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UN warns of crystal meth pandemic

Guardian Staff and agencies
Wednesday March 1, 2006

A dance and sex drug which is more addictive than crack cocaine is becoming a global problem, the United Nations' drug control agency warned today.

The International Narcotics Control Board said it was concerned about rising use of methamphetamine, or crystal meth.

The board called on governments across the world to introduce tougher restrictions on chemicals used in the manufacture of the drug, which is also known in varying forms as "ice", "meth", "Tina" and "Nazi crank".

The drug's use has increased exponentially in the past decade, particularly in the US where it is considered to be a major problem. The American singer Rufus Wainwright is among several celebrities who have admitted overcoming an addiction to crystal meth, which allows users to stay awake for days and increases sexual arousal.

The INCB president, Hamid Ghodse, said the use of methamphetamine was "extremely worrying".

"If I want to pick on one major drug problem pandemic today, it is methamphetamine," Professor Ghodse said. "It has not yet affected that much of western European countries and the UK but, as we know, as drug misuse occurs in North America, sooner or later it gets here."

He added: "We are trying to encourage governments to focus on the precursor chemicals used in the drug's manufacture, so that we can try to prevent any wider abuse of methamphetamine."

Crystal meth was now regarded as the No 1 problem drug in North America, Prof Ghodse said.

But the extent of its use in Britain is obscured by the fact that seizures and arrests are lumped in with amphetamines, meaning no statistics are collected specifically on crystal meth.

Police chiefs and the government have commissioned separate studies into methamphetamine to see if the use of crystal meth is spreading. The home secretary, Charles Clarke, has ordered that drug deaths be monitored to see if they are linked to the drug.

Customs will send all seizures of odourless white powders to forensic labs for analysis and new mental health patients with drug problems will be tested to see if they have taken crystal meth.

However, in November, the government's Advisory Council on Drugs Misuse advised against reclassifying crystal meth from a class B drug to class A because it could have the "unintended consequence of engendering interest among potential users".

Meth is a synthetic drug that can be snorted, smoked, injected or eaten, and is relatively simple to make from household products using a basic school chemistry set. The highly volatile mix of chemicals has caused several explosions in the US. Canada recently introduced life sentences for its manufacture.

The INCB's annual report also said governments should screen all incoming and outgoing mail to combat "drugs by post" scams. Drug dealers were increasingly using the postal system to move the substances across borders, Prof Ghodse said.

Each country should set up regular and thorough searches of mail - including private carriers - and limit the points of entry for parcels, the report said.

Meanwhile, a report commissioned by MPs today raised questions over the way the government classified illegal drugs.

The study for the all-party science and technology select committee said that including magic mushrooms in the same category as heroin and crack cocaine did not appear to reflect scientific evidence.

It concluded that drugs were not put in class A, B or C according to the harm they caused; instead varying criteria had been applied from drug to drug. The report did not, however, come to any conclusions about the effectiveness of current drug classifications.

In January, Mr Clarke announced plans for a complete overhaul of the way illegal drugs were categorised and prohibited.

Today's report, by consultants Rand Europe, said: "Classification is not based upon a set of standards for harm caused by a drug, it varied depending upon the drug in question."

On magic mushrooms being in the most serious category, where supplying the drugs carries life imprisonment, it added: "The positioning of them in class A does not seem to reflect any scientific evidence that they are of equivalent harm to other class A drugs."

The theory that cannabis use acted as a "gateway" to more serious drugs had not been proven despite extensive research, the report added.

It supported the government's decision to downgrade cannabis two years ago from class B to class C, saying that the evidence to do so was "conclusive" at the time.