Dr Max Pemberton found out for himself.
By Max Pemberton Published: 7:00AM GMT 20 Mar 2010
Last Saturday, I took drugs. This kind of behaviour does not constitute my usual type of weekend activity, I assure you. I am, after all, a doctor. As I stood with a rolled-up bank note in my hand, staring down at the thin line of white powder I was about to snort, I thought back to the innocent shopping trip earlier in the day that had led to this.
I’d been in central London buying a birthday card when I noticed a row of small packets on the counter by the till. They caught my eye and as I waited to pay I absent-mindedly picked one of them up. It was a folded piece of card, no bigger than the size of a book of stamps. The front was decorated in bright green and orange and it had pictures of flowers and the words “Buzz Gro”. In tiny letters below it said: “water-soluble all-purpose plant feed”. On the inside was stapled a small transparent packet with a white powder inside.
For a brief moment I was genuinely puzzled as to why a card shop was selling plant food. Then I suddenly realised, this wasn’t plant food in the conventional, Baby Bio, sense. This was mephedrone, a “legal high” that has become increasingly popular as a cheap and easy alternative to illegal street drugs such as ecstasy or cocaine.
While it is marketed as “plant food”, it is no such thing and this term is used only to avoid the Medicines Act, which makes it illegal to sell or advertise it for human consumption. It has been in the news this week after the tragic death of two teenagers in north Lincolnshire who had taken it but, for the time being at least, it remains legal and, as I discovered, startlingly easy to procure.
I first heard about the drug last summer. To start with, it was patients who incidentally reported taking it when I saw them in A&E and asked about their drug use. They all raved about it and kept assuring me it was OK because it was legal. Then I began to hear whispers from friends. Respectable, sensible people told me they had tried it. And here, standing in a shop just a few hundred yards from Oxford Street on a crisp, spring afternoon, I’d stumbled across it for myself.
Out of curiosity I asked the cashier how much it was and he told me it was £19.99 a packet. I hesitated. '“What do you do with it?” I asked. He rolled his eyes at me: “Snort it, put it in a drink or wrap it in paper and swallow it,” he said with disinterest and put the earphones of his iPod back in.
“What are the side effects?” I asked. He didn’t even remove his earphones and simply shrugged while he continued to chew his gum. No mention that nobody knows the long-term effects, the correct dose to take, what to expect from it or the risks. I’ve had better counselling buying Night Nurse.
Surely it can’t be that bad if I can buy it in a shop, I reasoned to myself. But, more than anything, I felt I had to know what it was that so many of my patients were telling me they were taking each weekend. Impulsively I bought some. I was nervous, so before taking it, I canvassed a few friends. A lawyer, an architect and two people in publishing: they had all tried it and said how good it was. Back at home, my friends – a doctor and a midwife – arrived and after some discussion, we decided to try it.
At first, I felt nothing except a slight burning sensation in my nose. Then, as I went to the kitchen to get a drink, it occurred to me how much I loved my friend Rhiannon. I came back in and sat down on the chair and stared at her. “You OK?” she asked. “I am absolutely fine,” I replied, smiling widely. “I really love you.” “It’s working then,” she replied sardonically. A few minutes later, we were all sitting round in a euphoric haze, smiling benignly but with an incomprehensible, overwhelming desire to dance. It was nearly impossible to keep still.
Then things became very vivid and real and everything everyone said suddenly became very important. Before we knew it we were piling into a cab, laughing and giggling uncontrollably and going to a club. The effects lasted for about another two hours. Then, as suddenly as they had appeared, they vanished. I was left standing in the club with a pounding headache, wondering what on earth had possessed me to go out. I can now understand why people re-dose as soon as the effects wear off because the contrast between being intoxicated and not is sharp and sudden.
My prohibition on taking drugs until this point had been because they were illegal. I think that people should be free to make choices about their lives and that, providing they are aware of the consequences, this includes doing things that might damage their health. I am not a complete puritan – I smoke and drink. But my problem with illegal drugs is the human suffering that surrounds this market. Gun crime, prostitution, murder, extortion, burglary. It ruins lives and communities, and that’s not something I want to buy into.
But mephedrone was different. There was a veneer of respectability about buying this drug and it was this, along with the complete ease with which I obtained it, that worried me afterwards. I didn’t need a dealer or contacts. I hadn’t even stumbled across it in the dark, sinister reaches of cyberspace. I’d wandered into a shop and picked it up as though it were a pair of novelty socks. This drug isn’t even like alcohol or cigarettes, which have age restrictions on their use. Literally anyone can get hold of it and yet it is so new that we know next to nothing about its long-term effects.
Making this drug illegal will stop many of the people I know using it. It will also remove the implicit suggestion that because it’s legal it must be safe. But I also know that simply making something illegal will not stop it being used, or indeed eradicate the need that people have to take substances that temporarily alter their experience of the world and intoxicate them.
I do not take drug use lightly. I have worked in a clinic for people addicted to drugs and have often come across people who use drugs in my work in mental health. I have seen first hand the devastating impact that substances have on people’s lives.
I’d love to be able to tell you that I had a hideous time when I took mephedrone but the truth is, I didn’t. It was a lovely feeling and I can completely understand why people would use it. Personally, I don’t like the idea that I am having a good night because I’ve taken something to make me feel as though I am enjoying myself; I like having a good night out because I actually am enjoying myself.
But this is a moot point for many youngsters, and it’s them that I am particularly worried about because their concept of risk is so embryonic. It’s futile telling teenagers that drugs are bad and are going to kill them. This doesn’t work for the simple reason that they look at their peers who have taken it and survived, and come to the conclusion that adults are wrong and are trying to stop them from having a good time. This is further compounded if they do then dabble in drugs and find that, contrary to what they were told, they are actually very enjoyable.
I do not doubt that mephedrone will be made illegal, and this is probably a very sensible course of action if we want people to be as risk averse as possible. But what must be appreciated is that as soon as it is, it’s only a matter of time before another substance appears, creating the same problems all over again.
There may come a point in the future where we tire of this cat-and-mouse game and accept that there is a need for a legally sanctioned stimulant. Perhaps it will be safer in the long term to restrict the use of these substances to adults, and license their sale and enable information to be gathered about their side effects, long-term health implications, dosing and risk minimisation.
All we can do at the moment is keep talking in an open and honest way to young people about drug use. I never thought I’d sanction this, but at present, I’d rather they drank alcohol, with all its known problems, than took plant food, with all its unknowns.