‘Legal Highs’, Unknown Lows

Thank you for reading the first posting on the Know Drugs blog. The last couple of years have seen some huge changes in the range of drugs available on the streets and, increasingly, on the internet. The most significant development has been in relation to the explosion of so called ‘legal highs’. These are substances which are often designed to mimic the effects of classified drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy, LSD and cannabis but which (as the title ‘legal highs’ suggests) are not covered by existing drug laws.
As bizarre as it may seem to many people, as long as these new psychoactive substances are labelled as ‘Not For Human Consumption’ they can then be legally sold in shops and online.

This is why many of these substances have been labelled as ‘plant food’, ‘bath salts’, ‘pond cleaner’ or ‘research chemicals’ – names which would also imply that these products are not for human beings to snort or swallow. Not surprisingly this has led to a great deal of confusion with many people (including many people I meet who work directly with young people) still genuinely believing that substances like mephedrone could be used to feed your Yukka plants!

In the U.K. mephedrone (commonly referred to as MM-Cat, Meow or Bubble) was, of course, the first big player in the ‘legal highs’ market place back in 2009. The drug has been described as being like a mixture of the effects of ecstasy (MDMA), cocaine and amphetamines. Its arrival coincided with a dramatic fall in purity of many of the ‘traditional’ recreational drugs. Indeed half of the ecstasy pills seized and tested by the police at Glastonbury Festival in 2009 contained no MDMA at all! Suddenly there was a new kid on the block. A ‘party powder’ that was legal, of reliable purity, easy to buy online and get delivered and, at £10 a gram, less than a quarter of the price of a gram of cocaine. Perhaps not surprisingly the use of the drug exploded during 2009 and 2010. Within a very short space of time the drug had become more popular than cocaine. Following high profile (some would say, sensationalistic) media coverage linking the use of mephedrone to the deaths of some teenage users, the drug was subsequently banned and made a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Despite the ban in 2010 mephedrone remains a readily available and popular drug on the drugs marketplace in the U.K. In years to come I believe we will look back at the mephedrone phenomenon of 2009 and 2010 in the same way that many people today look back at the arrival of ecstasy in the late 1980’s – as a turning point in our drug taking history. Ecstasy arrived in the U.K in 1987/88 and had a dramatic effect on dance culture, music and, importantly, attitudes to recreational drug use. As far-fetched as it may seem to some people today I believe that future generations may well quote 2009 and the arrival of mephedrone as the starting point for a drugs revolution. A revolution that led to a new generation of synthetic drugs produced cheaply in laboratories taking over from ‘traditional’ plant based drugs such as cocaine, heroin and cannabis.

Latest figures from the United Nations Drug Report show that while use of drugs such as cocaine and heroin have stabilised globally, governments everywhere are struggling with the sudden influx of new psychoactive substances or ‘legal highs’. The report identifies 280 new psychoactive substances currently in circulation. This is a 50% increase from 2009. We now have ‘legal’ versions of every illegal substance including Bromo Dragonfly for LSD, a range of synthetic cannabinoids and even Krokodil (Desomorphine) – a DIY version of street heroin cooked up from legal products such as codeine tablets, caffeine, petrol, iodine and red phosphorus.
The majority of these new psychoactive substances sold under the ‘legal highs’ banner with names such as ‘Charlie Sheen’, ‘Annhilation’ and ‘Pink Panthers’ have never been through any scientific clinical trials on humans. The regular use of some of the ‘legal weed’ products are already being linked to psychosis and kidney damage.

Despite this the UN drugs report estimated that nearly a quarter of a million people aged between 15 – 24 have used ‘legal highs’ just in the U.K. It may well be that in years to come some of these new drugs turn out to be very much less harmful than some of our favourite ‘legal highs’ such as alcohol and tobacco. Unfortunately when you are talking about powders and pills only invented last year it’s too soon to say.
Maybe there is a huge clinical trial taking place with these substances – it’s just not happening in the traditional setting of a university laboratory, but instead in the university bars and clubs at 2 a.m. on a Friday and Saturday night.