Legal highs

mephedroneevade being banned as scientists run out of cash to test them.

Funding cuts mean crime networks can flood Britain with new drugs.

Jamie Doward – The Observer, Saturday 11 February 2012

Scientists studying Britain’s rapidly increasing number of synthetic recreational drugs are struggling to assess the risks they pose because money for testing is being cut.

Legal highs are flourishing as their manufacturers seek to stay ahead of drug classification laws by tweaking the chemical composition of their legal products to replicate the effects of illegal ones.

Crime networks in China and elsewhere in Asia are increasingly being blamed for selling large volumes of the chemicals needed to create synthetic drugs such as BZP, mephedrone and “Ivory Wave”, to a burgeoning group of entrepreneurial chemists exploiting loopholes in British law.

Now Britain’s‘s leading expert on synthetic substances is warning that a sharp rise in the number of legal highs coming to the UK’s streets, coupled with acute funding constraints, has meant many of the drugs are not being tested – with potentially dangerous consequences for public health.

“We don’t know anything about many of these drugs, so it’s difficult to know what approach we should take against them,” said Professor John Ramsey, an analytical toxicologist based at St George’s Hospital Medical School, University of London and director of Tictac Communications, a company that has created an international database of synthetic substances.

The number of new legal highs coming into the country is now up to about 50 a year, compared with one or two five years ago. “Universities are struggling for cash and don’t have any slack and if we apply to funding bodies we are up against requests for funding research into the effects of cancer drugs, so we are very low on the list,” Ramsey added.

Faced with a growing number of new drugs, the Home Office has to resort to temporary bans, which require parliamentary approval. “We need to set up an academic centre of excellence involving chemists and toxicologists, but it’s not possible to do it because there’s no money,” Ramsey said. He also called for more research into who was consuming the drugs and how often. Last year he appealed to the organisers of the Glastonbury festival to allow him test drugs at the event, in an attempt to find the new substances entering the market, but they refused.

The Home Office has a forensic early warning system that is supposed to track the emergence of new drugs. But there is little testing of the new substances, meaning experts do not know their impact on public health.

Ramsey pointed to the problems that hit Scotland in 2010 when more than 20 people were hospitalised on one occasion after taking a drug, Ivory Wave, that claimed to be the “strongest party powder there is”. Users suffered nausea, anxiety and hallucinations after buying the drugs, which had been labelled as bath salts to bypass food and drug legislation.

In New Zealand, 5m pills of the now banned stimulant BZP were being sold each year by 2007.

A recent survey of English police forces found nearly half were expecting to reduce their drug detection work: 44% said they expect to reduce their scientific testing, while 45% said they were cutting the amount of test purchasing of suspect substances.

Roger Howard, chief executive of the UK Drug Policy Commission, the independent body that analyses drug laws, said: “Tough spending decisions mean many police forces are reducing the amount of money they spend on forensic testing. If we think that temporary bans will somehow solve the problem we will be deluding ourselves. We should be looking to use powers like trading standards regulations, which could encourage retailers to work with the authorities to reduce the damage that drug use can cause.”

Mephedrone, also known as 4-methylmethcathinone (4-MMC), or 4-methylephedrone, is a synthetic stimulant drug of the amphetamine and cathinone classes.

Slang names include meph,5 drone,6 and MCAT.7 It is reportedly manufactured in China and is chemically similar to the cathinone compounds found in the khat plant of eastern Africa. It comes in the form of tablets or a powder, which users can swallow, snort or inject, producing similar effects to MDMA, amphetamines, and cocaine.

As well as producing the intended stimulant effects, negative side effects occur when mephedrone is used, with teeth grinding the most common. The metabolism of mephedrone has been studied in rats and humans, and the metabolites can be detected in urine after usage.

Nothing is known about the potential neurotoxicity of mephedrone, but scientists have suggested possible dangers associated with its use based on its similarity to other drugs. Several people have died after consuming mephedrone, but some deaths that the media attributed to the drug were later determined to have been caused by other factors.

Mephedrone was first synthesised in 1929 but did not become widely known until it was rediscovered in 2003. By 2007 mephedrone was reported to be available for sale on the internet,

by 2008 law enforcement agencies had become aware of the compound and by 2010 it had been reported in most of Europe, becoming particularly prevalent in the United Kingdom. Mephedrone was first made illegal in Israel in 2008, followed by Sweden later that year. In 2010 it was made illegal in many European countries

and in December 2010, the EU ruled it illegal. In Australia, New Zealand, and the USA it is considered an analog of other illegal drugs and can be controlled by laws similar to the Federal Analog Act.

In September 2011 the USA temporarily classified mephedrone as illegal, with effect from October 2011.

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