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  1. chillinwill
    The sudden arrival of mephedrone shows the internet is playing an increasingly important role in the way drugs are bought and sold.

    Although the substance has been known to the scientific community for more than a decade, it is only in the last 18 months that it has started to be taken as a recreational drug.

    It is from a family of chemicals, cathinones, which are closely related to amphetamines and their derivatives, including MDMA/ecstasy.

    A number of countries including Israel, Denmark, Sweden and Norway have already banned mephedrone for personal use.

    In the UK it is still legal and sold openly through a growing number of websites as a plant food although there is no evidence it has ever been used as a fertilizer.

    "The industry is huge," said one vendor who spoke to Newsbeat anonymously. "Everyone has realised that it's not that hard to set up an online shop and prices are constantly being lowered in an attempt to draw in new customers."

    British-based websites act as middlemen, buying mephedrone in bulk from overseas suppliers, packaging it up and reselling it to retail customers.

    Newsbeat contacted wholesale exporters in Cameroon, Ukraine and China who were prepared to ship a kilogram to the UK for around £1,500.

    Although importing the drug is legal, one supplier said it was still prepared to change the label name to a "normal chemical" to avoid trouble with customs agents.

    That powder is typically sold to customers for between £10 and £15 a gram, leaving the vendor with a potential £10,000 profit even after postage, packaging and tax are taken into account.
    The case for a ban

    The speed with which mephedrone has gone from niche chemical to recreational drug seems to have taken the government and health workers by surprise.

    There is concern about the lack of clear information on the risks and possible side effects of using the drug.

    "There is no reliable help out there," said mephedrone user Danny. "There are just internet posts from other people who have tried it. There is no solid information about the side effects."

    Newsbeat called the government's Talk to Frank telephone helpline to ask questions about mephedrone use and was given conflicting advice.

    In one conversation, the advisor said mephedrone is actually used as a type of plant food and went on to claim it will be made illegal "later this month". Both statements are untrue.

    Another helpline worker simply apologised and said there is very little information about the potential side effects of taking it.

    The government's scientific drug advisors are now working on a report about the dangers of new legal highs including mephedrone.

    But the sacking of the committee's chairman, Professor David Nutt, and resignation of five of his colleagues has delayed the process while other scientists are recruited to continue the work, possibly on a short term basis.

    "They are going to struggle in the next few months to rebuild this group," said Les King, who was a senior member on the committee before stepping down in the aftermath of Professor Nutt's sacking.

    "It's not going to be helped by the fact that there is a general election soon and that may change government policy."

    Les King favours a process known as emergency scheduling under which ministers can ban a drug for six months while evidence is gathered on its harms.

    "After that period, you either put up or shut up," he added. "You either control it or recognise you have no further evidence [on the harms] and abandon the process.

    "If we had emergency scheduling in place here I would have no hesitation in saying we should control [mephedrone] now because it looks as harmful as amphetamines and ecstasy."

    Other countries including Germany and the USA already have emergency laws in place to take substances like mephedrone immediately off the legal high market.

    An EU agency, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, also says it is "following closely" the growth of mephedrone.

    It could produce its own report on the health risks which the UK government could then use as a blueprint to speed up legislation to outlaw the drug.

    But the scientists involved say that work alone would take a minimum of six months, meaning an EU-wide ban could be at least a year away.

    By Jim Reed
    January 13, 2010
    BBC News


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