Banning naphyrone will get us nowhere

Originally appeared at: The recommendation to ban naphyrone by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) raises again important questions about the role of science in policymaking. This drug, unheard of until recently, is being sold as a legal alternative to mephedrone and other related and now-illegal highs. The sole evidence of its UK availability and use is a survey of 10 purchases of supposed naphyrone, sold as NRG-1/energy. Remarkably, only one of these contained naphyrone, though most contained mephedrone or similar illegal substances – a point acknowledged by the ACMD. So why did the ACMD even review naphyrone? Maybe because of claims of high sales reported by the Scottish police, though none of these have been verified as being naphyrone. There is a worrying sense of deja vu here. In the runup to the mephedrone ban, it was wrongly assumed to be behind the deaths of two teenagers in Scunthorpe. If there is so little evidence, why do the ACMD wish to ban naphyrone? There is no evidence of social harm. The ACMD report also presents no evidence of human harm from naphyrone nor evidence of toxicity in animals either. Its decision appears to have been made on the grounds that it has a (weak) chemical similarity to mephedrone and other now-illegalcathinones and is 10 times more potent than some of these. Yet, greater potency only results in more toxicity if drugs are taken in equal doses. Suppliers of naphyrone understand this. The unit dose sold is proportionately lower than that for mephedrone for this reason. A major problem with the ACMD report is that it lacks a critical appraisal of the science of naphyrone. The pharmacology on which the ban is recommended is that naphyrone binds to reuptake sites for the neurotransmitters noradrenaline, 5HT (serotonin) and dopamine. Such actions are more usually a feature of antidepressant rather than stimulant pharmacology. Based on the ACMD logic, potential new multi-amine reuptake blocking antidepressants such as NS2359, as well as established ones such as bupropion and venlafaxine might be in line to be banned. These drugs do not have abuse liability. As yet, we have no idea if naphyrone has either. Another important consideration that was ignored in the mephedrone ban, and which is relevant here, is that the discovery and synthesis of naphyrone was driven by a desire to find new treatments for addiction. Such research will inevitably suffer once the compounds are outlawed – another perverse consequence of making drugs illegal. The mephedrone ban has probably stopped any new antidepressant in that chemical family from being developed and we may commit a similar “own goal” by banning naphyrone. MDMA (ecstasy) was originally developed as adjunctive treatment in psychiatric therapy. This research stopped when it was made illegal in the 1970s and has only just been resumed – with major benefits emerging. Once naphyrone is banned what will happen? The head shops and internet sites will rebadge the current stuff by another name so no benefit there. Will another legal high will take its place? Many chemists will already have molecules in mind. Will these new compounds be banned without any testing of pharmacology or any knowledge of harms? The ACMD could find itself spending the rest of its life writing scientifically unsatisfactory reports on new drugs that might be being sold and that might be harmful; hardly a good use of their abilities or taxpayers’ money. What is needed is the development of an intellectual base for deciding on the appropriate measures of harms and the threshold of these that should lead to a drug being considered for control. Proper scientific data acquisition and analysis of sales samples to determine which drugs are being used and where is also desperately needed. These are important scientific and social challenges, which I and my colleagues on the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs are starting to take forward The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs’ (ACMD) recent recommendation to ban the drug naphyrone sparks a discussion over the lack of solid scientific evidence or reasoning for the efficacy of drug prohibition.