This new killer drug is legal. So why has it not been banned?
IT'S chemically similar to illegal amphetamine and costs a fraction of the price of cocaine, but campaigners say mephedrone could pose even graver health risks. Richard Bath reports
IT COULD hardly have been any easier. I walked into the shop in Leith, waited in line and asked for some plant food. "That'll be twenty quid," came the reply as a small packet of five capsules was passed to me by the man behind the counter. As I handed over the cash, the sales assistant winked at me. "That's really pure stuff," he said. "I'm sure your plants are going to have an unforgettable weekend." "Certainly hope so," I replied with a knowing smile.
We were, of course, sharing our own not-very-private joke. I wasn't buying plant food. What was on offer was mephedrone – aka drone, bubbles, miaow miaow, mcat, meph or cat piss – and there was never any chance of it going anywhere near my plants, or near anyone else's for that matter. Instead, as with all the punters waiting in line in front of and behind me, each capsule of this latest controversial "legal high" was more than likely destined to go into the body, either snorted or swallowed.
In the case of Carla, a 43-year-old office worker from Edinburgh, that is exactly what would have happened. A dedicated clubber and enthusiastic user of "recreational drugs", she is a recent convert to the joys of mephedrone, a substance which, its advocates say, mixes the assertiveness of cocaine, the euphoria of Ecstasy and the wakefulness and focus of amphetamine. And all entirely within the law.
"I've used it for the last two weekends, taking it in capsule form the first time and then watered down, and I really like it," says Carla. "Before that I'd be using BZP, which was really toxic and hurt my kidneys, but despite all the rumours I had no side-effects with mephedrone. It didn't make me want to dance but it did make me feel euphoric and loved-up towards everyone I came across. And it made me want to talk all night, I couldn't shut up. All in all, it was a very positive experience."
That experience hasn't been shared by everyone who has dabbled with mephedrone. A 49-year-old Dunfermline woman died last weekend after taking it, while in Hertfordshire, 18-year-old Benjamin Walters was found dead at his flat after taking mephedrone for the first time.
The huge scale of the threat posed by the "legal highs" since they hit headlines last year is now a serious concern.
Joy Fraser, a drugs counsellor at Crew 2000 in Edinburgh, has begun to see casualties arrive at the organisation's headquarters in the city's Old Town. "We had some people come in to see counsellors who have suffered badly," she says. "They have tended to be people who have taken the drug continually throughout the day.
"Anecdotally, we hear that the drug is everywhere, that it is really prominent and that people are taking very large amounts. But the truth is we don't really know the scale of any problem because we're in a honeymoon period where the real effects are yet to be felt. In terms of drug referrals we're seeing far fewer cocaine referrals because people are switching to mephedrone, but we expect to see the people taking mephedrone begin to crash, and the numbers of people seeking help climb steeply."
When pressed, Carla confirms that mephedrone isn't without its downsides. "Although it wasn't rough, as I'd been told it would be, coming down isn't good at all, and there are feelings of deep depression, so there's a tendency to keep on taking it. That's why it's so more-ish, and I must admit that I was very concerned for a couple of friends who didn't seem to know when to stop.
"We were at a party and it was everywhere, with people having huge bags of it. At one stage I was trying to make everyone a cup of tea after I'd taken a huge pile, and suddenly I started hallucinating. Everything looked like a Picasso painting, with cubist cups and a square teapot. By the end of the weekend I felt really run-down and a bit depressed."
There is, says David Liddell, director of the Scottish Drugs Forum, no firm clinical evidence yet that mephedrone is addictive, although there is little doubt that frequent users quickly build up a psychological dependence on the drug. Fraser tells the story of a shop in the Edinburgh suburb of Newington, "which stopped selling mephedrone because they'd open up in the morning and find guys waiting outside desperate to get some meph".
The immediate problem with the explosion of mephedrone use is that no one really knows how widespread it is. With no seizures, no prosecutions and the effects of sustained use only now emerging, there are few hard facts. However, according to Liddell, "the anecdotal evidence suggests that its use is clearly widespread".
The drug, which is chemically similar to illegal amphetamine but adapted just enough to allow it to be sold legally, only came to the notice of the authorities in 2007, while the Psychonaut Research Project, the EU organisation that searches the internet for information regarding new drugs, first came across mephedrone in the summer of 2008. Since then its use has increased exponentially for a whole gamut of reasons. Its legality means it is readily available over the internet, with next-day delivery standard, which is one reason why it has been particularly prevalent in rural areas. Coverage in the media has also alerted potential buyers, including middle-class dabblers who like the absence of criminal sanctions and the anonymity of home delivery.
At bulk prices as low as 4 per gram (compared to 40 for cocaine), it is also far cheaper than illegal options. The rise in popularity in the UK has coincided with an unprecedented scarcity of MDMA after the destruction of 33 tonnes of sassafras oil in Cambodia in June 2008 – enough to make almost 250 million Ecstasy pills.
The lengthy supply chain of illegal drugs means that cocaine and MDMA are regularly "cut" (diluted) to maximise profit by many of the large number of middlemen. The result, says Carla, is that "the only MDMA you can get these days is rubbish and expensive". With mephedrone there is a perception that the quality is assured because the drug comes straight from laboratories in China. This is, however, almost certainly a fallacy, believes Elliot Elam of addiction charity Addaction. "Drug dealers don't want to poison their users because they're engaged in a business," he says, "but if you buy mephedrone off the net then you just don't know who's supplying it or what's in it."
Posing as a buyer, Druglink, the magazine of charity Drugscope, e-mailed a Shanghai-based lab asking how much 1kg of the drug would cost. "We can supply any quantity of mephedrone you require," came the e-mail reply from Eric, the lab's sales manager. "It is of the best purity and we have many people in England who buy from us. It is crazy how much the English are buying. One kilogram can be sent to you by FedEx, we will mark it as sample so you don't have to pay tax. The cost is $4,000."
Druglink also demonstrated how, despite Google apparently banning adverts for mephedrone, the search engine's automatic Adwords system would provide links to the thousands of sites selling "legal highs" every time a story was written on the subject by a newspaper.
The availability, quality and cheapness of the drug have fuelled a boom in mephedrone which Liddell is concerned may have fundamentally altered the way in which drugs damage young Scots, in particular. Mephedrone is more likely to act as a so-called "gateway drug" as it can "lower the threshold" between soft and hard drugs as the jump from snorting a legal white powder to taking cocaine is less than for cannabis use.
There are also issues relating to that other national scourge, alcohol abuse.
"Where cocaine does a lot of damage is that it is generally used in conjunction with alcohol and allows users to binge drink through the night," he says. "Mephedrone is cheaper and legal so we suspect that the demographic of users is younger than that of cocaine users, and although we don't yet have the proof that these younger users are also drinking through the night and endangering their livers, it's not rocket science. We're getting reports that are truly concerning."
The anecdotal evidence is beginning to mount. Reported side-effects include anxiety, paranoia, excessive perspiration, vomiting, nosebleeds, chest pains, breathing problems, panic attacks and high heart rate (one schoolboy was admitted to hospital where his heart rate was found to be 170bpm), but the way in which the drug took over the isolated County Durham village of Cockfield has proved to be a sobering glimpse into the future for areas of Scotland, such as Tayside and Ayrshire, where mephedrone has already made inroads.
One Cockfield mother spoke to Druglink of her 19-year-old son's destructive addiction to mephedrone, which spiralled out of control when he and four friends received a bulk delivery that kick-started a five-day drugs and drink bender. "Five days later, early in the morning, I saw Lee swirling around with his arms stretched out, in the field outside my house," she says.
"He saw my car and hid in a bunch of stinging nettles. I asked him what he was doing there and he said he was looking for drugs. I told him he looked like a smackhead and he got really angry. He said he was going to kill himself, his eyes were far back in his sockets. My older son tried catching him but he kept running off and hiding in the bushes. It's the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life. I wanted to get him sectioned, so I rang 999."
One of the policemen who bundled Lee into an ambulance said that "he was shouting gibberish, it seemed like he had severe mental health problems. I've never seen anything like that before." It took 36 hours of manic writhing and twitching in a police cell before Lee finally came down. He was just one of four boys from Cockfield hospitalised as the town's youngsters were gripped by mephedrone fever.
The drug has already been banned in Denmark, Finland, Israel, Germany, Norway and Sweden. But not yet in the UK. The Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs, which steers government policy on drugs, is looking at the problem "as a matter of urgency", but there is little prospect of any legislation before the next election. Locally, police forces are looking at ways of reining in legal drug dealers who believe they have nothing to fear as long as they maintain the pretence that mephedrone "is not for human consumption".
Lawyers, though, are watching with interest the progress of a case on the Isle of Wight, where 49-year-old Martin Smith was the first person to be charged with two offences of selling a legal high under General Product Safety Regulations 2005 and one offence under Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.
Not that Liddell holds out much hope for the immediate future.
"Trying to build up a sense of what damage is being done takes time, and the difficulty with legal highs is that by the time we've caught up they'll have moved on to the next one. It's a game of catch-up, like doping in cycling – and look how long it took them to get a handle on that."
• Additional reporting by Sandy Dale
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