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Reclassifying murderer's drug will only criminalise young people in Jersey

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RECLASSIFYING the drug used by axe murderer Darren McCormick as a class A substance would risk 'needlessly criminalising' young Islanders, the head of Jersey's Alcohol and Drug Service has said.

Serious concerns have been expressed about ethylphenidate – known on the streets as magic crystals – after it was linked to a number of violent crimes including one rape and the killing and mutilation of Islander Colin Chevalier last year.

But Michael Gafoor, head of the Alcohol and Drug Service, who is also a member of the Misuse of Drugs Advisory Council, said that the substance was primarily used by young people and making it class A risked handing down extremely heavy sentences to users at a young age.

  • The drug - known on the streets as magic crystals - arrived in Jersey in November 2013.
  • It has become so popular in the Island that Customs and Immigration officials say the majority of the £171,421 worth of so-called legal highs they seized last year were ethylphenidate or mephedrone.
  • The drug, which is structurally similar to the ADHD treatment Ritalin but ‘far more potent’, can be snorted, injected or swallowed and is described as a ‘poor man’s cocaine’.
  • In 2013 the amphetamine-like substance, which can cause intense highs and severe side effects such as as aggression, paranoia and hallucinations, was outlawed and made a class B drug following ‘major concerns’ about the effects it may have on its users.
  • The ruling, which was signed off by former Health Minister Deputy Anne Pryke, was fast-tracked through the judicial process because experts were so concerned about the drug.
  • It was officially made illegal on 20 December 2013 and Islanders who had the drug in their possession were given a seven-day amnesty to hand supplies over without risk of prosecution.
  • It is still legal in the UK.[/breakout]

He said that despite the drug, which can cause extreme paranoia and violent outbursts, being very dangerous no deaths had been recorded directly as a result of taking it.

Ethylphenidate was made a class B substance in 2013 after authorities fast-tracked it through the judicial process because they were so concerned about the effects it can have on users. It is still legal in the UK.

Mr Gafoor said: 'It is difficult to make a drug class A if it is not linked to deaths.

'There is always the danger that you can needlessly criminalise a lot of young people by giving them prison sentences for being involved with a drug that is primarily used by young people.

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'The council will always review the legal status of a drug in light of any new problems but it is important that we do not make a knee-jerk reaction.'

Mr Gafoor's comments come days after a heroin addict, who is serving time in La Moye prison, called for the substance to be a made a class A drug.

The man, who spoke to the JEP from inside La Moye prison, said the drug was more addictive than cocaine and more lethal than heroin and he knew friends who had doused themselves in petrol because they had become so paranoid after taking it.

But Mr Gafoor said that there were no immediate plans to change the classification, although the authorities would continue to monitor it.

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'We have classified drugs pre-emptively in the past. We did it with ethylphenidate and mephedrone. We will track what happens in the UK too and if there are any deaths there or in Europe we may consider reclassification.

Axe murderer Darren McCormick, who was jailed for life for killing Colin Chevalier in a town flat, was high on ethlyphenidate at the time

Mr Gafoor added that he believed the quantity of ethylphenidate and the number of users in the Island had dropped since the start of the year.

He also warned that a synthetic version of cannabis '100 times stronger' than the real thing had arrived he Jersey. He said legislation had already been put in place to make it illegal to export and import the drug.

PARANOIA, sexual disinhibition, aggression, irrational behaviour and suicidal thoughts.

Heart palpitations, hallucinations, confusion and high temperatures.

Delusions, panic attacks – even death.

The list of the some of the side-effects of so-called legal highs, or new psychoactive substances (NPS) as they are increasingly being called by health professionals, goes on and on.

Many of the substances are not, despite what the name suggests, actually legal, with new bans being introduced all the time.

And the lows certainly outweigh the few highs that any of these drugs, whatever their legal status, can provide.

Yet despite this disturbing list of possible side-effects and despite real-life examples that they can kill, including at least one in Jersey a few years ago, many hundreds, if not thousands, of Islanders are still using these dangerous substances on a regular basis.

The majority of users are young, some of them just 13 or 14 years of age. Traditional drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine, amphetamines and cannabis are out.

Instead, they are sniffing, swallowing, smoking and injecting some of the most dangerous and mind-altering drugs available.

And they are drugs that are all available relatively cheaply over the internet from websites based predominantly in India and China, shipping to Europe for onward distribution.

What are the other risks?

Increasingly, NPS users in Jersey are injecting the drugs to strengthen their highs. This has its own potential problems separate to the drugs themselves, including the possibility of infection of blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis and HIV. Injecting too often can also cause veins to collapse.

'The effects last one to two hours, so a heavy user may be injecting six times a day,' said Mr Gafoor. 'Obviously the more you inject, the more damage you cause to your veins. 'All drugs can blight a community and individual lives because they actually change a person's behaviour. They can lead to financial problems and health problems, and they can ruin someone's life and cause misery to their families. And we know that some drugs can have fatal consequences.'

What has been the effect in Jersey?

It has not gone unnoticed that since legal highs exploded onto the Jersey drug scene in 2007, the number of young people being referred to psychologists suffering from self-harming or suicidal thoughts has dramatically increased.

Representatives of the States police, Health and Education said that the use of NPS was one of main reasons for the rise, along with increasing pressures on young people related to the recession, unemployment and the advent of the internet.

Mike Gafoor, the head of Jersey's Alcohol and Drug Service, believes that legal highs currently present one of the greatest threats to Island teens and society's well-being in general.

'Legal highs present a great threat for several reasons,' he said.

'They are obviously cheaper than other drugs, they are more accessible and available, as they are sold easily over the internet, and they are marketed as being legal, so giving the impression that they are somehow safe.

'The producers have got very catchy marketing strategies geared towards young people particularly. The other reason they are challenging is that as soon as you ban one, the manufacturers circumvent the legislation by changing the chemical structure.'

Why doesn't Jersey ban all 'legal highs'?

Currently, the UK bans the drugs on an individual basis once their harm can be proven and the chemical structure is identified. Jersey, where drug use follows a similar pattern to the UK but 18 months to two years behind, then follows suit.

However, the UK is currently considering introducing the American model, whereby any substances that have substantially similar chemical structures to those that are already banned are also made illegal.

'If the UK adopts it, we would as well because all the legislation tends to follow suit,' said Mr Gafoor.

'It would prevent manufacturers from circumventing the system and us always having to play catch-up.'

Aside from death, some of the most worrying side effects of NPS use are, according to Mr Gafoor, related to mental health.

'The difficulty we have is the fact that not everybody will experience the same symptoms,' he said.

'People need to be aware of those risks. Because most are stimulants, most of the adverse effects tend to be related to mental health problems. And any substance that can stimulate the heart can be fatal.'

He added: 'The effects can include paranoia and delusions – I have heard about people who believe they can fly. And obviously the comedown and the effects of stopping are depression and anxiety.

'The effects of NPS are also not always immediate, so the user can think they haven't taken enough and take more. So there is a cumulative effect that can cause problems. Most people who use them use them with alcohol, which obviously increases the risks.'

When did the problem start?

Legal highs first appeared in Jersey in 2007 when a local shop started selling Spice, a synthetic version of cannabis that was legal at the time.

At 2008's Jersey Live Festival there was even a tent selling herbal legal highs. However, after a number of young festival-goers were hospitalised after snorting and smoking legal highs from the tent, it was closed down.

An investigation was then launched by health officials into the new and disturbing drug trend. Since then, numerous legal highs have been outlawed, including spice. But as the trend for new synthetic drugs has caught on, the stronger they seem to have become.

Mephedrone was the drug of choice for a while, despite its lengthy list of side-effects, including psychiatric problems, impotence, increased heart rate, fits and rashes.

Then it was Benzo Fury, which was linked to the death of a 19-yearold Islander two years ago.

Both have now been classified as illegal drugs.

This year has seen the rise of ethylphenidate, or magic crystals, which has been cited in several court cases involving violence.

What is Jersey doing about it?

An internationally renowned expert on substance misuse is to lead a major review of drugs in the Island.

Professor Neil McKeganey, who has previously conducted research for governments and the World Health Organisation, and his team will carry out research over a five-month period.

The UK's Centre for Drugs Misuse Research, where the professor is based, was selected by the Health Department as the preferred tender to conduct research which will contribute to an updated drugs strategy for the Island.

Researchers will interview every agency which deals with drugs in the Island, including the police, health workers, prison staff and Customs officers, as well as meeting drug users and conducting an online survey focusing on the use of so-called legal highs.

Award-winning Professor McKeganey is a sociologist who has carried out research on a wide range of topics related to drugs misuse including pre-teen drug use, the link between drugs and crime, and the effectiveness of drug treatment services. In 1994, he founded the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at the University of Glasgow which closed in 2011 and reopened as an independent research centre.

In 2012, Professor McKeganey was awarded the Nils Bejerot Award for Global Drug Prevention by The World Federation Against Drugs in recognition of his career in drug research. He is the author of over 150 academic papers and six books – the most recent of which is Controversies in Drugs Policy and Practice.

He has also acted in an advisory role for a wide range of international organisations, including the World Health Organisation, the UK Home Office and the United Nations, and has undertaken research for – among others – the Scottish government, the UK Home Office and the Medical Research Council.

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