The Big Question: Should legal-high drugs such as mephedrone now be made illegal?

Why are we asking this now?

Two teenagers from Scunthorpe, Louis Wainwright, 18, and Nicholas Smith, 19, died on Monday, apparently after taking mephedrone. Police are investigating whether they were taking other drugs. Their deaths have focused attention on the perils of so called "legal highs", chemical and herbal preparations sold on the high street and over the web which are claimed to have effects similar to illegal drugs of abuse but have not been specifically banned.

Should parents be worried?

Teachers certainly are. The National Association of Head Teachers said a ban on mephedrone should be urgently considered. Schools have become increasingly worried that because the drug is legal, children as young as 12 are trying it. Some heads say the drug should be made illegal immediately - even if it risks some children getting a criminal record.

What is mephedrone?

It is a form of cathinone, a naturally occurring stimulant found in the khat plant. Khat is widely used in parts of Africa, where the fresh leaves and tops are chewed, or dried and brewed to make a tea, to achieve a state of mild euphoria. It is also used by Somalis living in London. Other cathinones include methylone, which is very similar to mephedrone, and MCAT, a powerful psychoactive stimulant, which is usually snorted but can be smoked.

What effects does it have?

Similar to ecstasy, amphetamine and the dance drug MDMA. It increases alertness, talkativeness and feelings of empathy. It can also cause anxiety and paranoid states and risk overstimulating the heart and nervous system to cause fits. The drug is sold as a white or off-white powder and severe nosebleeds have been reported after snorting it. It may be also be swallowed. Mephedrone was linked to the death of a young woman in Sweden in 2008. It is banned in Sweden, Israel and Denmark but is legal elsewhere, including in the UK.

Isn't the sale of chemicals for human consumption restricted under the Medicine Act?

Yes. But traders get round the law by describing mephedrone and similar substances as "plant foods", "fertiliser" and "cleaning fluid", with labels that state "not for human consumption". Mephedrone is available for as little as £5 a gram. The illegal drug MDMA, which has similar effects, is about £35 a gram.

What other legal highs are there?

Lots. The Home Office is already consulting on plans to outlaw two party drugs – BZP, also known as herbal ecstasy, Red Eye and pep love, and GBL, an industrial solvent – after they were linked to the deaths of two young people. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has already banned the sale of BZP, although it's not an offence to possess it. Spice, which is smoked, is also causing concern. It contains a chemical linked to the active ingredient in cannabis – and could be a lot stronger, some researchers believe. Others include Salvia, a plant related to sage which gives a short hit when chewed, amyl nitrate and isobutyl nitrate.

Is the danger growing?

Some experts think it is. Legal highs are not new but stronger variants are appearing, legal loopholes are being exploited and anxiety among health experts is growing. The problem, they say, is that it takes a long while to control each new compound and as soon as one chemical is controlled another appears. Many legal highs are not very different from current illegal drugs such as amphetamines and cocaine, and have similar side-effects. But most of those taking them have no idea what is in them.

Why can't the Government ban mephedrone today?

It could, though not without a recommendation from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) (it is not obliged to follow it). Experts have warned that to ban mephe-drone precipitately, before all the facts have been examined, could do more harm than good. Professor David Nutt, who was sacked as chairman of the ACMD last November after ministers objected to his outspoken style, said yesterday that a ban would put users at risk of a criminal convction that could be more damaging than the drug itself. Some previously reported deaths linked with the drug had turned out to be false alarms, he said.

What are ministers doing?

Making the regulation of legal and illegal drugs more difficult. The intervention by the Home Secretary Alan Johnson in the work of the Advisory Council and the sacking of David Nutt last November effectively set their work back months. The Council had at the time a sub-committee examining the risks of mephedrone and other cathinones but the resignation of five council members in the wake of Professor Nutt's sacking threw the organisation into disarray.

What happens next?

The newly constituted ACMD under the chairmanship of Professor Les Iverson said yesterday it planned to provide advice to ministers on 29 March. However, several key committee members have to be appointed first. The appointments had been expected in April but are now likely to be brought forward. The Home Office minister Alan Campbell said the Government was "determined to act swiftly" but it was important to consider independent advice to "stop organised criminals exploiting loopholes by simply switching to a different but similar compound".

What do relatives of those affected think?

Matt Smith, brother of 19-year-old Nicholas Smith, who died on Monday, said the legal status of mephedrone could have given him a, "false sense of security". He said: "If he thought he was taking something illegal, that he shouldn't have been taking, he wouldn't take it." Tony Smith, Nicholas's father, said: "We are now aware the Government are looking at making this drug illegal, but the fact is that young people have already died and had something been done before now our son would still be with us."

Do health experts support the Government's approach?

No. A spokesman for drug campaign group Release said: "The Government's rejection of the role of science in drug policy through the sacking of Professor Nutt has both slowed down our ability to react to mephedrone and is part of a worrying trend that places more importance on ill-informed and hysterical voices in the media than on scientific evidence when it comes to drug policy, leaving us less well prepared to protect our children from drugs, through making informed balanced choices on such issues." Martin Barnes, chief executive of the charity DrugScope, said: "There is currently more control on the content and sale of a tin of baked beans than there is for mephedrone."

Should mephedrone be banned immediately?

Yes...

* It has caused serious side-effects in some people including heart problems epileptic fits and death.

* Children as young as 12 are said to be trying it because they have been reassured it is legal.

* It has effects similar to powerful illegal drugs such amphetamine, ecstasy and the dance drug MDMA.

No...

* It is wrong to ban a drug without considering the evidence that it causes serious harm.

* Criminalising children for possession could cause more problems than the drug itself.

* Some reports implicatiing mephedrone in the deaths have turned out to be false alarms.

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