Page last updated at 17:26 GMT, Monday, 29 March 2010 18:26 UK

Mephedrone to be made Class B drug 'within weeks'

Alan Johnson: "I am seeking cross-party support to swiftly ban these dangerous drugs from our streets"

Home Secretary Alan Johnson is to ban mephedrone and other synthetic so-called "legal highs" within weeks.

It comes after the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recommended they be classified as Class B drugs.

Class B drugs, which include cannabis and amphetamine sulphate, carry a maximum sentence of five years for possession or 14 years for supply.

There has been recent pressure to ban mephedrone, linked in media reports to at least four deaths in the UK.

Mr Johnson said he would be introducing legislation in Parliament on Tuesday and hoped to get cross-party support.

Effects similar to amphetamines and ecstasy
Sold as a white powder, capsules and pills or can be dissolved in liquid
Often sold online as plant food marked "not for human consumption"
Completely different to methadone, used to treat heroin addicts
Reported side effects include headaches, palpitations, nausea, cold or blue fingers
Long-term effect unknown
Currently legal to buy and be in possession of the powder, but against the law to sell, supply or advertise the powder for human consumption
Already illegal in Israel, Denmark, Norway and Sweden

He added the importation of mephedrone and the chemical compounds associated with it have been banned with immediate effect and the UK Border Agency instructed to seize any shipments.

Mr Johnson said: "As a result of the council's swift advice, I am introducing legislation to ban not just mephedrone and other cathinones but also to enshrine in law a generic definition so that, as with synthetic cannabinoids, we can be in the forefront of dealing with this whole family of drugs.

"This will stop unscrupulous manufacturers and others peddling different but similarly harmful drugs."

The Association of Chief Police Officers lead on drugs Chief Constable Tim Hollis said the home secretary's announcement "sends out a clear message to young people that this is a dangerous and harmful drug and should not be taken".

He added: "It will also serve to suppress sales and provide police with enforcement powers that will allow us to target those dealing in this drug."

Home secretary announces intention to ban mephedrone
Parliamentary business committees informed
Proposal laid in Parliament
Debate and vote in each House
Approval by Privy Council
Source: Home Office

The Conservatives welcomed the move but said it would "go further" by introducing a temporary ban classification to tackle other similar "legal highs" that may come on to the market.

Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling said: "This is clearly the right step to take regarding mephedrone but we should not be complacent."

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said the action could have come earlier as an ACMD sub-committee had been looking into "legal highs".

Its work stopped when the chief drugs adviser was sacked in October for publicly disagreeing with the government's decision to reclassify cannabis.

"His intervention sparked a number of resignations from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and left the government scrabbling around for independent advice," he said.

Harry Shapiro from the charity DrugScope said: "As it appears that there is a lot of mephedrone in circulation, users and dealers will probably use up their existing supplies over the coming months...

"Legislation has a role, but primarily the focus should be on prevention, education and tackling drug use as a public health issue."

Resignation letter

Mephedrone, a synthetic stimulant, is known by various names, including "m-cat", and "meow meow".

Dr Polly Taylor
There is little more we can do to describe the importance of ensuring that advice is not subjected to a desire to please ministers
Dr Polly Taylor

So far there is no conclusive scientific proof that mephedrone has been responsible for any deaths in the UK, and scientists are still trying to work out whether it is harmful on its own or if taken with something else.

But there have been at least 18 deaths in England where cathinones - the group of drugs into which mephedrone falls - have been implicated, an ACMD meeting on Friday revealed.

Seven provided post mortem evidence of mephedrone, and a further seven deaths in Scotland have been linked to the drugs.

There had been speculation the 11th-hour resignation of Dr Polly Taylor from the ACMD could delay a ban because of rules about its membership.

Lib Dem science spokesman Dr Evan Harris said a ban would have to wait until the council was "legally constituted" under the terms set out in the the Misuse of Drugs Act.

The law says any move to ban a drug must follow consultation with the ACMD.

But a spokesman from the Home Office said: "Based on its current formation the ACMD is still able to fulfil its statutory role and provide advice on mephedrone today on which we can act."

The interim chair of the ACMD, Professor Les Iversen, said the ACMD was "saddened and disappointed" that Dr Taylor - the council's veterinary medicine expert - had resigned.

Dr Taylor said she "did not have trust" in the way the government would treat the council's advice.

In her resignation letter, Dr Taylor told the home secretary: "I feel that there is little more we can do to describe the importance of ensuring that advice is not subjected to a desire to please ministers or the mood of the day's press."

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