A promising medical student has died after taking a "party drug" that the Home Office failed to ban despite announcing that it would be made illegal eight months ago, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.
Hester Stewart, 21, an "outstanding" student whose ambition was to become a surgeon, was found dead at a house in Brighton on Sunday morning, after a friend called police and said that she had taken a liquid drug called GBL.
Police are investigating whether she took the drug knowingly, but a long-term friend has told Miss Stewart's family that she "never ever took drugs" and would "never have knowingly taken this substance".
In an emotional interview with The Daily Telegraph, Maryon Stewart, her mother, a leading nutritionist, said that she felt "cheated, frustrated and angry" that the Home Office had hesitated on a promise last year to ban the substance, despite it being illegal in several other countries.
She said she was "mortified" to learn of the delays in prohibiting the drug, which is similar to the notorious "date-rape" drug GHB, and said that it may take "my darling Hessie to die for somebody to take notice".
The Government announced plans to ban GBL in August and said at the time that the drug "can lead to dependence, unconsciousness and even death by intoxication". But a delay in the ban becoming law has meant that it is still legal today and freely available on the internet for as little as 50p a dose.
The questions put pressure on the beleaguered Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith.
Miss Stewart is believed to be the third person to have died in the past 12 months after taking GBL – gamma-butyrolactone – which has been an increasingly popular drug on the party scene for the past five years.
GBL is converted in the stomach into GHB, which was banned in 2003. Doctors first gave warning about it in 2005, when one said that it was "vastly more dangerous than ecstasy". Dr Sean Cummings, who runs a private clinic in central London, said he knew of two deaths linked to it.
Last August, the Government's drugs advisers told the Home Office that the substance should be classified as a Class C drug.
But because it also has a use as an industrial solvent – in the plastics industry and as a nail polish remover – officials have been delayed in framing the legislation. It is banned for personal use in America, Canada and Sweden.
"How can the Home Office not be accountable for something like this? How come it's not classified? How could this happen?
"Some pen-pusher somewhere should be able to work out how to ban it," said Mrs Stewart. "How come they hesitated?
"This is a disaster. It's just beyond belief that something like this could have happened to such a brilliant, caring, intelligent girl who had so much to offer the whole world, not just her family.
"I feel gutted, I feel cheated, I feel bitterly frustrated and angry that this has been allowed to happen."
Mrs Stewart is a founder of the Natural Health Advisory Service and presents a series on a satellite television channel. "In my work I teach people how to look after themselves and all the stuff I do is caring about people, and that's the kind of environment Hessie's been brought up in," she said. "I'm just gutted the Home Office didn't care enough."
It is a tragic case with echoes of Leah Betts, the schoolgirl who died on her 18th birthday in 1995 when she took an ecstasy tablet.
Her parents became vocal campaigners against drug use.
Miss Stewart's father is Dr Alan Stewart, a nutritional physician. She has a sister, Phoebe, 27 and brothers Chesney, 26, and Simeon, 17. The 21-year-old was top of her year studying molecular medicine at Sussex University, where she was tipped to achieve a first class honours degree next year by tutors. She was paid by the university to act as a mentor to first-year students. A post mortem examination is due to be carried out today , although toxicology results are not expected for another week.
Miss Stewart, a cheerleader, had been at an awards ceremony with her team The Waves at the Thistle Hotel, Brighton, on Saturday night, before going to a party in Patcham area of the city.
Sources said that a party-goer had told police that he and Miss Stewart had taken the substance. The man has been interviewed under caution and not arrested. It is not an offence to take the drug or to distribute it.
A Home Office spokesman insisted last night that a ban on the drug was still under consideration. He said: "We are currently looking at the legislative options for control, to target the problems of misuse of GBL, which has a number of legitimate uses. We will consult with the chemical industry and the wider public over the coming months on this issue."
By Richard Edwards
April 29, 2009