Crystal meth: Britain's deadliest drug problem

Britain is under threat from a highly addictive drug, known as crystal meth or "ice", which has the potential to rival crack cocaine as the country's most dangerous drug, police chiefs are warning.

d The stimulant, methamphetamine, also known as "Nazi crank", has begun to spread throughout the UK and is available in almost every city in Britain, according to police intelligence. It is becoming increasingly popular among clubbers and is starting to enter mainstream drug use.

Police chiefs have been alarmed by its rapid growth in the United States - where 12 million people are thought to have tried it - Australia and New Zealand, and fear that Britain will be next.

The growth in British laboratories making the drug puts people at risk of death or injury from explosions and toxic fumes, a police conference will hear today.

While the number of seizures of the drug are currently low, police are starting to uncover a growing number of makeshift laboratories manufacturing it. Last month a crystal meth factory was discovered on an industrial unit in a Derbyshire village, Stoney Middleton. Laboratories have also been found in London and the Isle of Wight.

The threat posed by crystal meth, a synthetic drug that can be smoked, swallowed, snorted or injected, will be highlighted at the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) drugs conference in Manchester today.

Commander Simon Bray, an Acpo spokesman, said: "It could become as popular as crack unless we recognise the potential danger is poses and take action to prevent its spread. There is increasing intelligence about methamphetamine which shows its presence in this country is growing. You can find it in Hampshire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, London - in almost every county. If people want to get hold of the drug they can find it."

He added: "We have not had many incidents yet, but if you look at the experience in the United States, New Zealand and Australia it started out with one or two laboratories which rapidly turned to hundreds. It is a bit like crack cocaine which suddenly appeared to take off - we want to make sure it does not get to that stage."

The number of illegal laboratories producing it grew in the US from 3,800 in 1998 to 8,500 in 2001, peaking at 10,200 in 2003. An estimated 12.3 million Americans had tried the drug by 2003. It is now more popular than cocaine or heroin in parts of America, and is considered by some to be more dangerous.

The American singer Rufus Wainwight is among several celebrities who have admitted overcoming an addiction to crystal meth, which increases sexual arousal.

Earlier this year the United Nations drug control agency warned that crystal meth was becoming a global problem and called for tougher restrictions on chemicals used to make it.

Police intelligence has shown that although still relatively rare in the UK, the drug is becoming increasingly popular among clubbers, and is being used by heroin addicts and rough sleepers.

Police are also concerned that the manufacture of the drug - the chemicals and instructions on how to use them are readily available on the internet - will lead to deaths and injuries from explosions and poisonous fumes produced during the cooking process. Mr Bray said: "The chemicals used to make the drug include iodine and drain cleaner - the substances are akin to nerve agents. They can result in explosions and toxic waste.

"In America quite a lot of children have been affected by the chemicals, and anyone responding to an incident [such as a fire] can be in danger. It can take months to decontaminate a site."

A gram of meth costs about £50, enough for several "hits". Its effects include psychosis and paranoia, and it has a particularly addictive nature that can be compared to crack cocaine and heroin.

The police believe that as well as being manufactured in Britain it is also being imported into the UK by a Filipino criminal network.

The police and Home Office are so concerned about the potential growth in the drug that in January they are due to upgrade the drug from a Class B to a Class A substance. This would mean those caught dealing it could receive a life sentence while those in possession could face up to seven years.

Key facts
by Geneviève Roberts

* Crystal meth (methamphetamine) is a class A drug, reclassified from class B in June this year.

* When smoked, snorted or injected it gives a "rush" similar to that produced by crack cocaine and is highly addictive.

* 10 per cent of gay men in London have used crystal meth. In London, half a gram costs £25.

* It causes cardiovascular problems and increased blood pressure. An overdose can cause overheating and convulsions.

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