Page last updated at 16:17 GMT, Tuesday, 19 January 2010

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Ecstasy was responsible for the major drug scare of the 90s. Yet the death of Leah Betts did little to deter the public, with demand and supply rising throughout the next decade until pills cost just £1.

But now ecstasy seems to be disappearing from the streets. Ed Davey reports on how changes in supply half way around the world are affecting drug use in the UK.

For years, drug-takers have visited internet forums to compare ecstasy pills.

Websites are used to compare samples of the potentially deadly stimulant - to warn users from bogus pills or highlight pure batches.

But investigate sites today and you can tell change is afoot.

"When was the last time you had a decent E?" writes one British user. "They never seem to do much these days, what's happened?"

'Steroids and caffeine'

Another drug taker from east London wrote: "A couple months ago me and my pal spent £100 on a hundred pills.

"My pal got nicked and police came back saying they consisted of steroids and caffeine."

Metropolitan Police statistics confirm a year-on-year drop in ecstasy possession.

In 2006 some 1,197 people were caught with ecstasy in London.

Ecstasy used to be easier to get than a packet of fags - people buy mephedrone now and pass it off as MDMA
Drug user

In 2007 that fell to 984, then to 773 in 2008.

And the most recent figures available for last year show just 331 were caught.

Some have attributed the apparent fall to a new trend in the drug scene, with users opting for so-called legal highs such as mephedrone, sold as a plant fertilizer, or recently-banned GBL.

But anecdotal evidence suggests drug users resort to such drugs in the absence of their traditional drug-of-choice.

'Can't buy it'

Another user wrote online: "The only time I've come across real MDMA in six months is when someone dug up their stash that had been buried for a year.

"Ecstasy used to be easier to get than a packet of fags - people buy mephedrone now and pass it off as MDMA, it's just not the same."

MDMA is the active ingredient in ecstasy. In the past criminals made it easily because it was simple to obtain chemicals used in its manufacture from legitimate companies in the Far East.

Leah Betts
Essex teenager Leah Betts died after taking ecstasy

But Rossen Popov, of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, told BBC London such precursor chemicals are now tightly restricted.

He said: "It has become more difficult to obtain the precursor chemical.

"For example, between 2008 and 2009 only two countries exported it and the total traded was less than five litres."

He added: "China is the only country where it is manufactured, but in small amounts under tight control."

Harry Shapiro of DrugScope has also seen a fall in ecstasy use.

He said: "If you can't buy it, you can't buy it - that could be to do with this issue of precursor chemicals.

"If you lack the chemicals to make it there will be less around.

"The figures suggest MDMA is harder to get at the moment than it was."

A particularly large seizure of precursor chemicals was made in Cambodia last year.

Seizures of precursor chemicals by drug enforcement agencies are seen as good progress.

Ecstasy causes numerous annual deaths in the UK, although despite the publicity, an inquest into Leah Bett's death found that it was actually excessive water consumption that caused her death.

The drug caused her body to release anti-diuretic hormones, stopping a normal level of urination that could have saved her.

Now other chemicals are filling the void left behind by ecstacy.

And unlike ecstasy, which has been taken for 20 years and has well-known side effects, users taking new substances remain guinea pigs.

'A paralysing mania'

Mr Shapiro said: "Former legal highs BZP and GBL are legal no longer.

"But the biggest surprise has been mephedrone which has come into the mainstream."

Among the side-affects of mephedrone, which replicates the effects of ecstasy and can be legally bought online, is poor circulation.

Users complain of knees or fingers turning blue.

Andy Capper, editor of London-based Vice Magazine, tried some for an article.

He said: "It was the combination of sadness and fear and felt even more dirty than cocaine.

"There was also a paralysing mania. I felt totally insane."

He continued: "I was terrified of every car that came past. Each one sounded like people coming to tell me about all the bad things I'd done in my life, or kill me.

"There was a fear of death, but the sadness was so intense it negated the fear."

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