Online legal-high shops in Britain are supplying people in New Zealand with the illegal party drug mephedrone.
The substance is banned here, but currently still legal to buy in the UK, which is by far the biggest supplier of mephedrone to New Zealand.
From September 2009 to March this year, 23 packages containing both pill and powder forms of mephedrone were intercepted at Auckland International Mail Centre. Of those, 22 came from the UK.
Mephedrone became big news in Britain when two young men died in March after taking mephedrone on a night out. Since then it has been linked to more deaths and hospital admissions across the UK, resulting in calls for it to be made illegal.
That will happen this Saturday, the British Home Office confirming reports that mephedrone will be classified as a Class B drug with maximum penalties of 5 years in jail for possession and 14 years for dealing.
Until then, and previously, it's been sold by 'legal-high' websites and 'head shops' on UK high streets as plant food.
Experts say there's little evidence of usefulness as a fertiliser, but when consumed by humans it has similar effects to ecstasy, cocaine and amphetamines. Its availability, legal status and low cost - it has a street price of about $30 per gram - mean it has been readily adopted by the party-scene.
Side effects of the drug can include fits, blood circulation problems, vomiting, nausea, nose bleeds, hallucinations and paranoia.
Mephedrone is an illegal Class C banned substance in New Zealand. The maximum penalty for possession is three months jail and/or a $500 dollar fine. But this appears to be small deterrent for Kiwis ordering the drug over the internet.
Dave Evans, a Detective at the Criminal Investigation Branch in Wanaka, says he's aware of at least one case of a New Zealander being 'pushed' Mephedrone. While using a social networking site they were subject to a "pop-up" advert asking them to "Try the UK's top-selling legal party drug", Evans said.
Upon questioning the website's owners the person was assured of the legality of the purchase.
The website, based in London, was not answering enquiries from tvnz.co.nz, but has recently changed its policy on sending mephedrone to New Zealand.
Evans says it's just one of a number of UK-based websites that New Zealand police are looking into.
An internet search for mephedrone throws up a variety of UK-based sites. Illegal in New Zealand, suppliers or importers can get up to eight years in prison. But so far it seems the police have been reluctant to follow through on the letter of that law.
Wanaka police decided not to charge a local person who mail-ordered mephedrone from the UK. Customs officials intercepted the Wanaka-bound package containing 10g of mephedrone in early March. There would be no charges against the person "due to special circumstances", Evans said.
New Zealand police are talking to their counterparts in Britain.
Once legislation passes this coming weekend, it will be illegal for anyone in the UK to possess or supply mephedrone, meaning police here can then press for action against exporters.
Head of New Zealand's National Drug Intelligence Bureau, Stuart Mills, says imports of mephedrone are on the up, and it's causing a major problem.
He says Customs Officials here are "well aware of impending rule changes" but that packages containing mephedrone sent from the UK are "on the rise".
A fact he said was "extremely concerning".
He would not confirm whether people in New Zealand are stockpiling mephedrone ahead of the UK ban, a practice observed in Britain.
But mephedrone is only the tip of the iceberg. 'Legal high' retailers in the UK are exploiting a loophole by selling substances which have the same effects but slightly different chemical compositions.
Stuart Mills is concerned that it takes time to re-train Customs Officials to look for and find new substances.
April 15, 2010
UK dealers supply party drugs to NZ