UK set to outlaw dangerous new drug
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Reporter: Steve Cannane
Lateline investigates a dangerous new drug which is set to be made illegal in the United Kingdom. Mephedrone, or meow meow, has been linked to 25 deaths in Britain and is now reaching Australian shores.
TONY JONES, PRESENTER: The British Home Secretary Alan Johnson has just announced that the new recreational drug mephedrone could be banned in Britain within weeks.
Mephedrone, not to be confused with methadone, the drug used to treat heroin addiction, has been linked to a number of deaths in the UK.
The drug is illegal in Australia, but it's been widely available for sale in the UK through websites which market it as a plant food.
Steve Cannane reports.
STEVE CANNANE, REPORTER: This is Jake, who's asked us not to use his real name. That's because he's been involved in the illegal importation of mephedrone into Australia.
'JAKE': You can bring in the drug via air mail consignments - not conceal it and it get through quite quickly. And just by watching things like online tracking and a bit of smart work involved in where you're sending the chemicals, it makes it a lot harder for law enforcement to be involved.
STEVE CANNANE: In Britain the distributors of this drug don't have to worry about the police. Mephedrone, known also as MCAT or Meow Meow, is legal there.
Users can order the drug online in the morning and have it couriered to their homes by afternoon.
But all that's about to end.
ALAN JOHNSON, BRITISH HOME SECRETARY: I've instructed the UK border agency to seize and destroy shipments of these drugs at our borders.
STEVE CANNANE: Mephedrone is being banned in the UK because it's been linked with 25 deaths, including Scunthorpe teenagers Louis Wainwright and Nick Smith.
Tony and Elaine Smith say declaring the drug illegal could have saved their son's life.
TONY SMITH, PARENT: He's took a drug that is at the moment a legal drug and why would anybody assume that that could kill ya?
STEVE CANNANE: But public health experts point out that many of these deaths have involved the use of more than one drug.
DAVID CALDICOTT, EMERGENCY DOCTOR & DRUG RESEARCHER: As a sole cause I think I'm aware of only one case in Sweden where it has come down toxicologically as the sole cause of death.
I think it would be unfair to say that it hasn't contributed to some deaths around the world at this stage.
STEVE CANNANE: Doctor David Caldicott works in emergency medicine in Wales. He first came across the drug in 2007 while working in Australia at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.
DAVID CALDICOTT: It is touted as non-addictive. I'm not so certain that that's the case.
We have in the course of our investigations come across one young man who attempted to commit suicide because he didn't know how to stop taking it and was using about 300 pounds worth a week.
So it does drive people to consume it in a way that certainly MDMA or ecstasy hadn't done.
STEVE CANNANE: Unlike in Britain, in Australia there's been no debate about banning mephedrone. Under our laws it automatically became illegal.
JOHNBOY DAVIDSON, ENLIGHTEN HARM REDUCTION: Mephedrone was always considered illegal by the Australian Government because it was so closely related chemically to other drugs that were already on the list.
Now that meant even though in the UK it was considered legal because it was not on a list, in Australia it was already illegal.
STEVE CANNANE: Last month Federal Police and Customs launched a series of raids on people importing mephedrone.
KEVIN ZUCCATO, ASSISTANT COMMISSIONER, AFP: We've arrested a number of people in possession of that and seized over 20 kilos of that type of narcotic.
STEVE CANNANE: But Jake, who we saw at the beginning of our story, says it's still relatively easy to bring mephodrone into Australia through the post.
'JAKE': From what I know and what I've seen it can be anyone from a young teenager to a 50-year-old and it makes no difference, as long as they know what they're doing and know what they're ordering, it's not hard to get the drug.
STEVE CANNANE: Lateline has obtained a quote from a Chinese wholesaler of mephedrone that boasts of their success in bringing the drug into Australia.
"Please note that while we have generally had very good success rate shipping to Australia without incident, the recipients will individually be responsible for any customs duties, or any other details with Oz customs."
And a price list from the supplier demonstrates just how cheap the drug is.
But price isn't the only reason why more users have turned to mephedrone. Jake, who's been in the drug trade for a number of years, says the declining purity of ecstasy has also been a factor.
'JAKE': Well I've been taking ecstasy and stuff since 2002. And in that time, probably about 2006 when there is the marked decline in the quality of the pills and the effect they produce.
And within about 12 months of that we found mephadrone in about 2007 and found the drug produced similar qualities, therefore was a reasonable way to go about getting high.
STEVE CANNANE: These figures from the forensic science service show that the purity of MDMA in ecstasy seized by British police has dropped from a high of 73 per cent in 2001 to a low of 31 per cent in 2008.
In 2008 the Australian Federal Police were involved in the burning of 33 tonnes of safrole oil in Cambodia, a key ingredient in ecstasy. The Federal Police say the oil could have been turned into 245 million pills.
There's a suspicion that interventions such as these have reduced the purity of ecstasy sold around the world.
Johnboy Davidson says this drop in quality has lead ecstasy users to try mephedrone.
JOHNBOY DAVIDSON: People will just turn to another drug. And it's quite unfortunate that as people are turning to other drugs that arrive they're actually going to substantially more harmful drugs.
It's quite ironic that the very first drug that was banned in this class was MDMA has turned out after 30 year of research that's been done to be one of the least harmful in that area.
STEVE CANNANE: The Australian Federal Police declined an interview request, saying, "Due to commitments overseas, the national manager of the AFP's Serious and Organised Crime area is unavailable for interview".
Back in Britain, the police there will soon have another illegal drug to deal with.
And Doctor David Caldicott says this will bring its own problems.
DAVID CALDICOTT: What we know for a fact is that young people have been stockpiling it and buying it in large quantities. We know that a ban on it will not result in any diminution of consumption, certainly for the next year or so because there are so many stockpiles available.
And indeed the worst case scenario we've heard about is some people intending to have a "Ban the drug" party and consume large qualities of it to celebrate its availability despite a ban.
STEVE CANNANE: Law enforcement authorities will be looking ahead to the longer term. The ban comes into effect in mid-April.
Steve Cannane, Lateline.