The heavily publicised deaths of two teenagers in Lincolnshire who took mephedrone (known as “meow meow”) has led to calls for the drug to be banned. Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling has stated there is a “very strong case” for banning meow meow, while Lord Mandelson has stated that its legality will be considered “very speedily, very carefully”. It would appear that little has been learnt from the failure of prohibitions imposed on other recreational drugs and that scant regard is being given to the principle of self ownership – if individuals own their bodies then they must be free to harm themselves.
There is strong evidence from previous prohibitions (heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and so on) that banning mephedrone will only increase the harm it causes. Worryingly, the “forbidden fruit effect” means that outlawing the substance may actually add to its allure for drug takers. For consumers the fact that a drug is prohibited arguably advertises its potency.
As John Meadowcroft has pointed out, prohibition “makes risky behaviour even more risky”. A ban will clearly drive meow meow further into the black economy, placing its distribution into the hands of criminal gangs. It will also criminalise otherwise law-abiding users and heighten health risks as the precise contents or quality of the drug are difficult to determine. And while meow meow is not thought to be anything like as addictive as heroin or crack, there is a danger that prohibition will push prices up and encourage users to commit crime to fund their activities. At the very least, significant law enforcement resources will be wasted on a crackdown that achieves little.
The rise in popularity of meow meow presents an opportunity for a change of direction on drugs policy. Rather than banning the substance, policymakers should remove any regulatory barriers that prevent its legal trade. In this way, the criminal element would be driven out, reputable brand names would develop and users would be confident about what they were consuming. This approach could then be rolled out to other illegal drugs such as cannabis, speed and ecstasy.