By NBC News' Emily Wither
LONDON – Readers in the United States probably haven't even heard of mephedrone (not to be confused with methadone, a medical substitute for heroin), but the legal high is hogging the limelight here in Great Britain – and not for the right reasons.
The drug has been linked to the deaths of at least 25 people in the U.K., according to the Home Office's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
Mephedrone, which costs as little as $10 a gram, has become the fourth most popular street drug in the U.K. The white powered substance, which is usually snorted through the nose, came out of nowhere late last year has rapidly become Britain's new party drug of choice, replacing highs such as ecstasy and cocaine. Its effects are said to be similar to a combination of the two but in this case it's legal, cheaper and easier to buy – making it a favorite among young people.
|Andy Rain / EPA
Mephedrone for sale on the Internet in London, Britain in a photo taken March 29. The drug will become illegal April 16.
And, sweeping the country like a wild fire, it caught the British government by surprise, with worried parents wondering why authorities didn't move faster to ban it.
After a slow start, British Home Secretary Alan Johnson has scrambled to outlaw the drug, introducing emergency legislation that will classify it as a Class B drug as soon as April 16. In the U.K., Class B drugs, which include cannabis and other amphetamines, carry a maximum sentence of five years for possession or 14 years for supply.
While mephedrone has already been made illegal in Israel, Germany, Sweden and Denmark critics of the ban in the U.K say this is only a "knee-jerk" reaction and there are fears that banning it won't affect consumption, only drive prices up and lead to a decline in purity.
Two government drugs advisers have quit their jobs in protest over how the ban of the drug is being hastily handled.
In an open letter of resignation posted on the Internet, drug expert Eric Carlin said, "Our decision was unduly based on media and political pressure." Carlin added that he wanted to concentrate on early intervention and drug prevention rather than criminalizing young people.
One teen, who wished to remain anonymous, said the proposed ban won't make a difference. "Everyone still do it; making it illegal will only make the problem worse."
Easy to buy
On the street the party drug is commonly referred to as "Meow Meow" or "Mkat" because users say it makes you "purr." But there's nothing cute and cuddly in the side-effects, which range from anxiety to heart palpitations and, in the worst cases, sudden death.
Mephedrone often is bought in "head" shops, like the one in a mall in Stratford, London, one of the sites of the 2012 Olympic Games. Mystical Headshop sells the usual wares available in these types of stores – drug paraphernalia, new age herbs, candles and incense. A mephedrone-based product is also for sale behind the counter, priced at about $18 for a gram.
|Emily Wither/NBC News
|The "Mystical Headshop" sells a mephedrone-based product at prices starting aroun $18 per gram.
Steve, an assistant at the store (he would only give his first name), played down the dangers of the drug. "It's been very popular and as long as people are taught how to use it properly it's fine," said Steve. "But I'm glad it's coming to an end as it's got out of hand."
The shop owner, who declined to give his name, was quick to point out what he described as a strict I.D. policy at his store. He said that anyone who looks under the age of 21 would be carded and if they were underage would not be sold mephedrone.
Mephedrone also is easy to find on the Internet, online classifieds offering 24/7 deliveries. "Ring this cell number and leave a message stating your order," they read. There is no mention of needing I.D to prove your age.
'Not for human consumption'
Mephedrone belongs to a group of drugs originating from cathinone, a naturally occurring stimulant taken from a plant called khat. Taking the cathinone, chemists have modified the ingredients and come up with stronger compounds such as mephedrone. To avoid lawsuits, suppliers cover themselves with a warning label that states "not for human consumption."
While there's nothing new about herbal blends and synthetic chemicals being used as so-called legal highs, the market for them is growing. Chinese and Southeast Asian chemists in particular are using legal loopholes to make stronger variants for users to get their hands on.
It's for this very reason that the British government has been somewhat slow to ban methedrone, saying its wants to also cover other cathinone derivatives in an attempt to stop similar drugs flooding the U.K. market from abroad.
"We're looking at a generic definition [for the ban] so we embrace all of the chemicals involved in this so that unscrupulous producers cannot just change a couple of chemicals and have a legal drug," Johnson, the British Home Secretary said.
'Britain's favorite new drug'
In British schools one line of the powder costs just over $1, according to media reports, and the tabloid press is awash with stories about children as young as 14 trying it.
Mark McEwan said he became hooked on the drug after one line. "It's a lovely buzz," the 28-year-old told ITN News. "But it isn't nice in the end ... when you lose all your weight and your muscles start getting eaten away and you start twitching and shaking when you're not taking it."
Stephen Welch, one of the thousands of worried parents calling for a ban of mephedrone, told ITN News that his 19-year-old son's life has been devastated by it.
"There's been nothing like it before in terms of the speed that it's hit the market – what with the extraordinary availability of it and also the price," said Welch.
Since mephedrone's popularity has grown so quickly, the British government hasn't had time to carry out much research themselves.
To add to its knowledge, the government's drugs advisory council worked with FRANK, a drug information and advice hotline, to gather information. It also worked with Mixmag, a popular dance magazine, which conducted a survey of its readers in order to gather evidence about the prevalence of the substance.
Chris Hudson from FRANK told msnbc.com that calls about mephedrone to its hotline increased by over 10 percent between January and February of this year. And he said hits on its cathinone Web site page jumped from 33,000 in October last year to over 80,000 last month.
The survey carried out by Mixmag of 2,200 British clubbers at the end of 2009 found that mephedrone had emerged as "Britain's favorite new drug."
"The big drug story of 2009 was the unstoppable rise of mephedrone, the 'ecstasy alternative' powder which has risen from nowhere to become the sixth most popular drug in the survey for recent use," the Mixmag results said.
Still legal in the U.S.
Despite the U.K. situation, the U.S. government is taking a wait-and-see attitude. Mephedrone is currently legal in the U.S. and is not on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's list of controlled substances.
"It's not something that we've seen in the U.S. really," said DEA spokesman Rusty Payne. "We know about it – but it's not really on our radar as far as addressing it right now."
Payne explained that the process for scheduling a substance – or putting it in on the federal list of controlled substances – is an "exhaustive" process based on the substance's medical use, potential for abuse and involves input from the medical, scientific and legal community. The list of controlled substances in the U.S. vary from "Schedule 1" substances that have a high potential for abuse and no medical use, such as heroin and LSD, to "Schedule 5" substances that are considered to have a low potential for abuse and are used in medical treatment, such as codeine.
"In order to prove that something is harmful, you have to have real-life situations that dictate action," he said. "Like, here is why the DEA thinks this should scheduled, because of XYZ. Well we don't have XY and Z yet, we just have a bunch of stories coming out of the U.K.
"We've got our eye on it, but I know of no U.S. incidents," Payne added. "That's not to say that they don't exist, but I haven't heard of a thing."
Britain's upper legislative body, the House of Lords, backed the proposed ban on mephedrone Thursday, after a bill passed the House of Commons, meaning the drug will become illegal on April 16.