Lynne Featherstone accepts advisory council’s recommendation of 12-month ban on substances including most widely used alternative to cocaine
Mephedrone, also known as 4-MMC and used as an alternative to cocaine, has already been banned in the UK. Photograph: Rex
Five legal highs, including an alternative to cocaine that is one of the most common in Britain, are to be banned from midnight on Thursday, ministers have announced.
The drug minister, Lynne Featherstone, said she had accepted a recommendation from the government’s official drug advisers that the five legal highs should face a temporary ban of 12 months while a full assessment of the harm they posed was undertaken.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has said one of the five legal highs, ethylphenidate, which users inject and is widely marketed as a “research chemical” or as a component in branded products such as Gogaine, Nopaine, Burst and Banshee Dust, has been available over the internet in Britain for four years. They said it was one of the most commonly encountered new psychoactive substances (NPSs), as legal highs are officially known, in Britain and has emerged as an alternative to cocaine.
The hidden dangers of legal highs
The ACMD recommended the ban on ethylphenidate based on evidence that it had caused serious problems, particularly in Edinburgh and Taunton, Somerset. Four related compounds are to banned at the same time to prevent users switching.
Ethylphenidate is typically sold at £15 a gram for powder, £20 a gram in crystal form and £1 for a 50mg tablet. Professor Les Iversen, the chair of ACMD, said injecting users were putting themselves at risk of blood-borne disease and infections.
Police Scotland said Burst, as it is marketed in Edinburgh, was responsible for the majority of legal-high casualties seeking emergency hospital treatment in the city last summer.
Avon and Somerset police said an epidemic of injecting legal highs in public places in Taunton last summer had led to more than 200 needles being recovered in one clean-up day. In December, the high street “head shop” selling the products was closed down.
The banned substances are closely related to methylphenidate, a licensed stimulant marketed under the brand name of Ritalin that is regularly prescribed to children for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The temporary ban means anyone caught making, supplying or importing the drugs will face up to 14 years in prison and an unlimited fine. Possession is not illegal but police and border officials are allowed to search or detain anyone they suspect of having the drugs and seize, keep or dispose of the banned substance.
Drug law reform campaigners said such bans were simply trapping authorities in an “endless game of whack-a-mole” as they tried to play catch-up with drugs chemists. They said that while the government had responded to the frenzy over legal highs, drug misuse deaths overall had risen sharply.
The decision to ban methylphenidate-related substances while continuing to use the parent chemical as a medicine might raise questions over the safety of a drug often prescribed to children.
Ethylphenidate-based products are a growing issue and their use is associated with bizarre and violent behaviour
Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs
“The methylphenidate-related materials being marketed as NPS have psychoactive effects so similar to the parent compound that they can be expected to present similar risks to users,” Iversen said in the letter.
Although it has been marketed as a party drug, the ACMD’s advice warns that some ethylphenidate users appear to have developed chronic problems, continually redosing the drug intravenously in binges.
The ACMD report says that in Edinburgh “there has recently been a report of an outbreak of Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes infections in this area associated with NPS injecting, which is believed to involve ethylphenidate.”
It added: “Ethylphenidate-based products are a growing issue in Edinburgh and their use is associated with bizarre and violent behaviour.”
Drugs reform campaigners said the government’s use of temporary bans on new substances had authorities constantly playing catch up with drugs chemists. The only answer was wholesale reform of drug policy, they said. Danny Kushlick, head of external affairs for Transform, said: “These substances have been brought out because of the success in enforcing the ban on ecstasy and cocaine in particular. Really we have to recognise that this is a self-inflicted trade.
Legal high drug deaths soar in UK
“If we were to have a regulated trade in drugs these ones would not exist. You would not have ‘fake cocaine’ if you could get real cocaine. The whole NPS market is a product of prohibition.
“This is a never-ending game of whack-a-mole because even using the analogues legislation there are new analogues; they can churn these out by the hundreds. This is the opposite of control and regulation. It’s fuelling anarchy in the market and we need to look at regulating frameworks for more benign drugs.”
Niamh Eastwood, director of Release, said new bans on substances only served to push drug use further underground and spur the development of new chemicals with unknown risks to users.
She said: “Speaking more broadly, the government appears to have made NPS something of a cause célèbre in its fight against drugs, apparently in response to the media frenzy over what many unhelpfully term ‘legal highs’. While NPS are indeed a part of the modern debate on drugs, they form a comparatively small part of the market.
“At a time when the associated harms are increasing for other substances – drug misuse deaths rose 21% in 2013, 32% when focusing solely on heroin/morphine deaths – there is a real risk that the government is turning its attention away from addressing the failures of its drug policy holistically in order to pander to poorly-founded fears over this new phenomenon.”
Ethylphenidate is already banned in Denmark, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Sweden, Jersey and Turkey. It is also classified under analogue scheduling in the US and Australia.
The other substances recommended for the temporary ban by the ACMD included 3,4-dichloromethylphenidate, methylnaphthidate, isopropylphenidate and propylphenidate. It wasn’t clear how widespread their use was.
Methylphenidate, the drug from which ethylphenidate and its related compounds is derived, is currently controlled as a class B drug in Britain but also licensed as a medicine for conditions including ADHD and narcolepsy. It has also been widely used recreationally, and as a study aid. Research has found it can offer modest improvements in working memory and episodic memory.