3rd Feb 2023

Brussels calls for ban on 'meow meow' drug despite 'limited scientific evidence'

  • The EU report says there is no evidence yet of direct links to health effects (Photo: crsan)

The European Commission is seeking an EU-wide ban on meow meow, the popular new ecstasy-like drug, warning that it is a "dangerous psychoactive substance." But the EU report the decision has been based on itself shows that no direct causal link can be made between the drug and deaths.

Mephedrone, or as it is known on the street, meph, drone, MCAT or meow meow, is a recently developed synthetic stimulant that produces feelings of euphoria and has been the subject of a strong media focus in the last year. One of a number of new narcotics reportedly coming out of China, the substance has only commonly been available on the Western market since 2007, but has rapidly become popular amongst clubbers and young people.

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"It is a dangerous drug that is available online and on the street corner. People have died because of this drug, so I urge governments to move fast to control and criminalise it," said justice commissioner Viviane Reding on Wednesday (20 October). "We have a responsibility to protect young people against dangerous new psychoactive substances."

The commission has proposed to all EU member states that they ban the manufacture and marketing of the product in addition to the 15 EU countries that have already introduced a clampdown. In the UK since May, those caught in possession of the drug for personal can be jailed for up to five years while those caught dealing can be sent to prison for up to 14.

The commission claims that meow meow "has been linked to at least 37 deaths in the UK and Ireland alone" and has taken this emergency step as a result of a report from the Lisbon-based European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) published on Wednesday. The commission also said that the report "showed that mephedrone can cause acute health problems and lead to dependency."

No direct link to deaths

However, the report itself shows that no direct causal link can be made between the drug and the deaths. Distinct to the commission's statement, the report actually says: "There have been a very limited number of deaths reported to be related directly to the use of mephedrone."

Of the 37, there are only two reported fatalities in which meow meow appears to be the sole cause of death - one in Sweden and one in the United Kingdom. As for the rest: "In some of these cases it is likely that other drugs and/or other medical conditions or trauma may have contributed to or been responsible for death."

"The inquests into the deaths are pending for the majority of these cases therefore it is not possible at this time to determine the contribution of mephedrone," the report goes on.

According to the document, adverse side effects reported by users include teeth grinding, sweating, headaches, nausea, agitation, palpitations, chest pain, paranoia, nasal irritation and sexual arousal. Severe side effects such as seizures or abnormal heart rhythms are "rare."

Even here, it is likely that the risk of toxicity is related to the dose of meow meow used. But the scientists say that there is insufficient information available to determine a "dose threshold" - or, in other words, how much is too much.

No direct link to traffic deaths

The report also says that "it is not possible to determine the role that mephedrone played" in four reported road traffic accidents in the UK where the drug was detected in post-mortems. "There is no data available from other European countries or from law enforcement agencies to suggest that mephedrone use has been implicated in road traffic accidents."

Indeed the amount of knowledge on this 'dangerous' substance is next to zero.

"The studies available on mephedrone are few, largely preliminary and focused on user self-reports. To date no epidemiological data on prevalence has been published. The majority of studies originate from the United Kingdom and evidence from other member states is scarce."

The "most detailed studies" have come from telephone surveys of UK clubbers.

The report warns against jumping to conclusions about the safety of the drug: "Taken as a whole, the scientific evidence base available for drawing conclusions is limited and this proviso should be borne in mind when interpreting the findings of the risk assessment exercise."

No evidence of organised crime

Trafficking of the drug has been reported by two member states - Germany and the Netherlands - but the document also says "the involvement of organised crime with mephedrone is relatively limited at present." The scientists go on to warn that banning the substance could be the event that actually creates such a link with criminals: "Control measures could create an illegal market in mephedrone with the associated risk of criminal activity."

Speaking to EUobserver, the EMCDDA's senior scientific co-ordinator, Paul Griffiths, said: "There is some evidence that this has happened already in the UK. Control measures are likely to create an effect in the illicit market."

"We cannot say with any precision that a ratio of deaths to users is any greater than that of coffee, alcohol or paracetamol. But I would prefer not to make that sort of comparison. It does seem to have an underlying analogy with other stimulants such as ecstasy, which is not associated with a lot of deaths - in the range of 70 to 80 a year in Europe."

"It must be said that some of the reporting in the media has not been borne out by the toxicology."

David Nutt, the former chairman of the UK government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and dismissed from the post for describing a tougher classification of cannabis as "politically motivated rather than scientifically justified" feels the same way about meow meow and lambasted the commission's move.

"An EU-wide ban on mephedrone is remarkable for its lack of scientific evidence," Mr Nutt, a fellow of the of the Royal College of Physicians, told EUobserver. "The report primarily relies on user experiences and a handful of hospital admissions, with no formal studies to demonstrate the actual or potential harms of the drug."

"It is not yet possible to say how harmful mephedrone is given the lack of evidence. However, by legislating on a substance without reliable scientifically-based evidence, we run the risk of causing more harm through criminalising users than might be caused by the drug itself."

"The evidence on drug harms should not be sacrificed for political and media pressure."

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