Legal highs: A game of m-cat and mouse
No sooner is one legal high banned than another appears - the latest facing calls for a bar is methedrone, or m-cat. It's part of a war of attrition between dealers and the authorities. So how does it all work?
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It's a thriving market - and an increasingly worrying one for the government. Legal and herbal highs are nothing new, but ever stronger variants are emerging all the time and legal loopholes are being exploited to make them easily available.
The death of Louis Wainwright, 18, and Nicholas Smith, 19, on Monday has raised concerns again. The two friends died after taking the legal stimulant mephedrone which is used as an alternative to ecstasy and cocaine. Their parents are now calling on the government to ban it.
Under medicines legislation it is illegal to sell it for human consumption, but it is sold as a plant fertiliser and is available on the internet for as little as £4. Just the one-line warning "not for human consumption" covers suppliers legally.
Parents call for mephedrone ban
It is the latest in a string of legal highs to be scrutinised. Such substances mimic the effects of illegal drugs, but are not controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. They can be anything from herbal blends to synthetic chemicals.
Several were banned last year after they were linked to deaths. These included GBL, which was used as a substitute for banned drug GHB, and some synthetic cannabinoids - man-made chemicals sprayed on herbal smoking products -such as "spice".
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Drugs in the UK are banned by the home secretary, with parliamentary backing. But the initial steps are usually taken by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which advises the government on drug-related issues.
The ACMD is an independent expert body made up scientists, experts from the pharmaceutical industry, police and drug charities.
Its job is to investigate a substance which is being "misused or appears to be being misused" and "is having or appears to be capable of having harmful effects sufficient to cause a social problem". That can be anything from legal highs to alcohol. In recent years it has suggested a ban on selling strong lagers and beers.
The council can be asked to investigate a substance - by the government or the public - or do it off its own bat.
It has often started gathering evidence on a specific drug before it has hit the headlines because it has such good contacts in the field, says Harry Shapiro of drugs advice charity DrugScope.
Legal and illegal drugs
"The ACMD's members come from across the profession so its intelligence on substances and how they are being used is very good," he says. View attachment 13762
If the council favours a ban, it recommends this to the home secretary, who proposes an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This goes before parliament for approval and if voted through goes onto the statute books to become law. The ACMD is expected to report back to the government at the end of this month on mephedrone.
It's a robust process, "as it should be", says Mr Shapiro. "This is changing the law, not just issuing a public health warning. A knee-jerk response is not the answer."
Dr John Ramsey, head of drugs database unit TicTac Communications at St George's University of London, agrees.
"Essentially the problem is in writing legislation which controls what you want to control without inadvertently controlling something you don't intend to. The pharmaceutical industry needs to be able to continue its business, the chemical business needs to be able to supply chemicals for legitimate use.
"Some countries have a list of chemicals that are banned which is fraught with problems. The British legislation has been somewhat generic. We have described the chemical structure of compounds rather than the names. It covers things that we currently know about or that we think might come about."
This approach has benefits in that it can cover drugs before they rise to prominence.
"Ecstasy was already controlled by the misuse of drugs act by the generic legislation although it wasn't named in the act," says Dr Ramsey.
But for some campaigners, like Maryon Stewart, whose 21-year-old daughter Hester died after taking GBL, the process is long and cumbersome. View attachment 13763
"It is a very difficult area because as soon as one thing gets banned, then there are others that come on to the market," she says.
Most agree the rapid evolution of such "designer drugs" (or, more correctly "designed drugs") is a big problem. Although the term first rose to prominence in the 1980s, it may be more prevalent than ever, says Dr Ramsey.
"Quantitatively it has become much more significant. People are being much more innovative than they were - they are coming from leftfield."
In some cases legal high traders have consciously looked for a tiny variation to an existing compound. The "beta keto" family is one such case, says Dr Ramsey.
"They have looked at things like MDMA, MDEA and MBDB [all bracketed as "ecstasy"], chemically modifying those to bring them outside control."
So you have chemicals used recreationally, and with some of the same effects as ecstasy, that are not illegal. They are sold openly in legal high shops.
Made to order
But there is no suggestion that there is a generation of brilliant bedroom chemists out there dedicated to finding legal highs. Instead, their job is done by legitimate chemists.
This can be seen in the example of "Spice". A group of chemicals have been identified that are similar to the active ingredient in cannabis, THC.
"Those have come about because somebody has looked at the pharmacology literature and found papers where these were investigated as potential analgesics, synthesised because they were like cannabis and discarded because they made people high.
"They read the appropriate literature, contact the Chinese chemical industry and say 'make me this'. It needs a modicum of intelligence but not a great deal of pharmacological knowledge. These chemicals, for example 1-alkyl-3-(1-naphthoyl)indole, were created by a legitimate scientist and then hijacked by the legal high searchers."
And underlying all of it is the problem that many hijacked chemicals may currently or later have a valid use.
But campaigners say the process for banning substances in the UK can be adjusted to stop the law always being behind the market. In New Zealand new drugs are put into a special category, where it is not illegal to sell or possess them but their effects are monitored.
In Germany emergency regulations can be used to make a new, unregulated drug illegal for the first year, giving toxicologists the chance to investigate and decide whether it is dangerous or not.
But no system is perfect, and even if it was the problems with legal highs wouldn't stop overnight, warns Mr Shapiro.
"The way we go about banning a drug in the UK does seem like a long process when there have been deaths, but just by making something illegal you don't just turn off the tap."
Thursday, 18 March 2010
By Denise Winterman and Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
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Legal highs: A game of m-cat and mouse