A legal drug is in widespread use in Teesdale and is putting lives at risk, police have said.
The synthetic substance is called mephedrone - more commonly known on the streets as "drone," "bubble" or "legal high”.
Its chemical formula is one molecule different to ecstasy and as such dealers are claiming is not a controlled substance.
They are importing it, mainly from China, and selling it openly on the internet as a plant fertilizer.
Their sales pitch is that in powder, crystal or liquid form it is a legal ecstasy. But an alert issued by the Darlington Drug and Alcohol Action Team warns its use can result in severe nose bleeds, nose burns, hallucinations, blood circulation problems, rashes, anxiety and paranoia, fits and delusions.
It can become addictive and when taken with alcohol or cut with other drugs it could result in death.
Insp Kevin Tuck of Barnard Castle Police said: "In rural Teesdale there is evidence of widespread use of this substance. We have seen five young local people admitted to hospital in recent weeks after taking mephedrone.
"An 18-year-old has already died in Sweden, where this drug is now banned. No drug is safe and we believe mephedrone, especially when mixed with alcohol or taken with other substances, could be deadly.
"We know it is not on the radar for most parents and, sadly, because of its use in our area we would expect it to be readily available throughout every town and city in the North East and the UK."
He added that in Durham, police have taken a stance and anyone found with it will be arrested on suspicion of possession of a banned substance.
Police said they will be taken to a cell, their DNA and fingerprints taken and that arrest, depending upon enquiries, could have serious implications for example, on future job applications.
Insp Tuck added: "This drug is illegal in Israel, Norway, Finland and Sweden. Psychiatrists in the UK have lobbied for it to be banned here.
"We have seen the effects it has on young people. We have had officers assaulted by those high on it and two people have collapsed in the street.
"One person at Cockfield took 36 hours to come down from his 'high,' and then had very serious paranoid problems when he did.
"Concerns have been raised via pub watch and local youth services and we even have individuals from elsewhere in the country trying to buy via Teesdale links. People are blatantly saying there is nothing the police can do because it is 'legal.'"
He said the last thing police, the Primary Care Trust and drug help agencies want is to see a death as the party season builds up to the Christmas festivities.
"The use of this drug is becoming more prevalent. Parents should be on their guard particularly at this time of the year. They need to know it is freely available on the internet and that teenagers are talking about it,” he said.
"Working with our partners, we will continue to take a strong stance to prevent death or injury. The bottom line is no drug is 'safe' and this one is dangerous."
Darren Archer, manager of the County Durham Drug and Alcohol Action Team commented: "People are allowing themselves to be fooled into believing that just because a drug is not illegal it must be safe.
“Products sold as plant fertiliser will not be tested as safe for human consumption and will cause damage to health.
"I can understand how people can be forced by peer pressure to experiment. My advice would be to use recognised websites like TalktoFRANK.com to get the full facts."
Police said the Teesdale Neighbourhood Policing Team has force-wide support in lobbying to have mephedrone added to the list of controlled drugs as soon as possible.
November 20, 2009