in some way, often for religious and social rituals. Reasons today are wide ranging, from enhancing social interactions, to marking an occasion, to staying awake at work. Drugs are also used extensively for self-medication – a way in which to escape and cope with life’s struggles. Mephedrone, as the poster drug for legal highs at the moment, brings these two fundamental human characteristics together: it is the application of human ingenuity in the service of intoxication.
Current drugs policy prohibits substances that are deemed harmful to individuals. Not only is it illegal to sell and distribute these substances, it is also illegal to possess them. There are many flaws and inconsistencies that result from this approach. First, as Professor Nutt’s research demonstrates, legal drugs such as alcohol and cigarettes are more harmful on a number of metrics than many illegal drugs. Second, as new substances emerge, government is forced to incorporate them into the illicit drugs classification based on their levels of harm. But, with cigarettes and alcohol legal, by what criteria should we judge whether a substance is legal or not?
In response to ‘legal highs’, the Scottish government has proposed a fundamental rethink of drugs legislation. Instead of banning the substance, the Scottish government proposes criminalising “the activity” and the “intent behind the activity”. In this case the “activity” would be restricted to the sale and distribution of substances for illegal use. As The Times reports, the latest thinking is that “new definitions will criminalise the sale of anything” that can be “reasonably expected to be used as a hallucinogenic or intoxicant by human beings”. This statement should make any liberal or liberty-loving individual quiver with fear. It also fails to address the inconsistency noted above: what makes some intoxicants acceptable and others not?
The emergence of legal highs demands serious consideration of a new approach to drugs policy that recognizes the seemingly endless ability to manufacture drugs to circumvent prohibition. There is something deeply human about desiring intoxication. Failure to recognise this will inevitably lead to laws that are divorced from reality and bound to fail.