IT is the new party drug of choice in Southampton – and it’s perfectly legal.

Mephedrone gives users a feeling similar to cocaine or Ecstasy and has been linked to several recent deaths across the country.

Southampton’s drug experts, police and civic leaders are concerned at how fast abuse of the chemical has spread, but because it’s legal they are powerless to stop it.

Tracking down local suppliers was as simple as typing “mephedrone” and “Southampton” into Google. The Daily Echo found two dealers on the classifieds website Gumtree offering to deliver mephedrone free of charge.

The white powder, which is snorted, was even being sold as “plant feeder” on the website of Lucid, a shop in Southampton’s Bargate Shopping Centre.

Lucid’s online store, headshop.co.uk, was last week selling a 100g bag of mephedrone – also known as “Meow”, “Bubble” or “M-Cat”

– for £400 or 10g for £60.

The substance, which according to the advertisement was “strictly forbidden for human consumption” was pulled from the website last week – just hours after this newspaper telephoned the shop.

When confronted, the store’s owner, Lloyd Phillips, said he’d stopped selling mephedrone because “somebody told me it was a bad idea”.

He refused to discuss mephedrone or any of the other legal highs he is continuing to sell for “novelty purposes”, such as the legal MDMA nicknamed “Sparkle”.

In an email to the Echo, he described our investigations as a “witchhunt” and said shops selling cigarettes and alcohol were responsible for more deaths.

“I sold it (mephedrone) for a week, heard that it could be misused, so withdrew it.

Sparkle is not mephedrone, nor is any other product that I sell but even if I did sell it, it is legal, every product I sell is legal,” he said.

“Do I feel bad about selling legal products to adults? No, no more than I would selling cream cakes or pies to a fat person, selling alcohol to an alcoholic, selling cigs to someone with cancer.”

One local user, who is now receiving counselling, described how mephedrone had destroyed his life in just five months.

“It’s seriously worrying, mephedrone is everywhere,” the 25-year-old said.

“There are lads aged 12 or 13 on the stuff, all the way up to 60-year-olds who are doing it.

“I could honestly say if I walked into my local pub on a Saturday night more than 50 per cent of the people in there would be on it.”

The city’s frontline drug service, The Bridge, has begun to see mephedrone casualties at its headquarters in College Street.

Manager Ashley Christopher said the few users they’d helped were probably just “the tip of the iceberg”.

“We’ve been told it’s a lot like Ecstasy,” he said. “They get a big high and feel euphoric, but there is always a pay-off.”

The “pay-off ”, according to Colin McAllister from Southampton’s Drug Action Team, includes nose burns and bleeds, paranoia, heart palpitations and insomnia.

“People are discovering that mephedrone gives a big high, but you crash very quickly.

Users are having to take more and more to keep the euphoria,” Mr McAllister said.

“If you look at the label it says ‘not for human consumption’, therefore you probably shouldn’t stick it up your nose and into your body. You don’t know what you are taking.”

Police in Scotland last month linked mephedrone to the death of a 49-year-old woman in Scotland.

The substance has already been banned in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Australia and Israel, but not yet the UK.

The Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs, which informs Government policy on drugs, is investigating the problem and Home Secretary Alan Johnson has said it could be outlawed as early as next month.

Martin Barnes, chief executive of the leading drug charity DrugScope, said: “People can underestimate the risks attached to using so called ‘legal highs’ and marketing mephedrone as something as innocuous sounding as ‘plant feeder’ clearly doesn’t help.”

A Hampshire police spokesman said: “Like many other cities across the country,we’re seeing mephedrone being used in Southampton but it’s simply not worth the risk.”

Councillor Ivan White, Southampton’s Cabinet member for health, added: “We strongly recommend that people should think about the effects of taking an unknown product being sold as plant food.”

■ Anybody concerned with their, or anyone else’s, use of mephedrone, or any other drug, should contact The Bridge on 023 8088 1400 or talk to their GP.

CASE STUDY

FOR seven years, “John”, a 25-year-old living in Southampton, regularly used cocaine.

Last September his regular dealer offered him a different type of white powder, called mephedrone.

It would be the start of a downward spiral that ended with him being checked into a clinic four weeks ago.

“Cocaine is expensive and a load of crap these days,” John told the Daily Echo.

“Then this new stuff came in, it was half price, gets you just as smashed as what the cocaine would and apparently it’s legal as well.”

The migraine and nose burn he suffered after his first line was so painful he was put off for a couple of weeks.

But when he did end up back in the pub he couldn’t resist the temptation to get high again. “It was just too easy and far too cheap,”

he said.

The comedowns were unlike anything he had ever experienced on cocaine. “It is just horrible, it’s an unbelievable headache and it really does burn the inside of your nose out.

“You can’t sleep on that stuff, I would literally lay there and look at the back of my eyelids all night. I would then get up and go to work at 7.30am the next morning.”

He added: “If you do too much you can take yourself to somewhere you don’t want to be, it can bloody ruin your life. I’ve had to take myself into a corner and crawl into a ball because I’ve been so out of my head on this stuff.”

The cycle of highs and lows took control of his life for five months. In desperation he turned to his GP for help.

John was referred to The Bridge and now he wants to warn others not to underestimate the danger of legal highs.

“They should stop it now before it becomes a real problem. People have got a taste for it and one way or another they’re going to get it. Even if they do make it illegal it’ll still be there.”

Enter The Hidden Realms of The Legal High’s

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