Observations Medicine and the Media

How the media helped ban mephedrone

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d1138 (Published 24 February 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1138
  1. Jeremy Sare, freelance journalist, Suffolk
  1. jeremysare{at}btinternet.com

Misinformation in the media helped politicians push for the criminalisation of the “legal high” mephedrone last year despite a lack of evidence of harm, reports Jeremy Sare

Despite a dearth of evidence about mephedrone’s toxicity, the media have reported several young people dying after taking the previously “legal high,” which was being sold as plant food. Rebecca Cardwell, aged 19, was “confirmed as the first official victim of the banned clubbers’ drug meow-meow [mephedrone]” in the London free sheet Metro in October 2009 (www.metro.co.uk/news/843952-teenage-carer-is-the-first-victim-of-meow-meow#ixzz14zI0xPSY). Unfortunately she was not the first to be awarded that dubious honour.

The media led the campaign for the government to ban mephedrone and did not cease sensational reporting until the ban was achieved. Eighteen months ago few people had heard of mephedrone, yet in a matter of weeks the country’s collective panic was raised, partly at least by the newspapers. In April, just before the general election, the then home secretary, Alan Johnson, “illegalised” mephedrone before its actual harms were fully known.

It was reminiscent of the media campaign against ecstasy in the late 1980s. Editors presented a bewildering world beyond parents’ reach in which the nation’s youth were being drawn into a labyrinth of addiction, violence, sex, and insanity. The Sun sensationally ran a story quoting a report from Durham police in March: “One individual states that after using it [mephedrone] for 18 hours his hallucinations led him to believe that centipedes were crawling over him and biting him. This led him to receive hospital treatment after he ripped his scrotum off” (www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/2747979/Lad-ripped-his-scrotum-off.html).

At a press conference in March called by Humberside police after the deaths …

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