Examples of some of the "legal highs" sold online. Internet sellers of illicit substances and so-called "legal highs" are undercutting street drug dealers by mailing their wares direct to homes, circumventing drug controls.
Australian Customs and Border protection is battling to stay abreast of the online trade and said Australian customers - which included children - may be unwittingly breaking the law as drugs marketed by online pharmacies as "legal highs" contain ingredients that are illegal to import to Australia.
The drugs, sold as substitutes to more common illegal substances such as ecstasy and marijuana, are sold under names including Giggle, Diablo, Hardcore, Spice and e-Blast, "plus many others", Customs said.
According to Customs, some are simply caffeine-based while others have controlled ingredients like ephedrine, one of the precursors of methamphetamine. They are sent through the post and Customs said "many packages are opened and assessed each day", but it cannot screen them all.
An Australian website has been set up dedicated to reviewing these "legal highs", called gethigh.com.au. Its methods are far from scientific.
Diablo sells online for $16 for a two pack but none of the sellers list the ingredients, other than describing them as "herbal". By comparison, ecstasy tablets sell on the street for about $30 each. Diablo is described on gethigh.com.au as "one of the strongest legal highs in pill form on the market".
Another drug identified by Customs as being sold online as a legal high is mephedrone, which is known on the street as "meow meow". Users of the drug, which costs $100 a gram compared to $300 for a gram of MDMA, say its effects are similar to the euhporia experienced on ecstasy.
The synthetic compound is usually swallowed in capsules or snorted and is based on cathinone compounds found in khat, the east African plant that is chewed for an amphetamine-like stimulant effect.
With mephedrone now illegal in many countries, including Australia, sellers have moved to a new amphetamine-like substance, naphyrone, sold online as NRG-1.
Names and ingredients of drugs sold online change weekly, making them difficult to detect and ban, and while seizure figures were unavailable, Customs said "detections are common".
Paul Dillon, founder of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia, said sellers of the drugs were using methods such as Facebook to promote them and it was difficult to gauge the health effects because the substances kept changing to avoid the law.
"Customs and law enforcement really just can't keep up with it because they have no idea what's going on," he said in a phone interview, adding it was "luck of the draw" as to whether packages were intercepted by Customs.
Alex Wodak, director of the alcohol and drug service at St Vincent's Hospital, said in a phone interview that some of the substances ordered online would be safe while others were very dangerous, but it was impossible to know for sure as there has been little scientific testing.
"For me this is just another illustration of the futility of drug prohibition ... and if criminalising drugs hasn't worked, what you need to do is treat drugs as a health and social phenomenon," he said.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the so-called "legal highs" had been blamed for the deaths of two young people in Britain and Sweden and British authorities said they may have contributed to as many as 30 deaths.
The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction identified 24 new "psychoactive substances" last year, almost double the number reported in 2008.
Customs does not have the legal authority to shut down online sites selling the drugs but said it had forced some to include warnings of Australian import restrictions.
"Many products advertised as legal highs contain only legal ingredients such as caffeine, while others have been identified as having controlled ingredients such as ephedrine and are not legal to import without permission," Customs said in a statement.
"However it is nearly impossible to produce lists of those products that are legal and those that are controlled as the ingredients often vary between samples of the same product, or are changed over time."
In a submission to the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety, Customs said it had come into contact with a number of minors who had used the internet to attempt to import the prohibited items.
It cited the International Narcotics Control Board saying "illicit sales of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances through websites has risen, making the internet a major source of drugs for drug abusers".
July 21, 2010