Is the Army losing its war against drug abuse?

Fewer positive cocaine tests may mean soldiers have switched to legal highs

More than 6,000 soldiers have failed drugs tests over the past decade, an investigation by The Independent has found. Figures from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) show that the main drug of choice for military personnel has been cocaine, with a fivefold increase in the number of soldiers failing tests for it between 2000 and 2008.

But a dramatic fall in positive cocaine tests last year has prompted experts to suspect that soldiers have switched to mephedrone, a new "legal high" about to be outlawed by the Government. There have been 6,360 failed drugs tests in the Army since 2000. About 58 soldiers have tested positive for heroin, 2,510 for cocaine and around 1,090 for ecstasy. Though the MoD maintained it "did not tolerate" drug use among its troops, the figures show that about 1,300 offenders avoided being discharged.

Failed cocaine tests almost halved in 2009, falling from 430 cases in 2008 to 230 last year. Ecstasy use also fell steeply. Analysts believe the fall "strongly suggested" soldiers had switched to mephedrone, available via the internet which gives users euphoric feelings similar to cocaine and ecstasy.

Mephedrone, also known as "bubble" or "meow meow", is popular on the dance scene because of its legal status and price. At £10 a gram, it is far cheaper than cocaine. The Government's chief drugs adviser, Les Iversen, has called the boom in mephedrone, which is usually taken in powder or crystal form, "quite scary".

Users can suffer from nose-bleeds, paranoia, heart palpitations and memory problems. It is also thought to be potentially lethal and has already been linked to the death of a 14-year-old girl in Brighton last year. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is gathering evidence on its effects and is expected to ask the Home Office to outlaw the drug this month.

MPs and drugs experts have called on the Home Office to give the Army's compulsory drugs tests (CDT) team the funds necessary to find out if mephedrone was being abused. "Evidence from the dance scene has suggested that the usage of mephedrone, very quickly, had reached to about the level of two-thirds of that of cocaine," said Professor Sheila Bird, a senior statistician at the Medical Research Council who has studied patterns of drug use in the Armed Services.

"What is strongly suggested by the Army data is that, for them at least, there has been a massive switch from cocaine. These guys are trained to assess risk. So switching to a legal high makes sense, because the Army does not test for it."

She called on the Government to hand Army testers the £200,000 needed to test for the drug anonymously. "If this gives a cocaine-like reaction, then the Army would be concerned about soldiers using it," she added. "It requires the Home Office to hand the military some funds to do this. Army testers would be keen to find out whether mephedrone is part of the explanation of why cocaine use has fallen so sharply."

Patrick Mercer, the Tory MP and former infantry commander, has now tabled a series of parliamentary questions to the MoD in the light of The Independent's investigation to uncover further evidence on the use of mephedrone.

"The vast majority of soldiers cope with the stresses of combat without turning to drugs and we must congratulate both them and the Armed Services for this," he said. "That said, I am concerned that usage of cocaine has been rising steadily year-on-year since 2000. Given this trend, I was surprised when the 2009 figures showed a sudden fall by about 50 per cent.

"There is evidence to suggest that mephedrone use is rising quickly so I urge the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to report to ministers at the Home Office without delay on the drug, its potential for dependency and how its lethality compares with cocaine and ecstasy. If it has similar effects to either of these drugs, I will be calling for funds to be made available to the Armed Services so they can investigate the extent of the problem of mephedrone use in the Army."

A spokeswoman for the MoD said that the rising number of failed cocaine tests was a reflection of drug use in society at large, adding that soldiers were usually discharged for failing the random test. She said troops were tested only for illegal substances and that the legal classification of mephedrone was a matter for the Home Office.

"Positive results from compulsory drug-testing across all three Services have, over the past three years, averaged around 0.7 per cent," she added, "a much lower result than in similar civilian workplace drug testing programmes in the UK."

Mephedrone: The risks

Drug experts warn that so-called "legal highs" are dangerous because it is not possible to establish exactly what is in them and the effects are unpredictable. They can contain potentially dangerous chemicals which have never been used before as drugs and have not been tested.

Mephedrone, one such drug, is a form of cathinone, a naturally occurring stimulant found in the khat plant. Khat, pictured, is widely used in Africa, where the leaves and tops are chewed, or dried and brewed to make a tea, to achieve a state of mild euphoria.

The drug has effects similar to the illegal drug MDMA, increasing alertness, talkativeness and feelings of empathy. It can also cause anxiety and paranoia and risks overstimulating the heart and nervous system to cause fits.

Mephedrone is sold as a white or off-white powder. Severe nosebleeds have been reported after snorting it, and the drug was linked to the death of a woman in Sweden in 2008.

It is banned in Sweden, Israel and Germany, but not in the UK. It is usually sold on the internet as a "legal high" and described as a plant food or a research chemical not for human consumption.

It is illegal to sell, supply or advertise legal highs under medicines legislation, but suppliers use descriptions such as "plant foods", "fertiliser" and "cleaning fluid", with labels that state "not for human consumption" to get around the law.

The drug is sometimes mixed with other cathinones and caffeine. Mephedrone is available for as little as £5 a gram, whereas MDMA costs about £35 a gram.

Jeremy Laurance

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin