• Boom in stimulants sold on websites as plant food
Online sales of legal alternatives to class A drugs raise safety fears
• Dangers unknown due to lack of trials, say experts
Legal alternatives to cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines that are sold online are the latest in a new wave of stimulants that could change the way drugs are bought and sold. The drugs are available to anyone with an email address and a PayPal account.
The fact that they are legal and that other stimulants are being developed could alter the whole drugs scene, according to research carried out by DrugScope, the independent information centre on drugs. People who have tested one of the drugs describe sensations similar to those of illegal class A drugs.
There has been much internet discourse about the new stimulants and two in particular: mephedrone - nicknamed "meph" - and methylone. The former sells for about £14 a gram, which is enough for five oral doses. It has many of the effects of MDMA, amphetamines and cocaine and users report intense euphoria, talkativeness and increased tactile sensitivity. It is described as being "two molecular tweaks away" from MDMA and crystal meth, and more closely related to cathinonem, the active ingredient in qat.
The drug, which is made in Chinese laboratories, is imported legally to the UK and sold online from British and Austrian websites or in shops that sell drug paraphernalia. It is often sold on websites as "plant food". One site in the UK reports that it has just imported 2kg of mephedrone, according to tomorrow's edition of Druglink, the DrugScope journal.
Concerns have been raised about the potential harm to unwary users. Dr John Ramsey, a toxicologist at St George's University of London, is also director of Tic Tac Communications, a drug analysis body that studies recreational drugs. Ramsey says the use of the new drugs is a public health concern.
He told Druglink: "They cause effects pretty much like the drugs they are derived from. People end up in A&E because they take stimulants, and they end up in A&E because they take these chemicals.
"Their acute effects are pretty much indistinguishable from MDMA and amphetamines.
"But we have no information on their toxicity because they have never been used as drugs until recently, so there have not been any formal studies. The only real reports we get are from people who either write them up in chatrooms or discussion groups, or end up in A&E."
A Danish teenager died in last May and was in possession of mephedrone but toxicology reports were inconclusive.
One effect of mephedrone can be that it causes compulsive redosing, known as "fiending", where users intend to take only a small amount, but end up consuming their entire supply. "I did eight grams of meph over the weekend," reported one user. "My heart is still beating strangely and my mouth has all the skin peeled off on the inside." Ramsey believes the drugs have become popularised as a consequence of the government's moves to make the benzylpiperazine (BZP) class of chemicals illegal.
"There will always be something on the horizon that is falling outside the legislation," said Ramsey. "The law cannot keep up with what is happening on the street. What we need to do is to explain to users the potential risks they are running."
A Home Office spokesperson said: "If a compelling case is made for any 'legal high' to be added to the list of controlled drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 because they pose a significant health and social problem, we will not hesitate to seek parliament's agreement to do so following reference to, and advice from, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs."