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

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