Europe is grappling with a flood of powerful and sometimes lethal new narcotics that are often legal when they first appear because authorities have never seen or banned them before.
With catchy nicknames like Meow Meow, Spice and NRG-1, the drugs are often sold online as "legal highs." They typically come in powder form and can be snorted, licked or packed into tablets and create highs that mimic drugs ranging from cocaine to ecstasy, which some narcotics experts say has become less available amid a world-wide effort to blunt production. The drugs have been blamed for the deaths of two young people in the U.K. and Sweden, and authorities say they may have contributed to as many as 30 deaths in the U.K. in recent years. With some drugs selling for about €15,000 ($19,000) a kilogram, producers and dealers stand to profit.
"Some of these compounds have been known for quite some time in scientific literature but not on the streets," said Simon Brandt, senior lecturer in analytical chemistry at Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K. Many of the new compounds are quite pure, suggesting that the people making them are sophisticated chemists with modern equipment, he said.
European countries are scrambling to crack down. The U.K., Sweden and Germany all recently banned one of the most popular drugs, mephedrone, or Meow Meow, which first appeared in 2007. The U.K. this week announced a ban on naphyrone, or NRG-1, which surfaced after the mephedrone ban.
But authorities are having a hard time keeping up with all the new concoctions. As soon as one is banned, another appears, they say. Last year, 24 new "psychoactive substances" were identified in Europe, almost double the number reported in 2008, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which keeps European Union policy makers informed on the state of drug use.
European authorities say some of the drugs are cooked up in China, where they say lax control of chemicals makes it easier for manufacturers to obtain the raw ingredients.
Yan Jiangying, spokeswoman for China's State Food and Drug Administration, said China classifies mephedrone and naphyrone as chemical products, not as narcotics or other drugs. Materials classified as narcotics are controlled by the SFDA, she said, with regulations over their export, including approval by the SFDA. It publishes an annual list of regulated drugs. The agency doesn't have responsibility for regulating all chemical products, however.
Ms. Yan said the SFDA is aware of reports on the concerns about substances such as mephedrone and naphyrone. She said the SFDA keeps in close contact with international narcotics-control authorities and will continue to cooperate in the fight against drug crimes.
Some of the drugs have appeared in Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan. In the U.S., a new kind of synthetic cannabinoid similar to marijuana is increasingly popular, and some states have banned it. But a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said the U.S. hasn't seen the same influx of new narcotics that Europe has.
European dealers and users buy the new drugs online, paying by credit cardand waiting for them to arrive in the mail. Les Iversen, chairman of the U.K. government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs said this month customs officials at Heathrow Airport recently seized shipments of white powder from China that were labeled as glucose but turned out to be mephedrone. The packages were addressed to private homes in the U.K., he said. The Home Office, which oversees the ACMD, said it couldn't comment on the fate of the addressees.
A number of firms describing themselves as Chinese offer mephedrone and other so-called designer drugs for sale online. Before they are banned, some of the new drugs can be found in Europe in shopes selling drug paraphernalia. To protect themselves from possible liability, many sellers advertise the products as "plant food," "bath salts" or "pond cleaner" not meant for human consumption, but buyers know this is a ruse.
Spice, a synthetic cannabinoid that is similar to cannabis, became popular in Europe in 2008 and was subsequently banned. The drug is sprayed onto dried leaves such as rosehips, which users smoke. Mephedrone and naphyrone are cathinones, a type of drug closely related to amphetamines. They are sold as tablets or as powders that can be snorted. The first cathinone was synthesized more than a century ago, and aA few cathinones have been licensed in some countries as treatments for depression and smoking cessation, according to the ACMD.
Gareth Balmer, who works for a charity in Dundee, Scotland, that counsels users about the harms of drugs, said he started hearing about mephedrone in 2007, when it surfaced under the nickname Bubble Love. "It really kind of exploded all the sudden. Very quickly we heard about people getting in trouble with it—palpitations, rapid heartbeat, anxiety," he says. Some young people were taking as many as 50 or 60 capsules a weekend, he says.
Schools in the area began warning children about the drug's dangers, he says.Once mephedrone was banned in April, use dropped off among young teenagers, but older teens don't seem bothered by its illegal status, Mr. Balmer says.The drug was never licensed for this use, but anyone wanting to produce it can find information about its chemical structure in scientific publications, Dr. Deluca says. This is true for many of the new drugs, experts say.
The U.K. ministry that banned mephedrone says it "can cause anxiety and paranoid states, overstimulation of the cardiovascular system, with risk of heart and circulatory problems; and overstimulation of the nervous system, with risk of fits and of agitated and paranoid states and hallucinations, as well as the risk of dependency."
After mephedrone was banned, some websites that had been selling it began advertising NRG-1, or naphyrone, instead. They also began selling MDAI, which was originally developed by scientists at Purdue University as an experimental antidepressant, according to Paolo Deluca, a senior research fellow and narcotics expert at King's College London.
Beware of misinformation, and of ambiguity.
By JEANNE WHALEN
Wall Street Journal
July 17th 2010