Herbal drug sellers could face jail

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Suppliers of herbal drugs - sold as an alternative to substances such as ecstasy and cannabis - could face two years in jail as part of a government clamp-down announced yesterday.

The pills and powders, which contain natural ingredients and until now have been legal, are becoming increasingly popular at nightclubs and raves.

Alan Milburn, the Health Minister, said yesterday that despite claims that the drugs, known as "herbal highs", are harmless, they can have dangerous side effects and, in some circumstances, prove potentially lethal.

The Department of Health is particularly concerned by evidence that 15 deaths in the United States have been associated with products containing ephedra, one of the main active ingredients in herbal highs. There has not, however, been any detailed research into the effects of the bulk of the products or their popularity.

Marketed under names such as "druid's fantasy", "skull cap", "purples", "herbal ecstasy" and "road runner", the drugs are often sold in clubs, festivals, through mail order and from specialist retailers known as "head shops".

One of the most popular herbal drugs is methcathinone, a white powder with the street name "cat", which producers claim has a similar effect to cocaine. Some herbal drugs are equivalent in price to their illegal counterparts - "cat" costs pounds 55 a gram, just pounds 5 or pounds 10 less than cocaine itself.

The Medicines Control Agency, who control the sale of drugs, have identified a number of potentially hazardous ingredients. These include ephedra, which was linked to the reported deaths in America, khat, which can cause a form of psychosis and yohimbe, which is potentially hazardous when taken with other drugs which can be found in cough and cold remedies.

A year ago the Agency contacted companies who were selling the herbal drugs who agreed to stop the trade. However, they failed to keep their promise. The MCA will now give the suppliers one last chance before they take them to court, where they could face a maximum two year jail sentence and an unlimited fine.

People who take the drugs will not be breaking the law and would not be prosecuted for possession. Substances containing the potentially dangerous ingredients can now only be sold by licence-holders.