Mephedrone 'spreading as fast as ecstasy in 1980s'

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Mephedrone use among young people is spreading as rapidly as ecstasy did when it arrived on the rave scene in the late 1980s, it was claimed yesterday, as the death of a 24-year-old woman became the latest to be linked to the so-called "legal high".

Amid mounting concern over the potentially lethal side effects of the drug following a spate of fatalities among suspected users, the Government's chief drugs adviser said the substance currently sold openly over the internet as plant food would eventually be outlawed.

But it could still be several weeks or even months before mephedrone, known as M-Cat or Miaow Miaow, is banned while research is conducted into its side effects – a delay which has been criticised by teachers and parents and linked to last year's sacking of the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), Professor David Nutt.

Professor Les Iversen, the current chairman of the ACMD, which is due to report to ministers on the issue next week, said it was "remarkable" how quickly its use had spread.

Giving evidence to members of the Home Affairs Select Committee, he said he envisaged mephedrone being a Class B drug, making possession punishable with up to five years in jail and dealers facing prison sentences of up to 14 years.

His comments came as police also warned young people not to be tempted into taking it following the death of Lois Waters, whose body was discovered at an address in Norton, North Yorkshire, on Monday morning. Her mother, Alison, paid tribute to her daughter, whom she described as "a quiet and really lovely girl".

Detective Chief Inspector Nigel Costello, who is leading the inquiry, said the tragedy was a reminder that the drug was present not just in big cities but had already made its way into small market towns and quiet villages.

"When ecstasy came on the scene, it was very similar," he said. Police believe the young woman had been taking the drug over the weekend, possibly with either prescription medication or other illicit substances, though tests were still being carried out on recovered items.

Mr Costello described Miss Waters as a very "normal" young woman who had been out with friends, either at their homes or in local pubs. She had felt unwell on the Sunday and spent most of the day asleep.

The detective said her death sent out a stark message to other users. "If people have taken it and not had side effects, it is not necessarily safe for them to do so again," he said.

The tragedy follows those of Louis Wainwright, 18, and Nicholas Smith, 19, who died in the Scunthorpe area last week following a night out on which it is believed they had also taken mephedrone.

Police are awaiting the results of toxicology tests on all three victims.

In his evidence yesterday, Professor Iversen also warned against growing middle-class tolerance towards cocaine, as a study carried out by the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse showed the number of women being treated for addiction has risen by 55 per cent in just four years.