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Mephedrone: From plant food to Britain's party drug

Police believe mephedrone contributed to the death of 19-year-old Nicholas Smith in Scunthorpe, England.

Humberside Police

At first glance, the many British-based websites selling a substance called mephedrone look innocuous.

"Give your plant the food it deserves," says one. Another promises that it will "transform your garden."

Yet another says: "Flower Power Mephedrone plant food is the highest grade specialist food available on the market today with a purity of 99.7 per cent+."

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The websites warn that mephedrone is not for human consumption. But for those in the know, it's all just a cover for the latest party drug to take Britain by storm.

Mephedrone, also known as 4-MMC, MCAT, Meow, Drone and Bubble, is the most popular of a number of so-called legal highs that have taken British authorities by surprise. While many were banned just before Christmas, mephedrone remains legal for sale in Britain, although savvy online dealers advertise it as a plant food or research chemical to get around restrictions on products for human consumption.

"It's cleverly designed, created and marketed to get around food laws and drug laws," said Ken Checinski, a senior lecturer in addictive behaviour at St. George's University of London who has treated eight people who have taken mephedrone.

Pressure on the British government to ban mephedrone increased yesterday after reports that police had linked the deaths of two Yorkshire teens on Monday to the drug.

Business Secretary Mandelson said the government will "take any action that is needed" to prevent future deaths. Home Office Minister Alan Campbell said the government is "determined to act swiftly" but added it's important to "consider independent expert advice to stop organized criminals exploiting loopholes by simply switching to a different but similar compound."

The Conservative Party's shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling, said that if the party takes power in this spring's election, as polls predict, it will hold an "urgent review" of mephedrone and similar substances with a view to banning them.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is expected to release a report by the end of the month urging the British government to ban mephedrone.

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It has already been banned in Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Sweden and the Channel Island of Jersey. One death attributed to the drug in Sweden has been confirmed so far, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which has been keeping an eye it since 2008.

Health Canada considers it a controlled substance but researchers say that hasn't stopped it from turning up.

Mephedrone, whose chemical name is 4-methylmethcathinone, is a synthetic stimulant derived from cathinone, the active ingredient in qat, a plant popular in East Africa that people chew for its narcotic effects.

It's cheap, selling for £10 to £15 ($15 to $23) on websites. It is not, in fact, a plant food.

Experts say mephedrone's effects are a cross between ecstasy and cocaine. Dr. Checinski and other researchers say users experience euphoria, heightened alertness, lowered social inhibitions and become more talkative. Side effects include anxiety, depression, short-term memory loss, heart palpitations, excessive sweating and headaches.

"What sets mephedrone apart from other drugs, both legal and illegal, is that people seem to quickly develop an appetite for it and so the risk of overdose … is an issue," Dr. Checinski said.

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Perhaps that explains its newfound popularity. Unheard of a year ago, mephedrone has become "the U.K.'s favourite new drug," dance and clubbing magazine Mixmag declared in January after carrying out a survey of drug use and attitudes among more than 2,220 Britons, most of them aged 18 to 27.

It found that mephedrone has become the country's fourth most popular drug, with 41.7 per cent of respondents saying they have tried it, and 33.6 per cent saying they had used it in the past month.

A 33-year-old Londoner named Simon told the magazine he and a friend bought 15 grams of mephedrone and spent most of a weekend snorting it before the friend "started to freak out. He was getting paranoid, saying he didn't feel well."

"In the end he didn't sleep for days," Simon said. "He was pacing around my house, and then he even got it into his head that he had been spiked."

Another user, 28-year-old Debbie from Nottingham, said "we just stupidly kept doing more and more, and I didn't know my boundaries as I'd only done it once before."

After going to a club, she said she "just completely lost it" before her boyfriend took her home. "I felt really sickly, weak and worried. I was also struggling to breathe at times. It was really freaky."

Erin Beasley, a research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse in Ottawa, said the centre is monitoring on the drug.

Ms. Beasley said a street outreach worker in Toronto told her mephedrone had shown up in results from tests on ecstasy tablets carried out after some people in the city's club scene were hospitalized. The hospitalizations could not be linked directly to the mephedrone, however.

"If it's seen in Europe then we will see it over here in the next six months," Ms. Beasley said. "Something that's cheaper and more effective than ecstasy or cocaine as a stimulant or euphoriant - I suspect it will catch on."

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