At least 40 new "legal high" drugs have flooded into Britain in the past year sparking fears they could lead to a spate of deaths.
Experts monitoring the appearance of so-called "legal highs" in the UK, claim a new generation of drugs that circumvent the country's laws has been created in China by unscrupulous chemists and then exported to the UK.[/B]
Figures compiled by the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs reveal that 40 new synthetic drugs appeared on sale in the UK during 2010. In the previous year there were 24 new drugs identified. In 2008 there were just 13.
Drug treatment experts said that young people taking the drugs were playing "Russian roulette" with their lives.
It comes after a row last year over the ban on one designer drug called mephedrone, or meow meow, when a leading Government drugs advisor warned the move would cause users to turn to other more dangerous synthetic alternatives.
Many of the new compounds are based on illegal drugs which have been tweaked so as not to be covered by the list of banned substances.
Chemists are even scouring scientific literature in the hope of finding new substances that can be exploited.
Once in the UK, the drugs are sold openly on the internet and in so-called "head shops" that specialise in selling drug paraphenalia including pipes for smoking marijuana, measuring scales and legal herbal mixtures.
Often the legal highs are packaged as plant food or bath salts.
The substances, which mimic the effects of illegal substances such as cocaine and ecstasy, have quickly become adopted as recreational party drugs, according to chemists at the ISCD, which was set up to provide information on existing and new drugs to the public and the authorities.
Professor Barry Everitt, a neurobiologist at Cambridge University specialising in addiction and a member of the committee, said: "We are aware of 40 new designer stimulants in the last calendar year. Most of them are being produced by chemists in China and then imported by head shops and dealers in the UK."
Doctors fear that young people taking these new substances are putting themselves at great risk as little is known about what effect they have on the body.
John Ramsey, a toxicologist at St George's University of London Hospital who sits on the committee and runs a drug identification database for health care professionals and police called TICTAC, said: "We haven't got a clue how harmful these drugs are.
"There is no question they can cause deaths – there have been several deaths associated with mephedrone, but there could also be some long term health effects – they could be carcinogenic, they could cause kidney problems or birth defects.
"The potency of these new substances is also a significant issue. Mephedrone was singularly unusual as it was not very potent so people had to take a gram in a session, but some of the substances we have seen subsequently are much more potent and long acting so people then overdose and have psychotic symptoms that go on for days.
"The hospital A&E departments are just not expecting this and it can be profoundly disturbing for the people who are taking these substances."
Among the new substances to have emerged in the UK in the past year is A3A, a powder that is much more powerful than mephedrone whose effects, which include a raised heart beat, panic attacks and psychosis, can last for days.
Another legal drug, Ivory Wave, has been blamed for at least one death, that of chef Michael Bishton, 24, who was found dead in the sea near Bembridge on the Isle of Wight. Experts say Ivory Wave is a generic name for several different compounds and users never know which they are going to get.
Fluoromethcathinone is another stimulant similar to amphetamines that became abundant in the early part of 2010 before it was banned in April.
Dimethylamylamine is a stimulant that was created by tinkering with the chemical structure of the banned substance BZP.
The illicit drug trade in the UK is estimated by the Home Office to be worth more than £7 billion and is mainly controlled by organised crime.
Young adults and particularly club goers are thought to be increasingly turning to legal highs as alternatives to drugs such as cocaine.
An online survey by club music magazine Mixmag found that 56.6% of respondents from the UK had used legal highs while a third of British students quizzed in a recent online survey admitted experimenting with legal highs.
Ken Checinski, medical director at drug treatment charity Addaction, said: "We are seeing quite a lot of people coming forward with problems after obtaining legal highs, but often they don't actually know what they are.
"People also overdose easily as they don't know how much to take and these things accumulate in the body so when they take more it builds up.
"There is also an assumption that because something is legal, it is also safe. This is not the case. People are playing Russian roulette with the physical and psychological effects of these drugs. The best thing they can do is to understand the risks and not take them in the first place."
Dr Roland Archer, a senior lecturer in pharmacy and chemistry at Kingston University, said: "There are some things they are doing to these compounds that is very dangerous.
"In order for a drug to leave the body it has to be broken down by the body, but some of the modifications they are making to these drugs block the metabolism so it is a lot harder for the body to get rid of them."
The Government is now planning to give ministers the power to ban legal highs temporarily as soon as they emerge to allow experts the chance to study them.
Currently the Home Office's advisers on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) have to consider the danger of a drug before it can be banned.
Instead ministers will be able to temporarily ban a drug for up to 12 months while the advisory council meets to discuss a permanent ban.
The ISCD is chaired by Professor David Nutt, a leading psychopharmacologist who was sacked from his role as head of the ACMD by the then Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, after he argued that tobacco and alsochol were more harmful than cannabis, LSD and ecstasy.
He said illicit drugs should be classified according to the evidence of the harm they cause rather than for political reasons.
Minister for Crime Prevention James Brokenshire said: "We are committed to tackling emerging new drugs and stopping them gaining a foothold in this country.
"That is why we are introducing temporary banning orders to allow us to take immediate action whilst independent experts assess the harms they pose.
"We are also looking to improve the forensic early warning system so we can better identify new drugs coming into the UK market. This will include developing a co-ordinated UK-wide approach to laboratory testing and analysis of drug seizures, as well as wider test purchasing.
"Just because a drug is advertised as legal does not mean it is either legal or safe."
By Richard Gray
15 Jan 2011
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