The “legal high” mephedrone is being banned, the Government announced yesterday.
Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, acted after receiving advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) which recommended it be designated a ‘class B’ drug, along with cannabis and amphetamines.
The move came after the drug was linked with up to 25 deaths, although no post-mortems have confirmed that mephedrone was the cause of any loss of life.
A ban on importing the drug was imposed yesterday and will be extended to possessing or selling the drug “within weeks”, the Home Office said.
Possession of a class B drug carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and dealing in it carries a maximum penalty of 14 years, plus an unlimited fine. Mr Johnson said the ban would apply to the class of drugs called cathinones, which includes mephedrone, to prevent manufacturers getting round the law by producing chemically different versions.
He said: “As a result of the council's swift advice, I am introducing legislation to ban not just mephedrone and other cathinones but also to enshrine in law a generic definition so that, as with synthetic cannabinoids, we can be in the forefront of dealing with this whole family of drugs. This will stop unscrupulous manufacturers and others peddling different but similarly harmful drugs.”
Legislation will be introduced in Parliament today and Mr Johnson said he hoped to get cross-party support.
But his announcement was dismissed as “pointless” by Maryon Stewart, whose 21-year-old daughter Hester died after taking a different legal high — the dance drug GBL which was banned last year.
Ms Stewart, who is campaigning for the Government to introduce US-style laws banning all legal highs for a year while scientists assess the dangers, said: “The chemists are still running rings around politicians. It is beyond belief. We are limping along waiting for these drugs to become popular before making them illegal. It is a completely backward and pointless approach.”
Earlier, Professor Les Iversen, the interim chairman of the ACMD, said there were “serious concerns” about the drug. Mephedrone is the “drug of the moment” and the speed of its rise in popularity was unprecedented, he said. Users seeking hospital treatment reported heart palpitations, vomiting and seizures and more than half had heart rates above 100 beats per minute.
Despite the lack of research, the council was able to make recommendations because its effect was similar to amphetamine, he said.
”A ban may not impact on all users or dealers but one of the alarming features of mephedrone is that it is being taken by young people who have never taken illicit drugs in their life. They are taking it because it is legal and they think it is safe. We can convey two messages to that community: it is not safe and it is not legal.”
Doubts were raised earlier in the day about whether the council was properly constituted to issue advice on which the Government could act, after its veterinary expert Dr Polly Taylor resigned on Sunday night. Dr Taylor resurrected the row over the departure of former ACMD chairman Professor David Nutt by criticising ministers' failure to properly consider scientific evidence before taking decisions. The Home Office insisted the council was still able to fulfil its legal role, despite Dr Taylor's resignation.
The Association of Chief Police Officers said it intended initially to target dealers in mephedrone rather than those in possession of it.