Mephedrone, “Bubble” and unidentified white powders: the contested identities of synthetic “legal highs”

Fiona Measham (Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK)
Karenza Moore (Lecturer in Criminology, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK)
Jeanette Østergaard (Research Associate, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK)

Drugs and Alcohol Today

ISSN: 1745-9265

Publication date: 16 September 2011

Abstract

Purpose

In this fourth paper in a series on emergent drug trends in the UK (2006 ketamine, 2009 MDMA powder/crystal, 2010 mephedrone), the authors consider how the pharmacological landscape has changed since substituted cathinones (including mephedrone) were controlled in April 2010 and in particular assess the prevalence of mephedrone in the general night time economy (NTE) and its relationship to the use of established illegal drugs.

Design/methodology/approach

Surveys were conducted with a convenience sample of 207 adults stopped at random in four town and city centres on Friday nights in Lancashire in November 2010.

Findings

Of the adults surveyed, one in ten reported having taken mephedrone within the past year and one in 20 within the past month. Those who used mephedrone were also significantly more likely to report using ecstasy pills, cocaine and amphetamines. Regarding the next generation of “legal highs”, no clear substitute for mephedrone had emerged; instead, there was uncertainty, confusion and a degree of disinterest. In this vacuum, “Bubble” has emerged and evolved as a generic term in the north west of England to refer to any unidentified white powders which are synthetic stimulants.

Social implications

Despite an emotional investment by advocates and opponents alike in mephedrone being an ecstasy‐type substitute, research now points towards more amphetamine‐type characteristics at a time when national prevalence of amphetamines is at an historic low. The emergence of unidentified white powders sold as “Bubble” in the North West of England is a graphic illustration of the unknown content, effect and risk of current (by contrast with previous) “legal highs”, and the resultant challenges for health service providers and criminal justice agencies. Bubble may be indicative of the enduring popularity but increasingly indiscriminate use of cheap stimulants.

Originality/value

For this cohort of NTE customers, the paper's analyses indicate that mephedrone was added to existing polydrug repertoires, rather than significantly displacing use of established illegal drugs or acting as a gateway for initiation into drug use.

Keywords

Citation

Measham, F., Moore, K. and Østergaard, J. (2011), "Mephedrone, “Bubble” and unidentified white powders: the contested identities of synthetic “legal highs”", Drugs and Alcohol Today, Vol. 11 No. 3, pp. 137-146. https://doi.org/10.1108/17459261111186467

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Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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