The first time I encountered mephedrone, meow meow, plant food or whatever you want to call it, was about a year ago at a friend’s house in south London. We were back from a night out at the student union and all wanting to continue the party when my friend’s flatmate, Brandon, got back from work and, with a sly smile, disappeared into his bedroom, to return with a huge box. He dumped the biggest pile of powder I had ever seen on the table. “This, my friends, is mephedrone,” he said with relish. “And this is the future.”

Like many students, I’ve never been one to say no to a new experience. We all end up running into drugs at some point, so I decided to see what all the fuss was about. I’ve always enjoyed a spliff and, on occasion, a little more, so I assumed this was just another casual substance I would be bumping into.

Nicknamed by users as “poor man’s cocaine”, mephedrone has swept through our nation’s youth like a strong dose of salts, permeating every aspect of the party and night club scene. In less than six months, it has come from obscurity; everyone knows someone who’s on it. Paradoxically, it was given a chance to become popular because of an EU restriction that prevented the importation of two substances necessary to the production of MDMA (ecstasy to the layman) that made it impossible to make or purchase any MDMA in Britain from late 2008. Mephedrone filled the gap in the market, and at half the cost of MDMA; it was everywhere.

You can snort it, drop it in “bombs” (rolling papers filled with it), and I’ve even come across people who eat it. The effect is euphoric, in some ways similar to ecstasy but much shorter-lived; you need to take a lot more of it a lot more often. The first time I took it, I could feel my heart pounding; everything seemed as if it was about to explode into life and I was up till the early hours in a wild rampage of excitement. But there any comparison ends. With mephedrone, the romance period is very short: after taking it just a couple of times, your tolerance increases dramatically, to the point that you’re doing three or four times more than you were in the beginning to get high. Your appetite for the stuff also increases.

Brandon was well ahead of the curve. He was importing it from China at about a £1 a gram and selling it to students at £15. By mid-October, when our student loans had still failed to appear and finance was getting tight, we hit on the idea of doing the same. We could simply make a trip down to a seedy office in Victoria where we could buy it in bulk at wholesale price and then sell it on to our friends at a profit. Doing this you could turn £100 into £400 in a weekend and have a bit left on the side for yourself.

It became a crash course in drug dealing for beginners, and we weren’t the only ones at it. Hundreds of students had spotted the gap in the market. You couldn’t set foot in a club or house-party without someone walking past offering you “drone”.

Whether or not this was legal is a good question, because although mephedrone isn’t covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act, it is illegal to sell it for human consumption. Companies get round this by putting stickers on their product saying just that. When selling it, we would always tell people that it was not to be used to get high – it was almost a running joke. A very dangerous joke indeed.

When on it, you get very edgy (hence the comparison to cocaine) and you constantly crave more. It is possibly the most addictive substance I have ever come across. What makes it far more dangerous is that it is the first of a new breed of designer drugs, made purely to evade the laws surrounding controlled substances.

No one has considered what this will do to people in the short or the long term, and no one cares. Mephedrone might be called “plant food”, but it is a plant decomposer, so what it does to your insides I dread to think. I once accidentally left a spoon in a bag of the stuff and came back three days later to find it had stripped off the outer coating and my mephedrone scattered with tiny silver bits of spoon. We still snorted it.

My stance was changed dramatically by my experience of prolonged use. After three or so months of using it at least a couple of times a week, I found myself in the darkest depression. I stopped taking it and suddenly found myself looking round at my friends with their eyes rolling in their heads and realised how much rubbish we had all been talking to each other. Good, straight-edge kids who barely used to drink have become crazed drug fiends, sitting in their house snorting plant food five days a week.

One friend of mine took it once and now has to use an inhaler, because he has permanently damaged his lungs. Another has almost ceased to be a friend, and is now a socially apathetic zombie, chasing mephedrone around London with his girlfriend, no longer able to interact without it, constantly asking if he can borrow 20 quid.

We’ve always been happy to get wasted on a night out, but I’ve never seen anything creep into so many everyday lives like this. I am horrified by the effect this drug has had on the people around me, and would urge anyone thinking about taking some tonight to change their plans.

Jack Starks is a student in his early 20s who lives in south London

Mephedrone: The Facts

■ Mephedrone is one of a group of drugs derived from cathinone, a powerful stimulant related to amphetamine compounds like ecstasy. ■ The drug costs about £14 a gram. Dealers in Britain spend up to £2,500 to ship 1kg from China, a profit of £11,500. ■ The Psychonaut Research Project, an EU-funded organisation that trawls the internet for information on new drugs, first identified mephedrone in 2008. Its research indicates the drug became available the previous year. ■ A recent survey found that one in three readers of dance music magazine Mixmag had used the drug in the previous month. ■ Mephedrone’s surge in popularity is reported to have coincided with a scarcity of MDMA – ecstasy – after the seizure of 33 tonnes of sassafras oil in Cambodia in 2008. UN officials said the amount of oil, one of ecstasy’s principal ingredients, could have produced 245m tablets. ■ Side-effects include nose bleeds, hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, circulation problems, abnormal heart beats, rashes, anxiety, paranoia, fits and delusions. ■ Positive effects are said to include a sense of euphoria and wellbeing, with users becoming more alert, tactile, confident and talkative. ■ In the past year, mephedrone has been banned in Germany, Sweden, and Denmark. In Britain, the home secretary has asked the advisory council on the misuse of drugs to establish the scientific evidence and to recommend whether it should be banned.

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