When does a drug actually become illegal? As Glastonbury opens its gates for another year, some festival goers will choose "legal highs" as an alternative to illicit drugs... helped by dealers who are using obscure loopholes to sidestep the law
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Bath salts, fertiliser and cleaning fluid. They hardly sound like streetwise slang terms for recreational drugs. But using descriptions such as these is one way that dealers in legal highs are keeping beyond the grasp of the law's long arm.
On Wednesday, bereaved mother Maryon Stewart is due to meet Home Secretary Alan Johnson as part of a campaign to ban the legal "party drug" GBL. In April, Ms Stewart's daughter, Hester, a medical student, died after taking the drug.
GBL is but one name in a thriving market of legal and herbal highs. As the summer festival circuit moves into full swing, vast quantities of these drugs will be bought and consumed. But you don't need to be in a field in buy them - High Street "head shops" openly sell tablets laced with various chemicals and compounds for about £6 each.
Click online and there's an even more bewildering array of substances on offer.
Legal highs are not new, but stronger variants are evolving, loopholes are being exploited and the mood among health experts and advisers is darkening.
The Home Office is already consulting on plans to outlaw two party drugs - BZP and GBL - after they were linked to the deaths of two youngsters.
BZP, also known as herbal ecstasy, Red Eye, Frenzy and Pep Love, and the industrial solvent GBL are likely to be made illegal next year along with some anabolic steroids.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has already banned the sale of BZP, although it's not an offence to possess it.
But, as toxicologist Dr John Ramsey explains, the authorities are locked in a cat-and-mouse game with dealers of these substances. The problem, says Mr Ramsey, who analyses drug "amnesty bins", "is it takes a long while to control each of these compounds and as soon as you control one, another set appears.
"The government is always playing catch up, there's a lot of money to be made."
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Many legal highs are not very different from the current illegal drugs like amphetamines and cocaine, and have similar side effects. These can include heart problems, raised blood pressure, vomiting, anxiety attacks, mood swings, high temperatures and seizures, experts say.
Dr Ramsey says: "People are selling stuff on websites and in head shops to young people who haven't got the remotest idea what's in them... we need to get across to the young consumers and retailers that there are serious unknown risks in what they're doing."
Professor Les Iversen, who sits on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, agrees. He says legal highs are emerging at an increasing rate, with most not matching up to their claims.
One called "Spice", which users smoke, is of particular concern, he says.
Spice contains a chemical linked to the active ingredient in cannabis - and could be up to 10 times stronger, some researchers believe.
Although Spice and other drugs like Salvia, amyl nitrate and isobutyl nitrate do not fall under the Misuse of Drugs Act, that has not stopped authorities seeking to ban their sale.
The MHRA says because they have a physiological and potentially harmful effect on the body, they can be considered a medicine.
That means under the Medicines Act it would be a criminal offence to supply them without a prescription or through a pharmacist.
It's one of the latest tactics the authorities are employing to clamp down. Earlier this month 20 shops in London were raided by police, Trading Standards and MHRA officers for exactly that reason.
But what do the people taking the drugs think? Paulo, a 40-year-old from south London, says he used to take GBL in nightclubs for its euphoric and energetic high.
Doses are measured with a pipette then added to drinks, because taken neat it would burn your mouth, he says.
GBL is often taken as a substitute for the party drug GHB, which is already illegal.
"It makes you want to dance and your body has a pleasant tingly feeling all over. It's more intense than ecstasy, I think, and doesn't seem to have the horrible comedown in the days afterwards," Paulo says.
'It can be fatal'
"I stopped taking it because I'd seen so many people overdosing. If you take slightly too much, or take your second dose too soon, you can lose consciousness or have a fit.
"It can be fatal so it makes no sense that it's freely available and legal, while relatively harmless drugs like ecstasy and cannabis can carry a prison sentence."
A litre lasting months or years can be bought on the internet for about £100, where it is marketed as a cleaning fluid.
This last point is telling. Some retailers and websites are exploiting a loophole in the law by selling their drugs as cleaning fluid or soil fertiliser - however others will be selling these for their stated purpose.
Spice is often sold as "herbal incense" not for human consumption.
Dr Ramsey says: "If you buy something from a high street shop as a tablet or capsule, it's fairly obvious it's to be taken as a drug. It's more difficult selling white powders in plastic bags as bath salts. "The compounds are not illegal and it's not illegal to sell bath salts, it's a very grey area. I doubt anyone who buys these are in any doubt what they're for, it's interesting to know how they know."
The sale of legal highs over the internet makes their control particularly difficult, and the battle between the authorities, manufacturers and retailers has never been more acute.
It's unlikely the festival goers heading to Glastonbury will have the same worries.
By Peter Jackson
June 24, 2009