A largely unregulated industry is selling pills claimed to mimic the thrills of illicit drugs.
MY "LEGAL ecstasy party pills" arrive in small, white medicine containers, complete with recommended dosage and a safety seal. "Herbal supplements," reads the package, but these drugs promise far more - guaranteeing to "add extra kick to your partying" by meddling with the body and mind. It's a drug high, but one that "will not get you in trouble with the law".
Legal Ecstasy Australia's website, which lists a Sydney phone number that rings out when I call, also spruiks "legal cocaine" and "legal amphetamines" - for "maximum acceleration … with no bad comedown or adverse side effects". A container of orange pills is billed as "safer and better than LSD", with the curious warning: "May cause hallucinations."
Each drug - a mysterious concoction of herbal or synthetic stimulants - supposedly mimics the effects of illicit substances such as ice, LSD and ecstasy, without the health risks. And drug experts warn they're about to "hit big time" at Melbourne music festivals this summer.
But the rise and rise of "legal highs" in Australia, where they are largely untested and unregulated, is already sparking serious health concerns.
Fresh fears were raised recently when a Queensland teenager reportedly collapsed with a heart rate of 166 beats a minute, double what is normal, after taking a party pill called Giggle. The pill, which is largely caffeine-based, promises users a "warm, trippy body buzz" for up to five hours. Stocks in Melbourne's Off Ya Tree stores sold out soon after media reports that the 19-year-old man had been rushed to hospital.
Health scares seem scant concern for those chasing a legal high. Giggle's New Zealand manufacturer, LightYears, boasts it has sold more than 100,000 units of the product, along with party pills Diablo, which promise a five-hour ''euphoric high'', Hypnotic (for an "ecstasy sensation") and Elevate (to ''make your pills work better'').
Tests by the Therapeutic Goods Administration last week revealed Giggle contained no illegal substances and ''about as much caffeine as a strong cup of percolated coffee''. But National Drug Research Institute director Steve Allsop says too little is known about legal highs to consider them safe.
''Manufacturers make claims about what they have in them but it's not like going to the supermarket,'' he says. ''We don't know what the effective ingredients are or the risk profile with those ingredients. It either doesn't work, in which case you're being ripped off, or it does work, in which case there must be some risk because they're altering your central nervous system.
''For some people, the fact that they're not illegal and are marketed as natural and organic is attractive. But legal doesn't necessarily mean safe - tobacco is a very good example of that. Saying it's natural or organic does not mean it's a low-risk product.''
Indeed, despite clearing Giggle, the TGA warned its Australian supplier that similar party pills were in breach of the Therapeutic Goods Administration Act. But that's a bluff at best. Aided by the internet, new drugs are hitting markets worldwide at speed, leaving regulators scrambling to catch up. Many party pills are imported legally as ''foods'' from New Zealand, under mutual recognition laws, and as such sit in a blind spot in Australian regulations.
But Australia's federal medicines regulator is considering declaring that consumable goods in tablet, capsule or pill form be classified instead as therapeutic goods, irrespective of the claims made for them. Under such a proposal, party pills would be bound by Australian standards on therapeutic claims, safe manufacturing and safe levels of substances, as well as requirements they not contain any prohibited or prescription-only substances. Whether they are indeed legal would be subject to testing.
The TGA has separately taken action against several highly caffeinated energy drink shots by removing them from the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods. Some drinks contain caffeine levels that ''would appear to be well in excess of the permitted maximum levels prescribed in the Food Standards Code'', a TGA spokeswoman says.
The NSW Food Authority has removed five products from sale, including Fuel Cell and Cintron products, which reportedly exceeded caffeine content standards by more than 30 per cent. Health risks from excess caffeine include heart palpitations, dizziness and nausea. Concerns have been raised about schoolchildren consuming products such as Red Bull Energy Shots, which claim to increase concentration and ''vigilance''.
Australian authorities are talking to the New Zealand Food Safety Authority about improving regulation of energy shots. Australian state and territory authorities, meeting on October 23, also announced a review of the scientific evidence on caffeine and its use.
Big Day Out promoter Viv Lees says he spurned an offer to stock V Pocket Rockets, which contain 160 milligrams of caffeine, at next January's music festival in Melbourne, because of concerns about caffeine levels.
Big Day Out has banned the sale of any ''legal high'' substances for the past decade, he says. ''You get some people that can sometimes use these things to get overly energised and then you have a crowd control management situation,'' he says. ''I suppose that increased pressure on illicit drugs is kind of providing an opportunity for these quasi good-time, party-time drugs, but we don't have them at Big Day Out.''
But Paul Dillon, of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia, says legal highs are likely to ''hit big time'' at this summer's music festivals.
''There is major activity going on right around the country. If you go to any street market around the country, you will see them for sale,'' he says. ''They just started to kick in at the end of last year's party season and I would imagine they would kick in this year in a major way.''
Health concerns over the drug ice have pushed people towards party pills, but on the mistaken assumption that because they are legal they are safe, he says. Some manufacturers are charging a premium for potentially dangerous goods that may not even deliver the promised high. ''There is no regulation of this. I get emails from teachers who say kids have brought these drugs into schools and they can't do anything about them because they're legal,'' Mr Dillon says.
Occasional drug user Nick, 23, of Ballarat, tried ''Hypnotic - State of Trance'' pills a month ago, as an alternative to illicit substances such as LSD. The pill promises users ''waves of warm ecstasy sensations with a twist''. But Nick, who asked us not to publish his surname, says the drug made his heart race and left him feeling anxious and upset for about four hours.
''I was quite anxious to the point of being depressed. I really felt over-stimulated. For me it was not something good or fun,'' he says.
I sampled several herbal highs, sold at Melbourne's Happy Herb Shops as alternatives for illicit drugs such as ecstasy, speed and cannabis. The bitter-tasting Buzzz made me feel slightly tingly and alert for a few hours. But Cherry Pop, billed as a substitute for ecstasy, had no effect at all - at $25 a pop.
Store owner Ray Thorpe is quick to distinguish such legal, herbal highs from what he calls the ''dangerous'' chemical stimulants sold in party pills.
But Victoria Police drug education and training officer Michael Gorman warns the risk of overdose or bad trips from any legal high is unpredictable. ''All the supposed 'legal highs' are not regulated industries, the compounds are not produced in truly safe, hygienic, regulated and monitored circumstances and the quality of the content is uncertain,'' he says.
Governments around the world are struggling with ways to regulate such products. The British Government recently announced bans on three substances: BZP, GBL and Spice. The Government, which describes legal highs as ''an emerging threat, particularly to young people'', lists seizures, vomiting, coma and death as potential health risks.
Australian Customs and Border Protection says they have detected only a small number of substances, described as herbal preparations, with trace amounts of prohibited ingredients.
Manufacturers and retailers of legal highs claim they reduce harm by diverting users away from illegal and dangerous street drugs. Jim Kouts, a director of chain store Off Ya Tree, says banning such products would force them underground.
But a 2007 study, at Victoria University of Wellington, found no evidence to suggest BZP party pills had reduced substance use-related harms. BZP, which is prohibited in Victoria and was banned in New Zealand last year, was being used along with illicit substances rather than as an alternative to such drugs, the study found.
The legal highs industry is keen to reinvent itself as a professional, reputable business, far removed from images of shady, backyard drug makers. Matthew Wielenga, managing director of New Zealand party pills manufacturer LightYears, says he has built a multimillion-dollar business legally selling the products.
''The products are totally safe but they are only designed for healthy adults, and there are clear warnings on the back and recommended doses,'' he says.
''At the end of the day, they are not as good as ecstasy or cocaine … but quite a high percentage of people just want a safe and legal alternative to alcohol and drugs. Everyone gets the impression they are made in a kitchen somewhere and sold out of a garage, but we're a fully established industry.''
He is happy to discuss his products and it's no wonder. Orders flooded in following the recent health scare about Giggle party pills. ''Since then, there has been an explosion of sales and inquiries from Australia. That was definitely some awesome advertising,'' he says.
November 1, 2009
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