The family of medical student Hester Stewart, who died after taking 'legal high' drug GBL, have called ministers “irresponsible” for classifying it as safer than cannabis.
The 21-year-old died after taking the 'party drug' which is still legal and has become increasingly popular among young people at clubs and parties.
In the wake of Miss Stewart's death, ministers promised to outlaw the drug. On Monday the Home Office will launch a £200,000, 10-week publicity campaign, 'Crazy Chemist', to highlight the risk of drugs like GBL.
However, last night Miss Stewart's family said they felt betrayed and accused the Government of failing to take the problem seriously enough.
When GBL joins the list of banned drugs, by the end of this year, it will be classified among the least-serious category, class C. Critics say this gives the impression that it is less dangerous than cannabis and some prescription painkillers, which are classified as class B.
Miss Stewart's family called the Home Office classification decision "irresponsible" and said it sent out the wrong message to potential users.
Her mother Maryon, a leading nutritionist, said: "We feel that it is an irresponsible decision to classify it as class C because it sends the wrong message out to young people," she said.
"I don't feel that the campaign is strong enough. It is too short and too narrow and I don't think it is targeting enough people.
"I almost feel like they are paying lip service to the issue, and it is really sad.
"As a family we will continue to fight. We are trying to prevent anybody else's family being left to struggle with the devastation this drug brings."
Phoebe Stewart, the victim's 28-year-old sister, added: "The Home Office asked me to work with them and I said I couldn't put my name to the campaign.
"The Government is not taking it seriously enough, and for a substance that can kill you within a matter of hours that is ludicrous."
The family is also angry that the Home Office has been slow to ban GBL when other countries, including the USA, France and Germany, have taken a tougher stance.
Miss Stewart, who was found dead in a house in Brighton in April, was a popular cheerleader who had been top of her year studying molecular medicine at Sussex University and was on course to achieve a first class honours degree next year.
She is believed to be one of at least four people in the past 18 months who have died after taking GBL, also known as gamma-butyrolactone. The liquid drug, which is found in paint stripper and nail polish remover, produces a euphoric high but can lead to nausea, unconsciousness and even death.
It is similar to the 'date-rape' drug GHB, and is one of a group of 'legal highs' which have become increasingly popular during the past five years.
Doctors began warning about the dangers of GBL as far back as 2004, and in 2005 Dr Sean Cummings, who runs a private clinic in London, said it was "vastly more dangerous" than ecstasy, a class A drug.
The Government first considered banning GBL in August 2008 and said at the time that the drug "can lead to dependence, unconsciousness and even death by intoxication". That year, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recommended that GBL be classified at class C, although the body's limited remit meant it was unable to consider the impact of taking GBL and alcohol together, which increases the risk.
Yet a delay to bringing in the changes meant the drug was still legal when Miss Stewart died. Since then, her family have campaigned to make GBL illegal, and to increase awareness about its potentially-lethal consequences.
Criticising the Government over the drug's classification and the nature of the publicity campaign, Phoebe Stewart said: "We're disgusted. The drug is lethal when you mix it with alcohol.
"She absolutely wouldn't have taken it if she had understood the risks, and making it class C doesn't communicate those risks to people.
"They are targeting clubbers but a lot of people, like Hester, take it at home."
The Stewart family has been backed by James Brokenshire, the shadow Home Office minister responsible for drugs policy, who has written to Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, urging him to reconsider the classification.
"The fallout from the reclassification of cannabis has left the damaging impression that a class C categorisation does not apply to particularly harmful or dangerous drugs when GBL has very serious risks attached to it," he wrote.
"Accordingly, I urge you to reconsider the approach taken by the Home Office to the classification of GBL and apply a class B classification to the drug."
John Arthur, director of Crew 2000, a drugs charity which supports GBL addicts, said: "It is very difficult for me to understand why the Government has put GBL where they have, when it appears to be more dangerous than some drugs in class A, and certainly than cannabis."
A spokesman for the Home Office said: "We recognise that legal highs are an emerging threat, particularly to young people. That is why we are going to ban GBL, and a range of other legal highs, by the end of this year.
"The evidence tells us that 18 to 24 year olds who are involved in the clubbing scene are more likely to come into contact with the substances. That's why the new campaign is targeted to ensure the message reaches the people most at risk."
Class A drugs
Examples: Heroin, Cocaine, LSD, Crack, Ecstasy, Magic Mushrooms.
Punishment: Up to seven years’ imprisonment and unlimited fine for possession. Up to life imprisonment and unlimited fine for dealing.
Class B drugs
Examples: Cannabis, Amphetamines (speed), Ritalin, some painkillers.
Punishment: Up to five years’ imprisonment and unlimited fine for possession. Up to 14 years and unlimited fine for dealing.
Class C drugs
Examples: Ketamine, GHB, tranquillises, some painkillers.
Punishment: Up to two years’ imprisonment and unlimited fine for possession. Up to 14 years and unlimited fine for dealing.
By Rebecca Lefort
September 20, 2009