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What Can Vapers Learn From Mephedrone?

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A look at the banned party drug mephedrone might reveal what will happen if vaping becomes much more tightly regulated or taxed.

From 2009 to 2011, the number of cocaine-related deaths in the UK fell for the first and only time on record. But it wasn’t government regulation or prohibition that managed to achieve what nothing else had. It was an innovative new product. mephedrone In 2009, the party drug mephedrone — more commonly known as m-cat or meow meow — became widely available across cities in the UK. Mephedrone was originally developed in Israel as a pesticide, but enterprising individuals soon realised that it could be used as a weak, cocaine-like stimulant. By a quirk of law, mephedrone was completely legal, and for a couple of years you could have mephedrone delivered to your house just as you could a pizza or a curry. While mephedrone was legal, cocaine users switched over to this new, cheap and easy to access drug in huge numbers. Mephedrone creates a similar high to cocaine, but it was a much safer drug for two important reasons. 1) It’s a much weaker stimulant, meaning that it is more difficult for users to overdose. 2) It was legal, meaning that the people selling it had no incentive to ‘cut’ the drug with other more dangerous substances, as happens with cocaine. The result of the mephedrone craze was the drop in cocaine-related deaths… until 2010. Two young men went drinking for seven hours on a Sunday night, took mephedrone and died later that evening. No one knows for sure if it was the mephedrone that killed them, but it is suspected that mephedrone combined with the massive amounts of alcohol in their bloodstream in a dangerous and tragic way. The local police station in Scunthorpe called an international press conference (probably a first for Scunthorpe) — pulling in journalists from as far afield as CNN to write up a story on the ‘scary new drug’. In 2010, mephedrone was banned and by 2012, when existing stockpiles had been exhausted, cocaine-related deaths had soared back to pre-mephedrone levels. The latest data shows that there were 247 deaths involving cocaine in 2014, the highest figure ever recorded.

What has any of this got to do with vaping?

Don’t get me wrong, vaping is nothing like mephedrone. Vaping is a much safer activity and one that is better understood by scientists. But the mephedrone example is useful because it lets us see what happens when politicians legislate against a safer activity as harshly as they legislate against a more harmful activity. If the aim of the law is to protect people, to save lives, then making mephedrone illegal was a huge mistake. Banning the safer substance didn’t stop people from taking drugs altogether — it simply encouraged them to move from the safer substance to the more dangerous one and funded criminals in the process. It’s a familiar story of prohibition that we’ve seen replicated countless times. Clamping down on cocaine led to crack, prohibiting alcohol led to moonshine, tightly policing cannabis led to skunk. In the same way, tightly regulating vaping won’t stop people accessing nicotine. Instead, there’s a real danger that the 900,000 people who quit smoking through vaping in the UK last year will relapse back to tobacco if their safer alternative is taken away. What we must learn from the mephedrone story is that laws aren’t designed to protect people. They are designed for political or economic advantage. It wasn’t the two deaths that caused mephedrone to be banned (if drugs were banned on the basis of a number of deaths caused, then alcohol, cigarettes and paracetamol would be long gone) but the journalists that turned up from CNN. The media needs fear to sell papers, and for this reason, we’ve seen mephedrone, legal highs and nitrous oxide banned after tabloid campaigns.

The cost of regulating vaping

Could vaping be next? The media is not yet fully committed to banning vaping. On the one hand, they have certainly ran with as many ‘scary new drug’ headlines as they have been able to think up; see the ridiculous headlines linking vaping to deafness, popcorn lung and formaldehyde. Yet, on the other hand, vaping delivers nicotine, which along with alcohol and caffeine have become the three drugs which the media (and society in general) have long considered acceptable. What happened with mephedrone gives us a precautionary tale about the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle says that when something comes along that may or may not be harmful, we must be 100% sure that it is not harmful before we allow it into society. Some critics of vaping have argued that, based on the precautionary principle, vaping should be tightly regulated until it is better understood. But what they fail to grasp is that there is a cost to inaction too. If people are already doing something that is dangerous (such as smoking) then not offering them a safer alternative (such as vaping) is far more dangerous than doing nothing at all. With mephedrone, the stakes were huge, we’re talking hundreds of lives each year. But that absolutely pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of lives that are at risk if vaping is banned — or taxed so highly that it is no longer cheaper than smoking. Data from the ONS shows that in 2015, 900,000 people used e-cigarettes in their quit smoking attempts. Politicians must learn from the data, not the media’s scare stories, and make sure that any new vaping laws that are put in place are well designed to minimise harm.

Have you quit smoking through vaping?