Ministers to receive advice on whether to ban mephedrone by end of monthAdvisers investigating ‘meow meow’ to make recommendations by 29 March over whether drug should be made illegal
(150)Tweet this (50)Alan Travis, home affairs editor and Matthew Weaver guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 17 March 2010 17.01 GMT Article history
The drug mephedrone, also known as 4-MMC, is legal in the UK and readily available on the internet. Pressure is growing for it to be outlawed after the deaths of two Scunthorpe teenagers. Photograph: Rex Features
The government’s official drug advisers are to make a formal recommendation on 29 March on whether the “legal high” mephedrone, that has been linked to two teenagers’ deaths in Scunthorpe, should be banned.
The decision to speed up the investigation by the advisory council on the misuse of drugs follows a personal intervention by the home secretary, Alan Johnson, to clear delays surrounding its inquiry into the potential harms of the popular dance drug.
The advisory council is expected to advise that mephedrone be banned but may then be asked to consider which class under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act it should be in, and the penalties that should be imposed for possession.
Today the Home Office minister Alan Campbell said: “The home secretary has discussed this in person with the chair and will be raising it again today. We will receive the ACMD advice on 29 March and subject to this advice we will take immediate action.
“We are determined to act swiftly but it is important we consider independent expert advice to stop organised criminals exploiting loopholes by simply switching to a different but similar compound.”
The delays were partly triggered by ACMD resignations in the wake of Johnson’s sacking of its previous chairman, Prof David Nutt, who today warned against a kneejerk reaction over the drug, saying any move had to be based on “sound science”.
The ACMD currently lacks sufficient members to make a formal recommendation but it is believed the appointment process is now being accelerated to get over the legal problem.
A council spokesman said: “The council has been looking at the dangers of mephedrone, and the related cathinone compounds, as a priority. The ACMD held an evidence-gathering meeting on 22 February and continue to carefully work on our considerations with a view to providing advice to ministers on 29 March.”
Police said they believed the drug, also known as “meow meow” or m-cat, contributed to the deaths of Louis Wainwright, 18, and Nicholas Smith, 19. They died on Monday after a night out drinking in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire.
Humberside police revealed this afternoon that a fourth man had been arrested in connection with the deaths on suspicion of supplying the drugs.
Detective Chief Inspector Mark Oliver was asked at a press conference to explain the context of the arrests given that m-cat is a legal substance, and the DCI replied that it was not clear if other drugs had also been supplied.
Oliver said postmortem examinations were to be carried out this afternoon but the toxicology reports, which would give a better indication of the extent to which mephedrone, methadone and alcohol contributed to the deaths, would not be known for several weeks.
Humberside chief constable Tim Hollis, who is the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) lead on drugs, told the press conference there was a need for better information and education of young people.
He told ITV News: “If you simply ban mephedrone you won’t solve the problem. The problem is the choices that young people are making when they’re out and about at night.
“We need better information to people, better education.
“We do need to look at the enforcement issues – the police have a crucial role doing that and that’s why we’ve made arrests in connection with the recent deaths.”
Earlier, the National Association of Head Teachers’ general secretary, Mick Brookes, today said “serious consideration” should be given to banning mephedrone, which in February the clubbing magazine Mixmag christened “the UK’s favourite new drug”.
Used as a replacement for ecstasy or cocaine, it is sold on hundreds of internet sites cheaply for around £10 a gram, where it can be marketed as plant food, another name for the substance. Side-effects include headaches, palpitations, nausea, high blood pressure, a burning throat, nose bleeds and purple joints, especially the knees and hands.
Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, told the BBC that the government would act quickly, saying: “Now it’s been associated very tragically with the deaths of these two young people, the government will be looking at this very, very speedily, very carefully and we will take any action that is needed.”
The shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling, said there was a “strong case” for banning mephedrone, which comes in the form of a powder, tablets, crystals or liquid, and committed the Conservative party to an urgent review of the drug and other “legal highs”.
However, Nutt, who now chairs the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, and who was sacked by the home secretary for repeatedly criticising the government’s decision to toughen the laws on cannabis, pointed out that previously reported mephedrone deaths had turned out to be false alarms.
Mephedrone is already banned in some European countries and a European monitoring body is due to discuss the drug in July.
Maryon Stewart, whose 21-year-old daughter Hester died after taking the dance drug GBL before it was made illegal, said a temporary ban could save lives.
“There is in Germany and America an interim law where legal highs come on to the market, they go into a basket where they are illegal for the first year, giving toxicologists the chance to decide whether they are dangerous or not,” she said, adding that the Home Office “should not be waiting for kids to die before they take action”.
Nicholas Smith’s father, Tony, a retired firefighter, urged people to avoid the drug. He told the Sun: “I don’t want any other family to go through this or any other kids to die because of this.”