Lib Dem minister Norman Baker concerned about marketing of synthetic substances that imitate effects of heroin and morphine
The drugs minister, Norman Baker, is to appeal to the Chinese for help in curbing the spread of legal highs amid evidence of the marketing in Britain of the first synthetic substances to imitate the effects of heroin and morphine.
The approach to the Chinese and Indian governments, where many of the illicit labs producing what are officially termed "new psychoactive substances" sold online in Europe are based, comes after the first Home Office legal highs summit on Thursday brought together law enforcement, health and drugs experts.
More than 280 new synthetic substances not covered by the existing drug laws have been identified by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Many use chemical formula to imitate the effects of traditional illicit drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy and amphetamines.
A British system of temporary banning orders has already outlawed hundreds of these new legal highs and a forensic early warning system is used to monitor their availability in Britain.
Baker told the Home Office summit: "We've had a good response in this country through the temporary control orders we've had, and we're certainly ahead of other countries on that basis, but if you're having new substances created almost on a weekly basis then inevitably we're chasing after those substances. I want to see whether we can get ahead of those substances, rather than chasing after them."
Among those present were senior national crime agency and Metropolitan police officers, crown prosecutors, drug charities and leading psychiatrists. The participants included pharmacologist, Prof Les Iversen of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Paul Griffiths of the EU's drug monitoring agency and Harry Shapiro of DrugScope.
Baker said he hoped to have "frank and honest" discussions about curbing the illicit laboratories' activities with source countries such as China and India at next month's UN commission on narcotic drugs.
The Liberal Democrat minister said there was emerging evidence that the chemists in south-east Asia were trawling the internet for old pharmaceutical research papers for new drugs "for leisure use" that had been abandoned because they had not been regarded as safe by the original chemists.
Baker also said he had asked the expert panel at the summit to look at controls on the operation of "head shops" on Britain's high streets that sell the new psychoactive substances as if they were legal. He also voiced concerns that their marketing was now professional and matched many legal products, giving the impression they were legal.
He said: "Rather than giving the impression that what head shops are selling is harmless, we need to consider whether or not there are messages and ways of dealing with them."
Baker said his concerns over legal highs had escalated the more he looked into the matter. He said: "In particular, I am concerned by the shocking emergence of new substances designed to have similar effects to heroin and synthetic opiates, one of which was reported last month to have caused the death of Jason Nock. I have already asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to provide advice on these matters."
The substance involved in Nock's death was AH-7921, also known as doxylam, which is said to have about 80% of the potency of morphine and has been associated with three deaths in Britain and 15 across Europe.
The expert group is to be asked to report within the next two or three months on what more can be done, including possibly new legislation, to tackle the problem. It will be published at the same time as the Home Office study looking at international drug laws. This has covered a large number of response from Ireland's blanket ban of all legal highs to New Zealand's approach of regulating their use.
By Alan Travis
Thursday 27 February 2014
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