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Doctors call for ban on ‘legal high’ after woman dies

Doctors are calling for a ban on the latest “legal high” craze to sweep Scotland – the plant food mephedrone.

Police are warning the public about the risk of the drug -- whose street names include “meow-meow”, “bubbles” and “drone” -- after a 49-year-old woman from Dunfermline died last week after taking it.

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It costs £35 to £40 a gramme and is available on the internet, often advertised as plant food.

Growing numbers of young people are receiving medical treatment after being harmed by the drug, which has similar effects to Ecstasy and cocaine.

A group of Scottish psychiatrists has called for a ban on the drug which can cause hallucinations and psychosis.

Psychiatrists Dr Neeraj Bajaj, Dr Donna Mullen and Dr Scott Wylie, from Stobhill Hospital, Glasgow, made the call after doing research into its effects.

They reported the case of a man who bought mephedrone, also known by the chemical name 4-methylmethcathinone (4-MMC), online for 18 months and binged on it twice a week. He experienced hallucinations, as well as agitation, excitability and signs of mania before becoming dependent on the drug, and ended up in a psychiatric hospital.

The psychiatrists said: “Hundreds of websites, based in the UK and abroad, ... are selling these so-called ‘legal highs’. It is a poorly regulated industry with consumers having little knowledge of ingredients or their effects.

“4-MMC has the potential to cause similar physical and psychiatric complications to illegal drugs. We therefore think there is an urgent need for government legislation to reclassify 4-MMC as an illegal substance.”

The drug, a powder or pills, is banned in Germany, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Israel and Sweden and restricted in the US, but is legal here.

There is no sign, however, that the Government is going to fast-track a ban under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

The Home Office last night said that, while mephedrone was being examined by the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs as a “priority”, there was no timescale for any recommendation. The council will report some time this year. However, it is feared that by the time a decision is taken on a ban, other substances that are chemically similar but still legal will emerge.

There has long been concern by toxicology experts that the UK has been lagging behind other European countries in tackling “legal highs” and that by the time action is taken revellers will have moved on to the next craze.

The Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced last May plans to classify BZP -- a drug similar to Ecstasy which is used as a worming treatment for cattle. However, experts said that by the time of that announcement users had already switched to mephedrone.

David Liddle, director of the Scottish Drugs Forum advisory body, said: “With all these legal highs we are continually playing catch up but when you compare the likely level of harm from mephedrone to substances which are currently illegal, then the answer has to be that it should be classified.”

Dr Ken Checinski, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said classifying mephedrone would help to restrict the supply of the drug.

“Classification would give a message to users. Unfortunately extreme tragic events such as the one in Dunfermline place these issues into focus.”

Popular on the clubbing scene, mephedrone is believed to be partly responsible for a number of deaths in Europe. In Dundee, five users -- the youngest understood to be only 15 -- suffered non-fatal overdoses during a weekend in November. One drugs worker said Dundee was “awash” with mephedrone, which first appeared there early in 2009.

Inverness councillor John Finnie is concerned about the rapid uptake of the drug in the city. He is urging the UK and Scottish governments to work with the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA) to tackle the problem.

Chief Superintendent Alistair McKeen, head of Specialist Services for Fife police, warned attempts to avoid prosecution through legal highs were being “prioritised over the risks to health”.

“Potential users of legal highs need to be aware of the dangers associated with these substances, a number of which have industrial uses as solvents or even plant foods.

“Our advice to anyone contemplating using legal highs of any kind is not to rely on the experience of other users or those selling these substances, and to put your own health first.

“The only sure way of being safe is not to experiment with these chemicals.” ‘If it was illegal, I’d still take it. It’s cheap’

By Grant Collinson

Craig, 23, is a graduate who lives in Glasgow and has been taking Mephedrone off and on since September last year. He explains how easy it is to get the drug and what it is like to take it: “Order some online; get it delivered for Friday. Say you start at seven o’clock, take a few lines in the house with your mates with the music on. “If you’re planning a bender without going to bed, you’ll maybe have five grammes and steadily go through it as the night goes on. The only thing is, it’s a moreish drug and the more you take the higher your tolerance gets. “If you take too much too fast, your head is buzzing and speaking becomes difficult but, if you ration it out, it has a lot fewer physical and psychological effects, in the short term anyway, than a lot of other drugs. “I’ve taken mephedrone until 10 in the morning before, had three hours’ sleep and gone to work at two in the afternoon and felt absolutely fine, no come-down, just tired.” Use of the drug became popular among his friends around the end of last summer. He says: “You heard people talking about it. I’d heard about it by word of mouth but had not seen it before. Then we found a place you can order it online.”. Initially taken as an inferior alternative to other drugs such as Ecstasy, it turned out to be very similar. “I was sceptical at first but it was quite a heady buzz. It’s comparable to the first time you come up off Ecstasy -- it’s that overwhelming,” he says. For the graduate, the legality of the chemical, sold as plant fertilser over the internet, is not in itself a concern but makes it widely available and cheap. “I don’t think it’s even an issue about it being legal. If it wasn’t, you’d still probably want to take it. It’s just the fact it’s that cheap,” he says. “If it was to be the same price as other drugs, there’s no danger you’d pay the same amount for a gramme as you would for a gramme of Ecstasy.” The cost of Ecstasy is typically £40 for one gramme, compared with £6 for one gramme of Mephedrone, a price that reflects the strength, as well as the availability, of the two highs.

 

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