While we were away, what’s left of the ACMD finished their report on mephedrone and structurally similar compounds — one of the final few hurdles before these research chemicals get slapped upside the head with Alan “more insightful than science” Johnson’s banning stick.
Since we’re up to the eyeballs here with a week’s worth of work to catch up on, and this report will have a monstrous impact, I’ll repost it here in full. Kind of. Below is the main body of the report including references. The equally important annexes including recommendations on how to actually ban these substances can be found here: The ACMD’s Mephedrone Report Part II.
I’ve kept page numbers in referring to pages in the original document and included the references, but not included the footnotes. Most of the footnote info has been incorporated in the article somehow though, and if you’re really desperate to read them, you can download the full pdf at the end of part two. Here goes:
Consideration Of The Cathinones
Letter To The Home Secretary From The ACMD
31st March 2010
Dear Home Secretary,
I have pleasure in attaching the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs report on the ‘Consideration of the cathinones’.
The ACMD recommends that the cathinone compounds be brought under control of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 in Class B, Schedule I by way of a generic definition. Based on the attached evidence and by analogy with the amphetamines, the ACMD consider that the harms associated with the cathinones most closely equate with other compounds in Class B.
The ACMD also recommend that particular attention is focussed on credible and consistent public health messages that are promulgated both to the public and health professionals – the latter for the purposes of providing advice.
The ACMD is concerned that, particularly in the case of mephedrone, the internet plays a significant part in the marketing, sale and distribution of the drug and social networking sites may also play a role. The ACMD therefore believes that resources should initially be focussed on supply side activities with a concurrent emphasis on educating users of this drug so as to highlight the real dangers of mephedrone and the cathinones.
The ACMD indicated, in its letter to the Home Secretary, of the 22nd December 2009, its concerns about the sale of mephedrone and its plans for review. However, the rapid increase in the use of mephedrone in the UK has been exceptional. This sudden rise in prevalence of what we consider to be a harmful drug has brought to the fore our concerns that we need to consider a range of options for limiting the rapid spread of such substances. The ACMD intend to provide you with further advice on the possible control of ‘legal highs’ concerning recommendations and advice that is broader than the scope of what either this report or that on other individual or classes of compounds will allow.
In addition, I would like to draw your attention to further advice that we will provide on the napthyl analogues of pyrovalerone and other such analogues. The ACMD will meet to discuss other compounds that are not covered by this generic scope in the next few weeks.
Professor Les Iversen FRS
1.1. In March 2009 the then Home Secretary requested advice from the ACMD on so called ‘legal highs’. The ACMD have looked at a number of substances to date and provided advice on the piperazines and the synthetic cannabinoids (‘Spice). The ACMD wrote to the Home Secretary in December 2009 (Annex D) setting out the ACMD’s concerns regarding the cathinones and mephedrone in particular, which first came to the ACMDs attention in the summer of 2009. On the 2nd February 2010 the ACMD Chair (Professor Les Iversen) met with the Home Secretary to further discuss the issue and to provide an update.
1.2. The ACMD gathered evidence on the cathinones at a special meeting of the Technical Committee (22nd February 2010) and discussed additional evidence and possible recommendations at a further Technical Committee meeting on the 25th March 2010, and at the ACMD Council meeting on the 29th of March 2010.
2.1. Cathinone is one of a number of alkaloids which can be extracted from the (fresh) leaves of Catha edulis (khat). It is structurally very similar to amphetamine (1-phenylpropan-2-amine) and represents the ß-keto analogue of amphetamine.
2.2. Cathinone (Class C), methcathinone (Class B), diethylpropion (Class C) and pyrovalerone (Class C) are controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The three controlled cathinone derivatives are listed in the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971) and have been reveiwed by the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (WHO, 1995). However, other derivatives and analogues are not presently controlled (including mephedrone). Notwithstanding the potential harms of the cathinones it is apparent that mephedrone and other cathinones are being sold without any apparent effective regulation.
2.3. The ACMD has communicated its intentions to review the cathinones to the Home Secretary, over recent months, through meetings and correspondence (see the ACMD’s letter of the 22nd Dec 2009 – Annex D). The ACMD has been concerned about the rise in prevalence of the cathinones and potential harms initially through reports from drug services, young people’s treatment services, head teachers, drug surveys, the police and media, among others.
2.4. Other countries (including: Sweden Denmark, Norway, Ireland and Israel) have recently controlled specific cathinones. However, we are not aware of any country that has developed generic legislation to control the cathinones as a class.
2.5. The ACMD is aware of the collation of data on mephedrone by Europol and the EMCDDA in the form of a joint report under Article 5.1 of Council Decision 2005/387/JHA. The ACMD wrote to the UK focal point (the Reitox NFP) that would be providing information as requested by Article 5 of the Decision.
2.6. This report is compiled from oral and written evidence considered at the meetings (paragraph 2.3) above. A full citation of the evidence received and considered is provided in Section 10 and submitting individuals and organisations are given in Annex C.
3. Chemistry And Pharmacology
3.1. Cathinone (2-amino-1-phenyl propanone) is one of a number of alkaloids which can be extracted from the (fresh) leaves of Catha edulis (khat). However, the ACMD understands that most of the cathinones seized, and those that have been tested, are synthetic in origin.
3.2. Cathinone is structurally very similar to amphetamine (1-phenylpropan-2-amine), differing only in the functionality present at the ß-carbon. Cathinone possesses a ketone oxygen at the ß-carbon; cathinone can therefore be considered as the ‘ß-keto analogue’ of amphetamine (see Figures 1 and 2).
Figure 1: The structural similarity between amphetamine (left) and cathinone (right)
3.3. Structural modifications to the 1-phenylpropan-2-amine (amphetamine) backbone have produced a range of different compounds, many of which are closely related structurally to amphetamine; these are known as the ‘amphetamines’. In a similar manner, the molecular architecture of 2-amino-1-phenyl propanone (cathinone) can be altered to produce a series of different compounds which are closely structurally related to cathinone. Together these are known as the ‘cathinones’ or ‘cathinone derivatives’.
3.4. The N-methyl derivative known as methcathinone or ephedrone is the cathinone analogue of methylamphetamine, while 3,4-methylene-dioxymethcathinone (methylone) is the cathinone analogue of MDMA (ecstasy); 4-methylmethcathinone (mephedrone) has no commonly used amphetamine equivalent.
3.5. The basic cathinone structure (see Figure 2) can be altered in a number of predictable ways, such as the inclusion of additional functionality to the aromatic ring (ring substitution, R4), N-alkylation (or inclusion of the nitrogen atom in a ring structure, R2 and R3), and variation of the (typically alkyl) a-carbon substituent (R1). Multiple modifications may of course be present in a single derivative; cathinones are all usually N-alkylated (or the nitrogen is incorporated into a ring structure, typically pyrrolidine) and many also bear ring substituents.
Figure 2: Generic sites for structural variation of cathinone, detailing a and ß positions
(The generic cathinone backbone (see Figure 2) possesses a chiral centre (the a-carbon atom if R1?H); cathinone and its derivatives can therefore exist as stereoisomers, the potencies of which may be markedly different. Although it is the S-enantiomer of cathinone which is found in the fresh leaves of Catha edulis, the chirality of the cathinones is not determined during routine forensic analysis of seizures. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that the synthetic cathinones currently available are enantiopure; it is instead likely that they are supplied as racemic mixtures. The qualitative or quantitative differences between the enantiomers of the non-controlled cathinones is not known.)
3.6. The genesis of synthetic cathinone chemistry is rooted in the synthesis of cathinone over 120 years ago. Since this time, many synthetic cathinones have been reported, the vast majority of which have not been used in a medicinal setting. However, a handful of cathinones, such as diethylpropion, bupropion and pyrovalerone have been used in pharmaceutical preparations, and the properties of novel cathinones (such as napthylpyrovalerone (Meltzer et al., 2006)) is still an area of active research.
3.7. Bupropion (page 42) is used medically as an antidepressant and an aid to smoking cessation and is a prescribed drug, marketed under the trade name Zyban®. Although it is a ring substituted cathinone no samples of Bupropion have been encountered in forensic analysis of seizures in the UK, and there is no evidence for its misuse.
3.8. The misuse of selected synthetic cathinones is not new; methcathinone (ephedrone), originally used as an antidepressant in the former Soviet Union in the 1930’s, went on to be used recreationally there (especially during the 1970s and 1980s) and in the USA (1990s). The emergence of six synthetic cathinones in Germany was reported between 1997 and 2004. All six substances bear an a-pyrrolidino functionality and are therefore closely related to pyrovalerone (page 41).
3.9. More recently, there have been an increasing number of reports of other synthetic cathinones encountered within the European Union. Although many of these compounds are simply ß-keto analogues of well-known amphetamines, the presence of the ketone functionality often circumvents any control measures which may already be in place for the related amphetamine congeners. Since 2006, the following cathinones have been reported in the European Union (see Table 1; for the position of the substituents R1 to R4, see Figure 2). According to data from UK forensic providers, since January 2006 six of these have been encountered in the UK (emboldened in Table 1).
Table 1: Some of the non-controlled cathinones encountered in the European Union since 2006 (excluding reports of pyrovalerone derivatives from 1997 – 2004). those in bold type have been encountered in the UK.
|Methylenedioxypyrovalerone||MDPV (corrected by me)||n-Pr||pyrrolidinyl||3,4-methylenedioxy|
3.10. Of the total number of cathinone derivatives encountered by UK forensic providers, by far the most commonly encountered is 4-methylmethcathinone (mephedrone) (89% of seizures). However, data from the Forensic Science Service indicate that cathinones accounted for a very small fraction of Police seizures submitted in 2009. Tentative data also indicate a rapid rise in the number of cathinone submissions during 2009, with a concomitant decrease in the number of piperazine submissions.
3.11. Data from UK forensic providers suggest that the cathinones are normally submitted as either white or brown powders (the freebase forms of the cathinones are unstable and readily decompose; the cathinones are normally encountered as the hydrochloride salts.); data from January 2006 to mid-February 2010 indicate that, of all cathinone derivatives submitted, 95% were in powder form, 4% being submitted as tablets or capsules.
3.12. Purity data for the cathinones are not available from UK forensic providers, since it is not usually determined during routine forensic analysis. However, cathinones are normally advertised as being of ‘high purity’, typically >95%. Some adulterants, including benzocaine, lignocaine, caffeine and paracetamol, have been detected in a small proportion of seizures of the cathinones. Some submissions have been adulterated with controlled drugs such as cocaine, ketamine, amphetamine and 1-benzylpiperazine (BZP), although these are rarely encountered.
3.13. There are currently no colorimetric field tests available to identify all of the cathinone derivatives, although some chemical tests, such as the Simon’s test and Chen test may be used to give an indication of the presence of a small number of the cathinones. More specific field tests based on immunoassay technology are not yet available.
3.14. As with the amphetamines, both systematic (IUPAC) and non-standard nomenclature is common in cathinone chemistry. Often, the assimilation of a common structural motif is reflected in non-standard nomenclature. Thus, structural incorporation of the ‘2-methylamino-1-phenyl-1-propanone’ fragment, which is also known as methcathinone or ‘ephedrone’, is often indicated in nomenclature; 4-methylmethcathinone is ‘mephedrone’ and 4-fluoromethcathinone is ‘flephedrone’. The use of acronyms is also widespread; 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone is known as ‘MDPV’, whilst a-pyrrolidinopropiophenone, one of a number of a-pyrrolidino cathinones, is simply known as a-PPP. As a consequence of the ß-keto substituent, it is also common practice for widely accepted amphetamine acronyms to be augmented with the prefix ‘bk’. For example, 3,4-methylenedioxymethcathinone (methylone), the cathinone analogue of MDMA, is often referred to as ‘bk-MDMA’. Mephedrone [2-(methylamino)-1-(4-methylphenyl)-1-propanone] is the most commonly used cathinone derivative and forms the focus of this report.
3.15. As with the amphetamines, the cathinones act as central nervous system stimulants, although the potencies of the cathinones are generally lower then their amphetamine congeners, probably because the increased polarity conferred on a cathinone by the presence of a ß-keto group reduces their ability to cross the blood-brain barrier.
3.16. Several cathinones have been used as active pharmaceutical ingredients (API). Bupropion has been used as an antidepressant, and as an aid to stop smoking cigarettes. Diethylpropion (Amfepramone) and pyrovalerone have both been proposed as appetite suppressants, although they are not currently in clinical use. 4-methylmethcathinone (mephedrone), the most commonly encountered synthetic cathinone derivative in the UK, has never been used as an API or patented as a potential API.
3.17. Little data are available on either the pharmacokinetics or pharmacodynamics of the cathinones. Research on the metabolism of the ring-substituted cathinones bk-MBDB and bk-MDEA has implicated N-dealkylation, demethylenation followed by O-methylation and ß-keto reduction as major metabolic pathways (Zaitsu et al., 2009).
3.18 The effects of cathinones bearing ring-substituents in human subjects are reportedly similar to those of cocaine, amphetamine and MDMA (Table 2; CairScotland, 2010). Self reported subjective effects of ring-substituted cathinones include:
- Feelings of empathy (openness, love, closeness, sociability, well-being);
- Stimulation / alertness / rushing;
- Euphoria / mood lift / appreciation of music; and,
- Awareness of senses.
3.19. Studies of the effects of cathinones on monoamine neurotransmission in rat brain confirm their mechanisms of action to be similar to those of the amphetamines. Both groups of drugs bind to monoamine transporters for dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline (norepinephrine) in brain and promote release of these monoamines (Cozzi et al., 1999; Nagai et al., 2007). As with the different amphetamines, individual cathinone derivatives vary in their relative potencies as inhibitors of the three monoamine transporters – summarised in Table 2. There are no published data on the effects of mephedrone on monoamine transporters, but it may be expected to be intermediate in its profile between methcathinone and methylone.
Table 2: Actions of selected drugs on monoamine transporters
Data from Cozzi et al., (1999) and Nagai et al., (2007). Values are depicted as relative affinities since the studies did not use the same units. + = low affinity; ++++ = highest affinity
3.20. It is notable that the cathinones examined were potent inhibitors of the noradrenaline (norepinephrine) transporter (NET). This helps to explain the strong sympathomimetic actions of cathinones – due to their ability to promote release of noradrenaline from the sympathetic nerves in various peripheral organs, notably the heart and vascular system.
3.21. Cathinone and methcathinone are amphetamine-like behavioural stimulants. When administered to experimental animals they cause hyperactivity, with methcathinone being approximately 10 times more potent than cathinone (Feyissa and Kelly, 2008; Glennon et al., 1987)
3.22 When administered in vivo to rats trained to recognise and to distinguish the subjective effects of amphetamine, the animals cross-generalised completely to methcathinone (i.e. they were unable to recognise this substances as having different effects from amphetamine). Methylone, however, showed only weak cross generalization to amphetamine, but cross generalized completely to MDMA in rats trained to recognize this as the discriminative stimulus (Dal Cason et al.,1997).
4. Epidemiology Of Cathinone Use And Methods Of Use
Availability and use
4.1. Many of the cathinone compounds, particularly mephedrone, can be purchased from many different sources, and are readily available over the internet. Although the provenance of the substances is often not clear, several suppliers source compounds from China (Ramsey, 2010; UK Border Agency, 2010). Exercises at Heathrow targeting air courier traffic from China for delivery to UK domestic addresses gave rise to seizures of mephedrone. Claims of manufacture in a number of other countries are made on the internet.
4.2. Intelligence from Australia Customs and Border Protection Service has identified China and the UK as being the principal source of mephedrone. However, it is likely that in the case of the UK, this represents transit of the drugs and not necessarily production in the apparent country of origin.
4.3. Mephedrone and other cathinones are predominantly sold over the internet and in ‘head shops’. Websites selling cathinone based compounds – generally mephedrone — normally exhibit a disclaimer that the compounds ‘are not for human consumption’. Instead, they are sold as research chemicals, ‘novelty bath salts’ (3-fluoromethcathinone) or, more commonly, as plant food/plant growth regulators (Sumnall, 2009). However, none of the cathinones has any recognized efficacy as a plant fertilizer nor would they suitably function as bath salts.
4.4. Slang terms for some of the cathinones include Bubble(s), miaow, meow meow, 4-MMC, Mcat, sub-coca, toot and Top Cat.
4.5. Cathinones (generally mephedrone) are usually sold as white or brown powders, sometimes as capsules, or more rarely as pills, and are often advertised as being of ‘high’ purity (> 95%). CairScotland (2010) report that ‘Bubbles’ was originally sold in capsules, but now more often in 1g bags. Reports suggest varying prices: around £10 – 15/g if purchased from ‘headshops’, clubs or dealers (Druglink, 2010; Linell, 2010).
4.6. Self-reported dosages range from 5 mg or less (for MDPV) to 200 mg or more (for mephedrone), with some mephedrone users reporting ‘re-dosing’ (bingeing) to prolong the euphoric experience, leading to 1 – 2g being consumed in a session. The cathinones are sometimes used in conjunction with alcohol or controlled substances; co-abused substances include cocaine, cannabis, ketamine and MDMA. Studies of polysubstance use with the cathinones are not available, however, it should be noted that polydrug use is increasingly a feature of UK illegal consumption patterns more generally.
4.7. The reason for the apparent emergence and sudden increase in mephedrone use in the UK in 2009 is unclear. However, interviews with users and community workers (Newcombe, 2010; Measham et al., 2010, NME, 2010) suggest that the unavailability and/or low purity of cocaine and MDMA in 2009 (Hand and Rishiraj, 2009) have contributed to the increase in mephedrone use. In addition, the cathinones are presently a legal alternative to other drugs and are widely available from internet websites.
4.8 Mephedrone powder may be snorted (insufflated) (sometimes by keying – approximately 5 – 8 keys per gram (Linell, 2010)). The drug may also be swallowed – often after wrapping in tissue paper (bombing or dabbing) or, more rarely, injected (CairScotland, 2010; Linell, 2010; McVean, 2009; Measham et al., 2010).
4.9. Reports from users presenting at hospital A&E units are that mephedrone is taken in staggered doses (Wood pers. comm.).
4.10. Emergent research with mephedrone users suggests that they may appear to develop tolerance quickly and as a consequence tend to consume higher doses more frequently.
4.11. Evidence from the Bailiwick of Guernsey Customs report an increase in the prevalence of mephedrone from seizures and this has superseded the seizures of ‘Toot’ (identified predominantly as Butylone and methylone) (McVean, 2009 and 2010). It is reported that mephedrone and ‘Toot’ are being injected by users and has become popular among users of heroin (McVean, 2009 and 2010).
Prevalence and reported data
4.12. There are little published data on the prevalence of the cathinones; most available data are from self reported surveys of particular demographics.
4.13. Since many of the cathinones are not controlled, they are not included in the ‘stimulant’ group of substances in the British Crime Survey (BCS). However, we understand that the BCS will now include a specific question on mephedrone – interim data should be available to the ACMD after 6 months of the question becoming part of the survey.
4.14. The Mixmag survey (Winstock, 2010) is a cross sectional, self reported, self nominating, survey of over 2,000 UK individuals using the online website “Don’t Stay In” for the dance magazine Mixmag. The most recent survey included a question on mephedrone. Of self reported drug use, mephedrone was the fourth most commonly used drug in the last month (Cannabis (any), ecstasy (any) and cocaine powder ranked higher in terms of % use in the last month). The survey data show that 41.7% of respondents indicated they had ever used mephedrone, 33.6% in the previous month. These data suggest that the use of mephedrone is a new phenomenon since lifetime and past month prevalence is so similar in this survey. The synthetic cathinone methylone had been tried by 7.5% of respondents in the last month and 10.8% in their lifetime. Also other surveys of drug use show no reported mephedrone use amongst similar groups of young adults surveyed in bars and clubs in 2004 – 8 (Measham and Moore, 2009).
4.15. Data from the National Poisons Information Service (NPIS) show that telephone inquiries and TOXBASE accesses relating to cathinones increased sharply over the latter part of 2009 into 2010 (Thomas, 2010). NPIS enquiries more commonly involved males (2:1 sex ratio) and fitted an age profile similar to those taking MDMA with the greater proportion being in the 10 – 19 and 20 – 29 age groups, compared to cocaine which has a greater proportion of enquiries concerning the 20 – 29 and 30 – 39 age groups.
4.16. The most up to date information regarding visits to the FRANK website relating to the cathinones page are presented in Table 3. The number of visits has more than doubled in the past six months and has shown a month on month increase since September 2009 when the page was first published. This is mirrored by similar increases in calls to the talk to FRANK helpline.
Table 3: Visits to selected pages of the FRANK website between September 2009 and February 2010*.
|FRANK website visits||Cathinones||% of visits||Cannabis||% of visits||Cocaine||% of visits||Ecstasy||% of visits|
|Sept-09 (page published 18÷09÷09)||255,765||9,366||3.7%||58185||22.7%||36925||14.4%||22541||8.8%|
*percentages are of total visits to individual drug webpages on FRANK website.
4.17. ‘Google Insights for search’ is a tool that allows search volume patterns, specifically using the Google search engine, to be compared across regions, categories, time frames, and properties. ‘Google Insights for search’ has been used in this instance to determine the proportion of searches, using Google, to search for the word ‘mephedrone’ since January 2009 to March 2010 in the UK (England region only). It can be seen from Figure 1 that there is a rising trend in the searches, although the month of March 2010 includes only partial data at this time. Please note that some months overlap due to the way in which the data is collated (weekly rather monthly).
Figure 1: Relative number of searches on Google for the term ‘mephedrone’.
4.18. Data provided by the Forensic Science Service (FSS) of police seizures show that the cathinone derivatives account for only a small proportion of total drug seizures. Although the cathinones are not illegal they generally present as ‘white powders’ (predominantly mephedrone – 89% of cathinone seizures).
5. Physical Harms (Toxicity, Dependency And Mental Health)
5.1. Most data regarding the harms of the cathinones (mephedrone in particular) are self-reported and there are very few clinical data available.
5.2. Wood et al., (2009) report the first case of sympathomimetic toxicity related to mephedrone (4-MMC) confirmed by toxicological screening where no other drugs or alcohol were detected.
5.3. Data from Guys and St Thomas’ hospital toxicology (Dargan and Wood, pers. comm.) over the last year show that from a total of 1600 – 1800 cases, of which 40% are due to recreational drugs, 25 of which presented with toxicity due to self reported mephedrone use (Table 4). Of these 25 cases cases, 80% were male with a mean age of 28.5y (SD ± 8.0 y). Reported clinical symptoms are shown in Table 5, clinical examination data are shown in Table 6.
Table 4: Cases of toxicity in individuals presenting due to self reported mephedrone use to Guys and St Thomas’ hospital
|January – March 2009||2|
|April – June 2009||0|
|July – September 2009||8|
|October – December 2009||5|
|January 2010 – 22nd February 2010||10|
Table 5: Reported Clinical symptoms for cases of toxicity in individuals presenting due to self reported mephedrone use to Guys and St Thomas’ hospital
|% presentations (n=25)|
|Discoloration of the skin||0|
Table 6: Clinical examination for cases of toxicity in individuals presenting due to self reported mephedrone use to Guys and St Thomas’ hospital
|% presentations (n=25)|
|GCS = 8⁄15||16%|
5.4. The clinical management of those cases at Guys and St Thomas’ was that:
- Four (16%) required benzodiazepines for management of agitation
- Twenty (80%) discharged from ED/observation ward
- Five admitted to hospital
- Four to general medical ward
- One to ICU (for other drug toxicity: GBL)
5.5. Various user reports and clinical observations indicate that mephedrone abuse can cause a number of adverse side effects. Table 7 summarises self reported side effects of mephedrone in terms of increasing severity.
Table 7: Self reported side effects of mephedrone
|Modest severity||Moderate severity||Most severe|
|Reduced appetite||Insomnia||Strong desire to re-dose, craving to recapture initial euphoric rush|
|Dry mouth||Nausea (27%)*||Uncomfortable changes in body temperature (sweating/chills) (67%)*|
|Pupil dilation||Trismus and Bruxism||Increased blood pressure and heart rate, palpitations (43%)*|
|Unusual body sensations||Skin rashes||serious vasoconstriction in extremities, cold or blue fingers (15%*)|
|Change in body temperature regulation||Nystagmus and dilated pupils||high doses can cause hallucinations and psychosis|
|Pain and swelling in nose and throat, nose bleeds, sinusitis (when insufflated)|
|Impaired short term memory, poor concentration|
|Dizziness, light headidness, vertigo (51%)*|
*Data from Mixmag survey n=>2,000 (Winstock, 2010)
5.6. When taken in large quantities self-reported experiences by ‘psychonaut’ users described vivid hallucinations during 3 day binges of mephedrone (Linell, 2010). However, the quantities reportedly consumed are not likely to mirror those of most users.
5.7. The ACMD has received anecdotal reports from members of the public that when taken in conjunction with other drugs e.g. amphetamines the effects can be quite marked and lead to personality changes, paranoia and sometimes violent episodes.
5.8. Some of the adverse effects reported for methylone (Table 8 ) are similar to those reported for MDMA (ecstasy) (ACMD, 2009)
Table 8: Self reported side effects of methylone
|Modest to moderate severity||Most severe|
|Increase in heart rate and blood pressure||Insomnia|
|General change in consciousness (as with most psychoactives)||Hyperthermia and sweating|
|Pupil dilation, can lead to blurred vision||Dizziness, confusion|
|Difficulty in focusing, restlessness||Depersonalization, hallucinations, paranoia, fear (with high doses)|
|Change in perception of time||Unwanted life-changing spiritual experiences|
|Slight increase in body temperature||Gastrointestinal discomfort, nausea and vomiting|
|Muscle tension and aching||Skin rashes common|
|Trismus and bruxism||Hangover may include exhaustion, depression, disorientation, headache, amnesia|
5.9. It is notable that several commonly reported side effects reflect the sympathomimetic actions of the cathinones. The NPIS is another important, independent source of information collected from telephone enquiries made by health professionals managing people presenting after mephedrone exposure and website visits. The most commonly reported clinical effects included tachycardia, palpitations, agitation, anxiety, palpitations and mydriasis. Chest pain, breathlessness, nausea, vomiting, headache, hypertension, confusion, hallucinations, peripheral vasoconstriction and convulsions have also been reported in some cases (Thomas, 2010). It is notable how closely the NPIS data match those provided from other sources.
5.10. Data from clinical examination confirms that tachycardia is a common symptom of mephedrone ingestion. Severe cases of cardiovascular toxicity or conditions such as hypopyrexia due to use of cathinones have not been reported (Dargan and Wood, pers. comm.). The majority of presentations have been recent and during the winter months, it is not known if the number of presentations due to conditions such as hypopyrexia will change during warmer weather.
5.11. Users also report severe vasoconstriction of extremities, leading to bluing of fingers or hands. It is worth noting that hyperpyrexia and vascular collapse are among the most dangerous life-threatening side effects of amphetamine misuse. Some of the acute adverse side effects induced by methylamphetamine include (ACMD, 2005):
- Increased physical activity
- Decreased appetite
- Increased respiration
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Irregular heart beat
- Cardiovascular collapse and death (in overdose)
Cases of death where cathinones have been implicated
5.12. There have been at least 18 deaths in England where cathinones have been implicated. Currently, seven of these have provided positive results for the presence of mephedrone at post mortem. To date, in one case the coroner concluded that the death was “natural” and that an inquest was not required. The remaining cases are awaiting inquest.
5.13. There have been at least seven deaths in Scotland where cathinones have been suspected. Of these, one has been confirmed as the result of the “adverse effects of methadone and mephedrone”. Another case is probable, but underlying health issues contributed to the death and it awaits formal confirmation by the relevant Procurator Fiscal. The presence of mephedrone has been confirmed in a third case.
5.14. One case on Guernsey has provided positive post mortem toxicology results for mephedrone and is awaiting inquest.
5.15. One suspected case in Wales and a further case in Northern Ireland are awaiting toxicology and inquest.
5.16. The UK number of cases are subject to several caveats:
- Not all suspected cases may have been identified;
- That mephedrone may have been involved in a death cannot be confirmed until the relevant coroner or Procurator Fiscal has concluded her/his inquest or other formal inquiry; and,
- The presence of mephedrone in post mortem toxicology does not necessarily imply that it caused or contributed to a death.
5.17. Mephedrone has been linked to the death of an 18-year old girl in Sweden (Gustaffsson and Escher, 2009). The report (December 2008) indicates that she had taken mephedrone and smoked cannabis. The woman was observed to first become sick and then unconscious. Forensic autopsy showed severe brain swelling, preceded by respiratory and circulatory arrest. No other sedatives, narcotics or alcohol were detected in the blood.
5.18. There are so far no reports of the potential harmful effects of the long term use of mephedrone and related cathinones because the substances have only been used in recent months in the UK.
5.19. Reports from a case study of mephedrone use (Linell, 2010) suggest that users can become regular users rapidly, although they are generally not in a ‘state of dependency’. However, this conclusion contrasts with the same report whereby users knew people who became daily users. Some users have reported developing cravings for mephedrone, methylone and MDPV after use. Arguing again by analogy with amphetamines, it is clear that the chronic use of amphetamines can lead to dependence, and a downward cycle of bingeing and periods of recovery associated with depression (ACMD, 2005), therefore it is likely that mephedrone use carries a similar risk of dependency.
5.20. Dargan and Wood (2010) report a single case of dependency on mephedrone in Glasgow where the individual had been using the drug for 18 months.
5.21. Data are not available on the number of individuals in treatment services related to the cathinones. However, the evidence suggests that the number is likely to be very small at the time of writing.
6. Societal Harms
6.1. The current prevalence of mephedrone and the related cathinones is not accurately known. Reports from drugs agencies, drug researchers, criminal justice, public health (Talk to FRANK) and education professionals suggest that mephedrone use appears to be very widespread and is growing. From emergence to current levels of usage, commentators have suggested that the rise in mephedrone use is unprecedented. Namely within a year it has risen from a very low baseline to become popular amongst adolescents and adults.
6.2. Media reports from the 8th March indicate that secondary school children were missing classes due to the use of the drug mephedrone causing sickness. The DCSF minister of State for Schools and Learners has written to schools. In the letter it makes clear that they do have the power to confiscate inappropriate items including a substance that they believe to be mephedrone (or any other drug, whatever its legal status); in line with the school’s behaviour policy and that such items do not need to be returned.
6.3. Mephedrone is sold by online retailers for an average price of £10/g. Given that users take approximately one gram over the course of a session, this makes the drug relatively cheap compared with other intoxicants, as well as being more easily available than alcohol and cigarettes for under 18 year olds who have access to the internet or a high street ‘head shop’.
6.4. There is some evidence that use has escalated following media reports. For example, Google Trends (which collates Google searches) shows that UK Google searches have increased from a very low base in the last twelve months (see paragraph 4.17), with peaks which coincide with media coverage of mephedrone use and deaths where mephedrone might be implicated. The most popular Google search term is for the words “buy mephedrone online”, with four of the top five search terms containing the words “buy” and “mephedrone”. Furthermore online mephedrone retailers have reported an increase in sales following media coverage (The Guadian, 2009)
Anti-social behaviour / acquisitive crime
6.5. The ACMD has been presented with two recent cases where mephedrone users have reported that their use was funded by acquisitive crime (robbery and burglary). At present there remains only limited evidence of a relationship between mephedrone and anti-social behaviour; mainly related to the open dealing and consumption of mephedrone. Notwithstanding the legal implications, the dealing in unspecified white powders for the purposes of intoxication can amount to a public nuisance with a detrimental impact on public confidence.
6.6. There are indications that criminal groups are becoming involved in the supply of mephedrone to the public in the UK (SOCA, 2010). At present the mephedrone retail trade operates mainly through internet importation and distribution and ‘head shops’. However, there are reports of some UK drug suppliers selling mephedrone in dance clubs and at street level either as well as, or instead of cocaine and MDMA, due to mephedrone’s relatively low price, high purity and easy availability. Reports from Guernsey, where importation is currently banned (and prices are reported to be considerably higher), suggest that a street trade in mephedrone has developed. Reports from Guernsey customs officials note that supply is through illegal drug suppliers and incidences of violence have emerged associated with the street trade in mephedrone (McVean, 2010).
6.7. It is reported that some users are planning to buy large quantities of mephedrone to ‘stockpile’ for future use and future sale should regulation be introduced (Measham et al., 2010; ACPO, pers. comm.). This could lead to an illegal supply of mephedrone coming on to the market should it be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
6.8. It is of concern that there are reports that users of mephedrone have a tendency to re-dose (or ‘fiending’) and for some individuals the consumption of mephedrone is alone at home (Newcombe, 2010; Linnell, 2010). Together these two features of mephedrone consumption patterns may expose users to increased risks such as overdose or cardiovascular problems.
7. Current controls
Present UK controls
7.1. Cathinone (Class C), methcathinone (Class B), diethylpropion (Class C) and pyrovalerone (Class C) are controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. However, other derivatives and analogues are not presently controlled (including mephedrone).
7.2. Although paragraph 1© of Part 1 (Schedule 2) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 offers some scope for the control of substances which are structurally related to the phenethylamine backbone, it is primarily concerned with ring-substituted amphetamine-like compounds. Specifically, no mention is made of the presence of any substituents (other than hydrogen) at the ß-carbon of the phenethylamine backbone (recall that the cathinones all possess a ß-ketone oxygen; see Figure 1).
7.3. Irrespective of whether controls for the cathinones are implemented under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the rapidity and easy availability of mephedrone and other cathinones (including websites set up so that vendors that can deliver to individual addresses) does raise the question of whether other legislation and regulation should be available.
7.4. Some of the substituted cathinones could conceivably be considered as being ‘structurally similar’ to cathinone and methcathinone, which are both already listed in Schedule 1 of the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances 1971. It is therefore possible that some cathinones could be controlled through the implementation of analogue control where such control mechanisms exist.
7.5. Denmark controls a number of cathinones, including mephedrone, methylone and MDPV. Mephedrone has been controlled in Sweden since December 2008; the Swedish authorities have indicated that they also intend to classify MDPV and butylone. Mephedrone is controlled (as a medicinal product) in Finland, and it is anticipated that it will shortly be controlled in Germany, since the German Federal Cabinet made a decision to subordinate a number of materials to the Betäubungsmittelgesetz in January 2009. Methylone is also controlled in the Netherlands.
8. Public Health
8.1. The FRANK campaign (see also paragraph 4.16) provides information on the potential risks of taking cathinone compounds and there was also a recent campaign to highlight the dangers of ‘legal highs’ (‘Crazy Chemist’).
8.2. Lifeline have produced an information leaflet that provides harm reduction advice specific to mephedrone and answers frequently asked questions from users or potential users (Lifeline, 2010). The ACMD is also aware that CairScotland have produced and distributed information leaflets warning of the dangers of these substances (CairScotland, 2010).
8.3. Other than the above there is presently a limited amount of public health information regarding mephedrone and the cathinones. Although recent media profile has presented much apparent public health information it is not always credible or consistent.
9. Conclusions And Recommendations
9.1. Although the current prevalence of mephedrone and related cathionones is relatively low in the UK, use appears to have grown rapidly in the past year.
9.2. The ACMD would like to emphasise that mephedrone and the related cathinones are likely to be harmful to users and in tandem with control mechanisms there should be a credible and comprehensive public health campaign. The messages promulgated by FRANK provide a good basis upon which this should be built.
Control and regulation
9.3. The ACMD consider that the harms associated with mephedrone and the cathinones are commensurate with the amphetamines and therefore those substances in Class B; therefore the ACMD recommend that the cathinones be controlled as Class B substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
9.4. The ACMD recommend that, excluding the four compounds already controlled (see paragraph 2.2) and the API Bupropion, the cathinones should be controlled by a generic definition under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 – see Annex A, p31, and in schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001.
9.5. The naphthyl analogue of pyrovalerone is now advertised on the Internet and is being retailed as “NRG-1”. The ACMD intend to review these substances and provide further advice at a later date.
9.6. The ACMD recommend that the government implement appropriate additional controls and regulation of the cathinones (which would include mephedrone) through, for example:
- Import controls
- Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA)
9.7 The ACMD understand that to implement import controls is not administratively burdensome and would stop non-EU imports; where it is understood much of the importated cathinones originate from. The ACMD also believe that SOCA have a role in informing suppliers of the cathinones of the implementation of import controls, trading standards and, if implemented, forthcoming control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
9.8. The ACMD notes that the cathinones have no efficacy as plant fertiliser products or as bath salts and could be the subject of a prosecution under the Trade Descriptions legislation.
9.9. Directors of public health in PCTs should be tasked with cascading information to raise awareness of the cathinones — symptoms of use and information on where to seek advice — among GP’s, A&E departments, medical directors / advisors and others as appropriate.
9.10. The ACMD recommends that all agencies involved in the health, education and rehabilitation of young persons should disseminate information, in appropriate formats, as provided by the Department of Health and Home Office, as to the risks of using mephedrone (and associated compounds). We include in this Drug Action Teams (and equivalents e.g. DAATs in the Devolved Administrations), Childrens’ Trust Boards, Youth Offending Teams and Schools.
9.11. We recommend that the FRANK webpages related to the cathinones are given due prominence and that supplementary educational material is easily available. The information provided should be credible and consistent.
9.12. In relation to 9.9−9.11 it is important that the risks of mixing these drugs with other substances (including alcohol) are highlighted.
9.13. The ACMD are presently identifying information streams to update ministers and provide information on both emerging drugs of misuse and emerging trends concerning established illegal drugs. The ACMD consider that this work will assist it in advising on ‘legal highs’ in the future. Among other measures, the continuing development of datasets from drug amnesty bins will contribute to providing an early warning of such emerging trends.
9.14. Appropriate treatment advice and provision should be available to those who have developed cathinones-related problems of which health professionals and drugs service providers should be aware.
9.15. Present forensic analytical testing of the cathinones is expensive and a process that can take some time. Currently, there is no simple drug field test available for cathinones. There is an urgent need to develop a simple and reliable field test.
9.16. For the purposes of identification of cathinone derivatives by forensic providers and pathology laboratories, and the development of drug field tests, there is an urgent need to develop and make available a library of reference standards.
9.17. There is presently a lack of data concerning the involvement of the cathinones in drug-related deaths (DRDs). Therefore, we recommend that the Ministry of Justice approach Her Majesty’s Coroners to include, in the case of suspected DRDs, tests for the cathinones.
9.18. The ACMD welcome the collation of a joint report initiated by the European Drug Centre for Drugs and Drud Addiction (EMCDDA) in respect of mephedrone. However, we understand that this review will be limited in scope to mephedrone as an individual compound. The purpose of the present report is to review the broad spectrum of cathinone derivatives already encountered in the UK and to provide advice to ministers at the earliest opportunity. The ACMD will keep under consideration all emerging evidence including the EMCDDA’s forthcoming report(s) and will provide further advice to ministers accordingly.
9.19. There is a need for more basic research to examine the similarities and differences between the cathinones and their amphetamine equivalents.
9.20. We welcome the inclusion of a specific question on mephedrone in the British Crime Survey to develop the knowledge base on prevalence. The ACMD also recommends more social research to inform our understanding of drug trends, motivations for drug use, fluctuations in demand, and policy implications regarding deterrence, displacement and desistence.
9.21. The ACMD would welcome the continuing collation of data sets concerning toxicity, clinical case reports and dependence liability collected from hospital admissions and treatment services.
10. References (Including Written And Oral Evidence
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