Europe has responded to rising concern over the use of the synthetic drug mephedrone by formally requesting a scientific investigation into the health and social risks of the substance. The decision was communicated to the EU drugs agency (EMCDDA) by the Council of the EU today, in line with a legal procedure designed to respond to potentially threatening new psychoactive drugs in the EU (1).
The risk-assessment exercise, which will result in a report by end-July, will be undertaken by the EMCDDA Scientific Committee, with the participation of additional experts from the EU Member States, European Commission, Europol and the European Medicines Agency (EMA). The exercise constitutes the second phase in the three-step legal procedure: (i) information exchange/early-warning; (ii) risk assessment; and (iii) decision-making/control.
Today’s decision is based on the findings of a ‘Europol–EMCDDA joint report on a new psychoactive substance: 4-methylmethcathinone (mephedrone)’, submitted in late March to the Council of the EU, the European Commission and the EMA, concluding Step I of the process (2). Released today on the EMCDDA website, the report features: the chemical and physical description of the drug; evidence of intoxications and fatalities; data on seizures; and information on international trafficking and the involvement of organised crime. In its conclusions, the report presents a case for a formal risk assessment of the substance (Step II).
Commenting today, EMCDDA Director Wolfgang Götz said: ‘A decision to place a new substance under control should not be taken lightly. I believe that Europe sets a good example with its fast-track mechanism for scientifically assessing the health and social risks of new drugs and investigating links to organised crime. Our decision-making process must be informed by a rational assessment of the available evidence rather than by anecdotal and possibly inaccurate reports’.
Mephedrone is a central nervous system stimulant belonging to the group of synthetic cathinone derivatives, which includes substances such as methylone, methedrone and flephedrone (3). Towards the end of 2009, increased evidence of mephedrone use and availability prompted the agencies on 20 January 2010 to embark on a formal data-collection exercise, resulting in their joint report on the substance (4).
Over the last two years, mephedrone and mephedrone-containing products have been aggressively marketed by online suppliers as a legal alternative to ecstasy, amphetamines or cocaine. Advertised online as a ‘research chemical’, 'bath salts', ‘plant food’ and even ‘hoover freshener’, the drug is commonly known by names such as: meph, drone, miaow miaow, bubbles, bounce and subcoca. In some EU Member States, users may source mephedrone from specialised shops (head/smart shops) or street-level drug dealers. The substance is often labelled 'not for human consumption', in order to circumvent potential controls.
On the basis of the risk assessment report (and at the initiative of the European Commission or a Member State), the Council may decide to subject the drug to control measures throughout the EU (Step III) (5). In such a case, EU Member States would then be required to introduce such controls in line with national laws no later than one year after the Council’s decision.
‘The strength of the European early-warning system lies in the fact that, if a decision is taken to control a new drug, this will become a common position throughout the EU’, explains Wolfgang Götz. ‘New drugs marketed and sold online exploit Europe’s open consumer market and are a real test for our existing drug control structures. This poses a collective challenge for EU Member States and one which, I firmly believe, can only be addressed effectively with a collective response’.