Mephedrone users at risk of impotence, says RSC Fellow

01 April 2010

Clubbers who regularly use mephedrone are at risk of impotence, a leading scientist warned today.

John Mann, emeritus professor of chemistry at Queen's University, Belfast, also told the Royal Society of Chemistry that the government had plenty of warnings on the dangers of "legal highs" in the last two years. Home Secretary Alan Johnson this week laid a draft order before Parliament to approve a ban on the substance, which is also known as M-Cat or miaow miaow, and similar cathinone derivatives after it was linked to up to 25 deaths in England and Scotland.

"Could the dangers of this drug have been predicted? Of course they could," Professor Mann said. "I think that the UK could have responded earlier because mephedrone is a very close structural analogue of cathinone - the major psychoactive ingredient of khat. In the Yemen and Somalia most men chew this from late afternoon and become euphoriant and then lethargic. Mephedrone is already banned in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, also in Israel. All of which might have encouraged the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to move towards restriction."

Sweden banned mephedrone in 2008 when a teenager died after taking the drug in a nightclub. "In addition, most mephedrone users will be unaware that long-term use may cause impotence since this is one of the effects of habitual use of khat and the structurally similar natural product cathinone. This should put off most clubbers," said Professor Mann, who has had a long association with medicinal chemistry. "Mephedrone also has similar chemical structures to the amphetamines which are controlled substances with known dangers."

Professor Mann said the ACMD is fundamentally flawed because under present legislation it considers one designer drug at a time. "Yet the designer drugs market is being supplied with dozens of new substances each year, many of them, like mephedrone, being produced by chemists in China and elsewhere.

"Any so-called designer drug or legal high that resembles a known psychoactive substance, such as amphetamines, should be placed in their drug class (B in this case) until it can be established that they have no dangerous activities. This is the opposite view to the ACMD where new substances are presumed to be 'safe' or at least not dangerous until proven otherwise."

Professor Mann, a Fellow at the RSC, has written several books on drugs, most recently Turn On and Tune In: Psychedelics, narcotics and euphoriants. In an article for the RSC's Chemistry World, Professor Mann says the UK should follow the US model when it comes to banning drugs.

"In the US the Federal Analog Act covers all compounds that are 'substantially similar' to the most highly controlled substances and they can then be treated in the same way as that controlled substance," he writes in the magazine today. "Although this section of the all encompassing US Controlled Substances Act has had a number of legal interpretations, it is now routinely used to include any analogue that has stimulant, depressant or hallucinogenic actions in the central nervous system. Unsurprisingly, mephedrone has not yet been much used in the US."

Speaking to the RSC, Professor Mann added: "It would seem to be easy for any government that is keen on crime prevention to follow the lead of the US, and I believe Norway, and implement an analogue law. Under this type of law, the default setting is that a compound is presumed 'guilty' by structural association until proved 'innocent'. It would then be the job of the ACMD to establish the safety of the compound - but this would not be a priority since the drug dealers are hardly going to scream that they have been unfairly treated."

Professor Mann said that no legal highs can be considered safe despite claims to the contrary from sellers. "Whatever the basic pharmacology of the main component, this compound is likely to be contaminated with side-products of the synthesis and agents added to the drug to 'cut' it. The consumer will never know what these contaminants are. Even if the compounds are pure, their effects on the consumer will differ from person to person. This is what makes LSD so dangerous: one person's fantastic trip is another's invitation to commit suicide."

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