Comment Durham police are finding out the hard way about the power of the internet to mislead, distort and amplify, as a relatively measured warning about a legal high gallops towards Snopesian urban myth status as the tale of a drug that makes you rip your bollocks off with your bare hands.
Acting Sergeant Michael Urwin, from Barnard Castle Police Station, talked on video about the dangers of mephedrone – a drug that appears to be doing the rounds in the Durham area under a variety of guises, including "drone", "bubble" and the cute-sounding "meow meow". Nowhere in his interview does he mention the hair-raising "fact" that one individual under the influence of this drug allegedly ripped off his own scrotum – although sharp-eyed readers will notice that this is both the tag attached to the video as well as the lead to the piece written up by the Sunderland Echo.
Mephedrone (4-Methylmethcathinone) is a "legal" high: that is, it is not at present a controlled substance. It is sold as a plant fertiliser, and as such it is legal to possess and equally it is legal to ingest as a mood-altering drug. It is not legal to sell, supply or advertise it for human consumption – and while it is clear that a number of sites on the internet are doing just that, the wording of their ads is carefully constructed so as to suggest otherwise.
However, a number of recent incidents placed it on the radar of local police forces. These included users of this drug being admitted to hospital, taking an inordinate amount of time to "come down" or in one case committed to a mental facility.
On learning of its existence, Sergeant Urwin set about researching mephedrone. He produced a report for internal police consumption, which looked at the evidence for the spread of mephedrone usage, as well as the degree of harm suffered by users of this drug.
"As part of the evidence-gathering process, I looked at internet chat forums and blogs where individuals were writing about their experiences both in obtaining and using this substance," he told The Register. He explained it was from these sources that the original mention of scrotum-ripping originated, but that he was "clear in the report that the credence given to this latter sort of evidence should be low: this is an indicator of how much the drug is talked about and common themes that arise, rather than strong evidence for its effects".
Unfortunately, a local journalist gained access to that part of the report. He goes on: "This was mis-reported in the press, with the result that far greater weight was given to a story I could not substantiate, than was perhaps merited."
In other words, this was not the police, but press sensationalising the issue. There is undoubtedly a debate to be had here.
Darren Archer, of the County Durham Drug and Alcohol Action Team, tells us that they were aware of five teenagers from the same small rural village in County Durham who had used mephedrone. "One older person - in their 20s - has presented at our nearest treatment centre as a self-referral," he said. "There are other low numbers of suspicions but previously evidence sent to labs was coming back as not an illegal substance."
According to Durham Police, the drug is already illegal in Israel, Norway, Finland and Sweden.
Cue low-key, rational debate about the classification of mephedrone? After all, it could be no more than a passing phase – much like the outbreaks of silage-sniffing that are reported to have afflicted rural communities in the past.
Sadly, this is not to be. The scrotum-ripping story is only one part of a burgeoning tornado from a national press that knows exactly how to react to - and nurture - drug panics. The tragic death of a young girl, Gabrielle Price, after she fell ill at a house party, did not in any way prevent the Sun from fingering mephedrone as possible cause – even though police at the time were still "awaiting post mortem results to pinpoint the cause of death".
Other nationals followed suit - and a swift Google of mephedrone will today turn up a fair crop of scrotum-ripping stories.
In this instance, it would appear that Durham Police have little to apologise for – except, perhaps being a little too trusting of a local hack. However, mephedrone as the bollock-rippers' drug seems now destined to enter the Drug Horrors Hall of Fame, along with the effects of PCP (cutting off own face to feed to dog) and LSD (staring at the sun until you go blind). Be careful out there, kids. ®
"Meow meow" is the cute-sounding nickname for a currently legal substance capable of producing a degree of excitement in party situations. It ought not to be confused with Miou-miou - a French actress capable of providing excitement to gentlemen of a certain age in most situations.