UK officials seek ban on 'legal high' mephedrone
LONDON — British authorities on Monday were considering banning mephedrone, a legal drug that has emerged from the shadows to the front pages after being linked to several deaths.
The move comes after two young men died earlier this month after they were believed to have used the substance — also known as "meow meow" or "MCAT" — on a night out. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is expected to recommend a ban, and government officials have made it clear they want to see the drug outlawed.
The council's director, Les Iversen, said 25 deaths in Britain had possible, though unconfirmed, links to mephedrone use.
"Just because a substance is legal, that does not make it safe," Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the House of Commons. "We are determined to act to prevent this evil from hurting the young people of our country."
But the issue has revived concerns among some scientists that politicians are seeking to override scientific advice on drugs, with a member of the drugs advisory council, Polly Taylor, resigning just before a decision was to be announced. She is the latest in a series of members to quit amid claims of government interference in drug policy.
The former chairman, David Nutt, was forced to step down late last year for speaking out against the government's decision to toughen the penalties for possessing marijuana, and two of his colleagues quit in solidarity.
Taylor said it was vital to ensure that "advice is not subjected to a desire to please ministers or the mood of the day's press."
According to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, more than 30 Web sites promote the substance, which often originates in Chinese labs. A single dose costs about 3 pounds ($4.50), according to public health researchers.
It is currently illegal in Britain to sell mephedrone for human consumption, but is often advertised as plant food, bath salts or a "research chemical," and is easily available over the Internet. Other European nations have made mephedrone illegal, including Sweden, Germany, and the Netherlands. In the U.S., mephedrone is not illegal, and the low level of usage means it's not a priority.
Mephedrone is a synthetic form of cathinone, the active ingredient in khat, a stimulant popular in parts of Africa, said Steven Grant, chief of the clinical neuroscience branch at the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse. He said khat — often chewed or brewed into tea — is chemically and pharmacologically similar to amphetamines and cocaine.
"With mephedrone, you are taking a purified drug in pill form, so unlike tea made out of khat, you're taking substantially more," he said, adding it has no known medicinal use.
Until recently, mephedrone was an unfamiliar name in the drug lexicon. Many people had never heard of it, and some confused it with methadone, a legal, prescription substitute for heroin, or methamphetamine, a powerful and dangerous drug.
But after the deaths of Louis Wainwright, 18, and his 19-year-old friend Nicholas Smith earlier this month, mephedrone became front-page news in Britain.
"I assume that because it's a legal drug he thought it was safe to take," Smith's father, Tony, told the BBC. "I am convinced he took it because it was legal; why would anyone assume it could kill you?"
Britain's Home Office says it is determined to tackle the issue, but needs to ensure the closure of legal loopholes which could allow similar compounds — substances which have the same effect but slightly different chemical composition — to slip through. Last year, the government banned three other "legal highs," which resulted in more than 200 different compounds being made illegal.
Ireland is also grappling with the issue. So-called "head shops" have spread across the country over the past year, spurring community pickets and vigilante threats against the businesses. This month, the Irish government passed a law that will outlaw the sale of many current "head shop" products by June. The banned-products list includes several based on mephedrone, including one called Wild Cat.
March 29 2010
By JENNIFER QUINN (AP)
Associated Press Writers Jill Lawless in London, Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin, Malin Rising in Stockholm, David Rising in Berlin, Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna, Michael Corder in The Hague, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, and Steve McMorran in Wellington contributed to this story.
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