Eastern European youths have been getting high on "plant feed" or "bath salt" for over two years, catching up fast with Western European trends in drug abuse. Governments in the region are now scrambling to control use.
For the past two months, authorities in Poland and Romania - the most populous countries in Central and Eastern Europe and both with tough drug policies - have launched attacks against street shops selling legal highs, whose number has exploded since 2008 in the absence of any regulation.
In October, Polish authorities raided over 1,000 such shops, closing many of them for breach of sanitary standards. Five Romanian localities have prohibited the functioning of legal high shops, and others are in the process of passing similar legislation. The country is estimated to have over 400 such shops.
In both countries, governments acted following a series of media reports about hospitalization of youths having consumed legal highs.
The use of legal highs has proliferated across Central and Eastern Europe in the past years. Like in the West, the most popular substances have been synthetic cannabinoids and mephedrone. The former, sold as Spice Gold or Spice Diamond, is usually smoked to achieve marijuana-type effects. The latter is generally sold as a crystalline powder called Special Gold or Magic Powder, and has stimulant effects similar to cocaine and MDMA (ecstasy).
Legal highs are often commercialized as "plant feed", "bath salt" or "room odorizers", with sellers insisting they are not for human consumption. But the doublespeak is straightforward. Buyers of a "new formula of Magic Powder" from Bucharest-based Magic Weed shop pay 15 euros for half a gram of the "plant feed".
Upon purchase, they are warned "not to administer it to plants with health problems and not to combine it with other substances" as well as to "use the powder in moderate concentration and frequency". No information about the content of the mix is available on the shiny packet.
Much of the trade is conducted online, making it difficult for authorities to control it. According to a 2009 survey by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), while most online shops in the EU were based in Western Europe (UK, Germany and the Netherlands), Romania came in fourth, hosting 7 percent of the continent’s online outlets. At least five online shops were identified this year in Poland and Hungary.
The main problem with legal highs is that their impact on health has not been fully studied.
No human testing was conducted on mephedrone before it became available as a legal high because the substance had no pharmaceutical or agricultural use in Europe.
Advocates of legal highs say their impact is not worse than that of known, illegal drugs, and that in some cases they help people quit illegal drugs. Most cases of hospitalization after use of legal highs appeared when they were mixed with other hallucinogens or overdosed.
But the "right" dose is impossible to gauge, given that in most cases packaging of legal highs offers vague information about the contents and in the absence of any proper scientific studies of what could be considered "safe" quantities.
And while some studies are beginning to emerge in Western Europe about the contents of the mixes and impact, in Eastern Europe knowledge of legal highs remains largely anecdotal.
In Romania, the 2010 Report on Drug use authored by the National Anti-Drug Agency (ANA) writes that researchers in this country lack sufficient scientific information on how to detect cathinones (mephedrone belongs to this class of substances) and other psychoactive substances in biological samples.
The information available is provided by practitioners working with patients, and they are reporting worsening effects of synthetic drug use.
"Last year, we’ve seen over 1,300 patients countrywide suffering from effects of legal highs," Tudor Ciuhodaru, toxicologist in Iasi, eastern Romania, told IPS. "It was mephedrone, opiates, cannabinoids, everything. The age of patients is going down, clinical manifestations are more acute, and the number of hospitalizations is increasing."
ANA reported that in the first half of 2010, hospitalizations caused by legal highs use was triple the number for the whole 2009. Patients suffered from paralyses, loss of speech, paranoid states, and depersonalization, among other conditions.
"It appears that these synthetic drugs act much faster than known illicit drugs and their organic impact lasts longer," said Adriana Samson from ANA, who works with recovering patients. She added that the vast majority of patients have no idea what substances they had used.
"There are signs that these substances cause physical and psychological addiction, just like illegal drugs," Samson told IPS. "People have complained of muscular pain or cold sweat when giving up use."
Higher hospitalization rates may mean both more consumption and that the highs contain an increasing number of dangerous substances.
Fifteen EU countries have controlled mephedrone, and last month the European Commission called for a continent-wide ban.
Since 2009, the Baltics (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia), Poland and Romania have banned main strands of cannabinoids, by including them in lists of controlled hallucinogens.
Poland is currently working on implementing a tougher regime, controlling synthetic psychoactive substances generally, following the example of Ireland.
By Claudia Ciobanu
December 10, 2010
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