Salvia divinorum, used by Aztecs to alter consciousness, can be bought on eBay; 'spice' is four times stronger than cannabis, yet can be sold over the counter; mephedrone is similar to crystal meth, but is completely legal. Jamie Doward and Oliver Shah report on the growing concern among politicians and police on both sides of the Atlantic
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Earlier this month Kenneth Rau, 47, made history, for all the wrong reasons. He is thought to have become the first person in America to be charged with possessing salvia divinorum, a little-known drug derived from the mint plant that was originally used by Mexican shamans to alter their states of consciousness.
When chewed or smoked, the drug is said to have hallucinogenic properties, with "highs" lasting anything from one to five minutes. Users report that the apparently non-addictive drug can promote uncontrollable laughter and evoke childhood memories. After-effects also include an increased feeling of insight, an improved mood, calmness and an enhanced connection with nature.
Not all users agree that salvia is an pleasurable experience, however. "I like taking drugs to enjoy myself, but that wasn't fun," said Jo Puddle, a London student who tried salvia once. "I thought all my arms and legs had turned into tubes. I really wouldn't recommend it to anyone."
Rau, from Bismarck, Dakota, who bought the drug on eBay and received a deferred sentence, can count himself unlucky. Few countries have outlawed salvia and indeed only a handful of US states have made possession of the drug a criminal offence.
That those states chose to criminalise the drug was largely in response to a growing media clamour. There are concerns among a powerful network of US broadcasters that what the Aztecs started the YouTube generation is now appropriating for a more sinister intent. Exploiting the drug's legality, videos promoting salvia - also known as "Sage of the Seers" - have appeared on the web, spawning its own glamorous subculture.
An entry on an online pro-drugs forum, where Rau has become an unlikely hero, appears typical of users' experiences. "About 10 seconds later, I feel everything start to rush and it came so intense I just started laughing hysterically and stood up," the user said. "Then I started to feel like something was pulling on me and next thing I know I'm thinking cartoon characters were coming away to take me to their cartoon land. Then I was in the cartoon land. The high was short but it was so intense and I've never tried anything else besides pot and liquor."
The backlash against salvia is growing. Media interest in the US has been heightened after the mother of Brett Chidester, a 17-year-old Delaware student, blamed the drug for the suicide of her son. In his diary, Chidester noted: "Salvia allows us to give up our senses and wander in the interdimensional time and space. Also, and this is probably hard for most to accept, our existence in general is pointless. We earthly humans are nothing."
Kathleen Chidester is now leading a national crusade against the drug. "My hope and goal is to have salvia regulated across the US," she said. "It's my son's legacy and I will not end my fight until this happens."
The US is not alone in its concerns. Just as the panic over crystal meth went from the US to the UK, so concerns about salvia are now lapping this country's shores - part of a wider anxiety about the increasing visibility of "legal highs", a catch-all phrase for a bewildering panoply of drugs that help people get out of their minds while staying within the law.
Indeed its legality is one of salvia's USPs. "I know a few people who do this and they always go back for more," said Danny Smith, a railway worker from London who takes salvia occasionally. "I don't take illegal drugs because of my job, so I take these instead. I smoked some the other day. I felt like I was being pushed down into the ground, like I was floating, at the same time. It's not something you could do every day, but it's fun at the weekend."
John Mann, a Labour MP, claims the drug is "very harmful". In 2005, he sponsored an early day motion calling for it to be banned and nothing that has happened since has made him change his mind.
In a recent letter to the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, Mann writes: "Sadly the issue has come to light again as our young people are using the internet and sites like YouTube to broadcast their friends taking the drug and witnessing the hallucinogenic effects. Our young people are at risk and a wider cultural attachment to this drug seems to be developing that I am sure you agree - regardless of its legal status - needs nipping in the bud."
Last week, Mann's request was partially answered. A Home Office minister, Phil Woolas, confirmed to parliament that the market in "legal highs" was now an issue for the government. When asked by an Ulster Unionist MP, Lady Hermon, whether the government intended to classify salvia as an illegal drug, Woolas said the home secretary had written to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the independent body that advises government on drugs, asking it to investigate.
Woolas said the council had been asked to "provide advice to government on the availability and harms of psychoactive legal alternatives to illegal drugs, so-called 'legal highs', with a particular focus on protecting young people. I fully anticipate that this work will include salvia divinorum. The government's position on its control will be informed by advisory council's advice."
Both Smith and the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) are concerned about the sale of legal highs through "head shops" - retailers who sell drug paraphernalia such as bongs and rolling equipment.
Close interest in the activities of the shops, which have spread rapidly across Britain, was sparked by the advisory council's recent work around cannabis reclassification. The council observed how cannabis seeds were widely sold through the shops and their online counterparts, allowing users to grow their own drugs.
Currently the sale of cannabis seeds is legal because they can be used for non-criminal ventures - chiefly the production of the material, hemp. But the police fear the head shops are exploiting legal loopholes. As a result, last month Acpo published new guidance on head shops for the police. It advocated officers make test purchases as "an effective way of gathering evidence of the true nature of a business". It recommended that "covert observations of premises may be considered appropriate in order to establish patterns of behaviour and the movement of vehicles".
The move has been interpreted in some quarters as a declaration of war on head shops, one that could have damaging consequences for the "legal highs" market. Unsurprisingly, head shops have been quick to launch their defence.
"These drugs aren't like magic mushrooms," said Ahmed Noar, sales assistant at a head shop on Camden High Street, north London. "Magic mushrooms were made illegal because they were dangerous. These highs are perfectly safe. If they were made illegal it would damage our business - we rely on legal highs for about 20% of our income."
Paradoxically, because many of the drugs are legal they have escaped scrutiny - which means little is known about their side-effects or the size of their market. Given this lacuna, misinformation is rife. "The problem is people often hear about them by word of mouth," said Martin Barnes, chief executive of Drugscope, an organisation that collects street data on the drugs scene. "The highs are often exaggerated and the harm understated. They are technically legal. Does that mean they are safe? No, it does not."
Indeed, close analysis often reveals many of the many apparently legal drugs contain illegal and dangerous substances. One of the most popular is spice, which comes in varieties such as spice gold, spice arctic synergy and spice yukatan fire.
The drug, usually rolled into cigarettes and smoked like cannabis, was recently made illegal in Austria and Germany after some varieties were shown to contain a synthetic material, JWH-018, that is four times stronger than THC, the natural psychoactive substance in cannabis.
"It has been confirmed that the fashion-drug spice is indeed not the harmless herbal mixture its manufacturers say it is," said Sabine Baetzing of Germany's Social Democrats party when the ban was announced earlier this year. "Tests have shown that smoking the drug can cause undesirable side affects on the heart, circulation and nervous system, in some cases leading to unconsciousness. There is also a danger of addiction."
The reverse also applies. Some head shops are advertising a "legal" form of BZP, a compound drug similar to ecstasy also known as "Benny" and "Frenzy" - which is available in the UK only on prescription and is banned in many other countries. Tests show, however, that much of the "legal" BZP sold in the UK bears little chemical resemblance to the restricted drug.
The truth is that - as with illegal drugs - buyers don't know what they are getting unless it is tested. And manufacturers of legal highs are adept at churning out new varieties at an impressive rate. A new drug called mephedrone, for example, sells for around £14 a gram and has many of the effects of amphetamine and cocaine. Chemically, the compound is extremely similar to crystal meth, but its legal status is ambiguous, banned in some countries but not in others given its relatively recent appearance and its low profile.
Drugscope's magazine, Druglink, reports that drugs similar to mephedrone first appeared in Israel around 2004, under the name "hagigat" and were outlawed following several hospitalisations in Tel Aviv. But its producers modified hagigat's chemical structure and started selling the new drugs under the name "neorganics".
The advisory council's working group has pledged to outline its initial findings on the legal highs market at an open meeting next month. The task promises to be a mammoth one, according to Barnes.
"Drugs policy should be based on evidence," Barnes said. "Where there is clear evidence a drug is harmful it should be made illegal, but I suspect the working group will have difficulty in gathering evidence both of the prevalence [of legal highs] and of establishing how harmful they are."
Many believe the government would be wasting its time attempting to tackle the legal highs market, given its limited success in tackling the sale of illegal drugs.
"Cannabis is completely fine, salvia and spice are perfectly safe too if you're healthy," said Danny Mango, manager of Shoprite Market, another head shop in Camden High Street. "What the government says is all propaganda."
But the manager of a head shop a few yards further down the street suggested there was at least a case to be made against salvia. "I think it's really dangerous and I'd never try it myself," he said.
"If I caught my kids smoking it, I'd give them a smack round the head. If you try it once, fine. But if you smoke it for five, 10 years, you'll have big problems. It'll change who you are. If I ever see parents come in here with their teenagers, I have a quiet word with them and say, 'You should not be letting them near this stuff'."
By Jamie Doward and Oliver Shah
Sunday April 26, 2009