First there was J-Lo, then there was R-Pat, then SuBo (strange that Pete Doherty hasn’t jumped on the celebrity name abbreviation band-wagon..) – so when I overheard someone talking about MCat, I asked, “Is he on X-Factor or TOWIE?”.
Just kidding, of course. I’d heard about MCat, or mephedrone, before it was made illegal, referred to as a ‘legal high’. The term, legal high, is as misleading as it is out-dated, as not only does it point out the degree to which drug production now rapidly out-strips drug policy both in speed and guile, but is also value-laden with implications that ‘legal’ is synonymous with ‘safe’ – which of course, it is not. The Government just aren’t as fast or as clever as teenagers with laptops or the Chinese.
Referrals first started coming in for young adults taking mephedrone at parties – dropping out of college or work, refusing to leave the house, hearing voices, self-confidence obliterated. Now these were the tip of iceberg, we knew, as is generally the case with those who become so desperate that they consider presenting to a drugs service asking for help, and we knew that for every one referred, there were probably a hundred more using the substance without requiring assistance. But then a local teenager died, schools started to confiscate white powder from thirteen-year-olds caught taking it in school toilets, and presentations to GPs of worried parents with nervous-looking teenagers increased.
And then, oh god, the adult heavy-end drug-using population got hold of it. Now many of these are people who would pick up a tablet they had found on the floor of a public toilet and take it without knowing what it was. Some of them carry their prescribed meds out of the pharmacy, where they are supervised ingesting their dose of controlled medication by the pharmacist, in their black-toothed, gum-diseased mouths (no it’s not the methadone that makes your teeth rot, just BRUSH YOUR TEETH), and then spit it into the mouth of a waiting compatriot, either directly or via a used Coke can, for a couple of quid. So imagine the frenzy when a new drug, five times cheaper than heroin, scarily stronger than amphetamine, and more abundant than skunk weed, arrives in town. Remember the crystal meth epidemic the media howled about that never came (but that obliterated areas of America, Australia and New Zealand) – well I don’t want to scare-monger, but from where I’m standing, MCat looks like the UK’s crystal meth.
To call the white powder or crystalline substance being snorted, swallowed and injected ‘mephedrone’, ‘meow meow’ or ‘MCat’ is a dangerous generalisation – people in fact have no idea what it is that they are taking. Any term can only be used as an umbrella, and describes a white substance with stimulant effects which shows up on our current urine tests as amphetamine, methamphetamine (crystal meth), or neither. The truth is, no-one actually knows what they are putting into their bloodstream, and presentations and self-reports of experiences and side-effects vary wildly. When the UK Government picked up on the new drug and mephedrone was made illegal, the Chinese, who originally manufactured and distributed the drug in its initial form, got immediately wise to the change in UK legislation and the associated problems with importing the drug, and so changed the chemical composition slightly to get round this slight hitch in their marketing strategy. So our Government made the whole family of drugs, cathinones, illegal. There was, however, one rather huge problem – the Police had no way of testing for this new group of substances, and so amounts of white powder, once seized, even when accompanied with a confession of possession of mephedrone, were at times released, along with a somewhat sheepish drug dealer. (I’m pleased to report that drug testing facilities for MCat and associated substances have now been developed and laboratories are working with the Police to detect the drug.)
Imagine then being a drugs worker – as well as the client group’s ever-growing sense of rights without responsibility, the public sector cuts and all the associated inter-service bitching, and the lazy public-sector piss-takers sneering at you for being a mug for trying to make a difference – and an already difficult job starts to look somewhat less appetising. Then envisage that your drab, depressed, wet-lettuce clients (miserable and demotivating but at least manageable and consistent) start presenting wide-eyed, two stone lighter, covered in lumps, abscesses and what looks like chemical burns appearing from the inside out, and with a paranoid and aggressive approach to their social interactions. And you are trying to work with these people around a substance that you (and the rest of the field) know almost nothing about, can’t test for, and have no resources or points of reference to address for support or an evidence-base. One of your usually calm and polite clients smashes up his workshop with a hammer and then threatens to punch you; another genuinely nice guy with an alcohol problem and penchant for diazepam holds his mother at knife-point; the waiting room goes from looking like a queue outside a crematorium to an 80s football terrace.
I was around for the crack explosion, and I remember when all the heroin dealers started giving away a £10 rock with a bag of heroin to market their new product. Crack – scary stuff. But to be a crackhead – not a part-time, recreational user sharing a rock on payday, but a full-blown sell-your-arse type crackhead – you needed a serious income stream, and one that was rarely available outside of city centres with a sex-working industry. MCat – well that’s going for £10 a gram, less in some cases, and anecdotal reports indicate that people buy a fat bag and then are generous with how they share it around – a poor man’s cocaine, if you will, exchanging crisp £20 notes and smearless mirrors with grotty fivers and 1ml insulin syringes, and silicone implants with dodgy tattoos. So users can’t tell you how much they have used because they haven’t paid for it, they struggle to avoid it because it gets shoved underneath their noses every time they walk through a door, and they aren’t even sure what they’re taking because one bag will be euphoric while another bag will be prang. And what do drug users do when they haven’t slept for five days, they are ready for passing out because their stomachs are like walnuts, and they start seeing things and believing that everyone is trying to kill them? Take the world’s best antipsychotic – heroin. Ah the new wave is here my friends, get ready for it…
Hence, again, the summary of this entry is – I’ve had enough, I need a new job.