It was in late 2008 when I first heard of a new legal drug that users said was the same as Ecstasy and cocaine. I didn't pay it much attention at first, thinking it was just a fad. I didn’t know then that it was mephedrone, a drug about to become the tabloids’ latest whipping boy.
Neither the thousands of people enthusiastically shovelling the white, fishy-smelling powders up their noses, nor the nurses helping the gurning nutters who'd done too much, knew what it was. Even the cops were powerless to prosecute users of this new, legal drug.
I first heard of it when I was on a bulletin board looking for stories, and I saw mention of two new legal products that users were raving about. Well, they weren't strictly raving. These were drug-geeks sat at home caning a new legal high, known then as NeoDoves and Subcoca, sold by Israeli firm Neorganics.
Back then, the contents of these white capsules, sold as health supplements, were a mystery. Everyone wanted to know what was in them. Especially me – I spent days trying to discover their ingredients. However, even as an acid house veteran, with many arduous dawn patrols behind me, I wasn't ready to start snorting mystery powders from Chinese websites. Like skinny jeans, primary colours and handlebar moustaches, that's a young man's game.
I wanted to know because if I found out, I'd have a major news story to break. Here was a drug that was like a mix of Ecstasy and cocaine, cost a tenner a gramme by PayPal including home delivery, and was legal. It represented a narcotic paradigm shift played out against a prolonged MDMA drought caused by the burning in 2008 by UN forces in Cambodia of enough safrole oil to make 250 million pills. As well as that, thanks to the narconomic impacts of the credit crunch when the pound lost 25% of its dollar-value after the Lehmans crash, the purity of cocaine, traded in dollars, plummeted.
I wanted to know because I could tell that this drug would be the most popular new chemical since Ecstasy. And within a few months it was. I especially wanted to learn about it and make public the health dangers. I also wanted the world exclusive, and I got it. But be careful what you wish for…
The capsules contained, among other things, 4-methyl-methcathinone, an inbred, limping backwoods stepchild of MDMA and crystal meth. The hat must be tipped to John Ramsey, a brilliant toxicologist at St George's in London, and phase_dancer, a poster on the Bluelight drug forums, who after painstaking research with his harm reduction group in Queensland, Australia, posted analysis of the capsules online and ended the mystery. The new drug on the block was mephedrone.
Within weeks, illicit Chinese drug labs were being commissioned to synth thousands of kilos a month and sending it all over the world. Hundreds of websites sprang up overnight, flogging the stuff as “plant food” in order to avoid the UK's food and drug laws. Profits were vast – people were quintupling their investment in days.
I called specialist magazine Drugscope, and got a commission to write about this new drug. The sharp-eyed editor there, Max Daly, jumped at it, and it was game on. The day the piece was publshed in Drugscope, the Guardian and Telegraph picked my story up and ran stories on my findings.
But unbeknown to the editors of these newspapers, or to me, the clever 'plant food' vendors had paid Google Adwords fees to advertise their goods.
And The Guardian and Telegraph were being paid by Google to use Adsense – which picks up keywords from news reports and matches them with advertisers' keywords, and generates ads linking the two together. So users just had to click on the ads at the bottom of news reports calling for the drug to be banned in order to buy it.
Google made plenty of cash from these mephedrone ads – they refused to tell me how much, giving me anodyne responses to my questions why they were making money from firms selling a drug that while legal, was certainly controversial. Even when the drug was banned, they were still making money from it – claiming their automated ad service had no human hand involved. (Then again, this was at the height of the Adwords racket so brilliantly reported on in Wired this month by Jake Pearson.)
Within days, the Sun and Star and Mirror were on it – and they used adwords too. Small local papers baying for the drug’s ban also had handy links to 'DIAL-A-GRAMME' lines.
The moral panic was in full manic flow, the Sun had launched a pious campaign. The drug was being used on every high street, and if you believed the papers, in every school in the country. Youths taunted police and teachers with their bags of legal highs, until they snorted so much they tore their scrotums off. Or didn’t, obviously. That last one was a tabloid myth*.
(*So is its name: no one who ever took it called it meow meow. That was a joke taken from a forum attached to a site, where it was originally sold.)
Until the ban in April 2010, it was a narcotic free-for-all, one that has had lasting consequences on British and global drug culture.
The UNODC published research this year showing that there are now more banned substances on sale than are banned by law: 251 new substances. This figure is greater than the 234 substances scheduled under the 1961 and 1971 Conventions. Most of them are sketchy byproducts of legitimate medical research, receptor-mapping agents never intended for use as a drug. Many of them are more harmful than MDMA or marijuana certainly. Most of them aim to replace mephedrone or marijuana. Most of them are so novel they have never been used by humans.
It does rather make me wonder what would have happened if mephedrone hadn’t been banned, and instead controlled as a new category of drugs, perhaps sold under license, in pure measured doses.
But being honest, since when has drug prohibition been about protecting people?
Mike Power’s 'Drugs 2.0 – The Web Revolution That’s Changing How The World Gets High', is out now on Portobello Books. Click here to buy a copy...