From herbal joints to pills for ex-ravers, 'legal highs' are big business. Classed as medicines, they are regulated in theory, but how law-abiding are they, asks Oliver Marre
About six months ago, at a Brighton seafront nightclub, a 28-year-old man was found by the bouncers to have three small white pills, each stamped with the image of a dove, in his pocket. Naturally, they turned him away, refusing to listen to his arguments, and warning him that he was lucky they had not called the police.
You may think you've heard this story a hundred times before, but this time something was different: the clubber had nothing to fear from the police. Indeed, had it not been for the nightclub bouncers' right to refuse entry to anyone they wish, he would have enjoyed an entirely legal night out - and one which would have involved drinking very little alcohol. Welcome to the world of Doves, Part-E Pills and Salvia spliffs; of head shops and websites rejoicing in titles such as highlylegal and everyonedoesit. This is a place where the dealers claim you can get as high as you like without breaking the law, on products bought by anyone aged 18 (and younger, if they're prepared to fib about it on a website) to 70. This is the world of legal drugs.
Easily purchased 'legal highs', as they're known to regular users, can be split into two groups: herbal and laboratory-produced. The first have been around for as long as man has been chewing leaves and smoking pipes. These days, from most suppliers, they come either sealed in shiny packets with swirly writing on them designed to appeal to the more hippy minded, or ready-rolled as joints, for those of us too uncoordinated or time-poor to roll our own. I bought mine, branded Spice, from a shop in central London, and ordered some more from a website whose warehouse is to be found staffed by a father-and-son team in Scotland. The second group have, according to the proprietor of one online shop who prefers not to be named, largely grown out of rave culture, and are produced by scientists in laboratories, predominantly in New Zealand, from where they are shipped all over the world.
'Ravers have grown up and had kids and don't want to break the law any more, which accounts for quite a lot of our market - or at least our initial market,' he says. 'But when you're faced with the option of taking something that has all the effects of an illegal drug but doesn't put you on the wrong side of the line, who wouldn't choose to go for that instead?' The answer to this question is not entirely straightforward, of course.
At least a little of the attraction of illegal drugs lies in their illegality, the risk-taking, the ritual. Brandon, a 30-year-old regular ecstasy user, who has also used the legal alternatives, puts it this way: 'The fun isn't breaking the law, it's getting high. But there's something a bit lame about registering online, paying postage and packing, and deciding three working days in advance what you're going to take. That's how I get my bananas but it's not how I want my drugs.'
Nevertheless, Britons are doing it in ever increasing numbers. Statistics are impossible to discover because there are no criminal records involved and no regulatory body for the market. Anecdotal evidence from suppliers, however, suggests more users by the month. Robert Gorton, who runs highlylegal.co.uk, tells me business is 'booming'. Five years ago, the legal drug market was very different from today. 'When I first started, they [legal drugs] had a bad reputation,' he says. 'People thought that they didn't do much, compared to illegal stuff, and they were right a lot of the time; a lot of the herbal mixes didn't used to work. But recently, there have been some very good companies set up, who supply things with good packaging and fully sealed, which makes people feel safe. People like to know they haven't been touched since they were manufactured, which is never the case with illegal stuff.'
Gorton's website will only sell to the over-18s, but there's no way to be sure that younger customers don't simply click on all the right buttons. All you need is a credit card and a letterbox big enough to take a small jiffy bag. I ordered a pack of Salvia joints (a hallucinogenic herb, whose full name is salvia divinorum - the sage of the seers - which originates in Mexico and whose main working ingredient is the chemical salvinorin A); a pack of Soma spliffs (you get three in a pack and they're rolled from a combination of Salvia and other herbs, providing a mellow high); and a pack of two Doves (a weak ecstasy alternative). The grand total was £25.47, plus £1.50 postage and packing. They arrived at the office 24 hours after ordering. Gorton says his younger customers simply 'don't see much difference between having a drink and taking a tablet': both are legal, both are easy to come by.
'All chemicals affect different people in different ways,' says Gorton. 'It's down to the individual's make-up. Personally, I go for the mild side; I don't touch certain products because I don't like the effects they have on me. When I was younger and used to smoke cannabis, I found myself having panic attacks from that, so I stopped. On the other hand, I love getting home and having the choice between opening a bottle of wine and lighting a Soma spliff. The Soma is cheaper and you need a lot less of it to bring on the same relaxing effect as a bottle of wine. And there's no hangover.'
Other users make the comparison with cannabis, rather than alcohol. 'They're weaker than anything like skunk but they have the advantage over weed in that at least you know that a Soma spliff will have the same content every time. If you buy illegal cannabis, nobody's promising you that one day's supply will be the same as the day before,' says Jonathan, who is in his forties and has smoked marijuana since university, and Soma products from time to time. 'But I need to smoke three spliffs in an evening to feel much effect from the Soma.'
Jonathan says he and his friends tend to smoke after dinner parties, but that he wouldn't be any happier with his children buying legal drugs than buying alcohol until they turn 18: 'After that, I guess it's up to them.'
Gorton and the owners of rival websites all agree that while the style of their online shops leans towards the recreational side of legal drug use, they also have customers who buy their products for medical reasons. On the day I spoke to Gorton, a woman had bought a supply of diamond-strength (the ratings are unscientific, but this is the strongest on the market) Spice for her sister, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. 'It was good for her because it meant she wasn't forced on to the street looking for her local illegal drug dealer to sell her cannabis,' says Gorton.
Diamond Spice, on sale at SoHi Soho, in central London, at £25 for a 3g packet, is compared to regular cannabis by a first-time user: 'I retained a good body high for far longer than on weed (around four hours). The spacey-trippy part of the high is great, just like marijuana, and munchies [feeling hungry under the influence] occurred as well: perfect. The only downfall is the taste: at first disgusting, but easily dispersed.' When I visited the shop, the saleswoman pointed me towards the less strong 'silver' variety, because I was a first-time user.
Exactly how Spice works is not clear, because what is contained in any of these products is difficult to ascertain. The herbal highs, in particular, are tricky to test. John Ramsay is a scientist who runs a large visual drug information database called TICTAC, which stands for The Identification CD for Tablets and Capsules, from St George's Hospital in the University of London. It is used by the police and NHS to identify what is contained in any pills people are found with and may have taken. He explains that botanists work from looking at leaves and habitats, 'so once it's all ground up, it's very hard to tell what is inside any of the packets'. Some of them, however, do have ingredients printed on them, with exotic sounding names such as 'blue lotus' and 'dwarf skullcap'.
It is a different matter with the laboratory-produced pills. Ramsay demonstrates that if you type the description of a Dove pill into his TICTAC database - 9.1mm across, 4.8mm thick, 430mg weight, white in colour and printed with the image of a flying bird - up pops a picture of the pills matching exactly what I have in front of me, and information on the active ingredient. In this case, it is butylone (more properly known as BK-MBDB), which the database records as 'an ecstasy-like compound'. According to a regular user, it has an ecstasy-like effect, too, though more moderate than most of the illegal pills sold on the street. It's more expensive, too: £12.50 for two, as opposed to £3 per pill.
The packet that I received in the post doesn't tell as detailed a story. Rather than specifying butylone, it says the Doves contain ketones, the wider family from which butylone comes. Although London Underground, which makes Doves, is not willing to talk to me, a rival producer of tablets explains that often detailed ingredients aren't printed so that the secrets of the product's success can be preserved.
This doesn't cut much ice with officials. Danny Lee-Frost, head of operations at the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority's enforcement team, says if people are going to consume anything, they've a right to know what is in it. And it raises the question of just how legal these 'legal highs' really are.
Many of the packets on sale are stamped with almost comical product descriptions, put there deliberately to be ignored: Doves call themselves plant feeder, while a packet of Part-E Pills, decorated with multi-coloured images of people dancing and sold to me across the counter of a high-street shop as 'like ecstasy', says in large letters: 'Not for human consumption'. Bottles of amyl nitrate, commonly known as poppers and widely available on the high street to be inhaled, are described on the label as 'air freshener', although you're liable to find yourself with a bad headache and a swimming mind if you leave the top off in an enclosed space for long.
The idea behind this misinformation is two-fold. First, it is indeed to avoid disclosing to rival producers exactly what the pills contain. But, more importantly, it is an attempt to avoid regulation by the MHRA, because while these products are perfectly legal to own and to consume wherever and whenever the mood takes you, they are legally classified as medicines and therefore their sale and supply should be regulated.
Lee-Frost insists that whatever it may say on the packet, it does not help a product get around the law. 'If it's clearly to be eaten, it's either a medicine or a food. And if it has an ingredient that will have an active physiological effect, it is a medicine,' he says. And this is the irony of legal drugs: the salesmen, the importers, the manufacturers, all those people celebrating the existence of a legal way to get high, are all in danger of prosecution. Lee-Frost says they can face two years in prison for supplying medicines without the correct licences, although he concedes that the MHRA's time and resources limit the number of prosecutions it pursues. 'The objective is compliance. We try to target the big guys, the importers and wholesalers,' says Lee-Frost. 'But often, when it comes to retailers, just explaining that they're breaking the law is enough and we can take the products off the shelves. We could also confiscate the proceeds of any illegal sales.' He says that at customs, shipments of several tons of unlicensed pills - though the contents are not illegal in themselves - are seized with regularity. 'There are two cases going through the courts at the moment,' he adds.
Do the suppliers know this? Several of the wholesalers I spoke to put the phone down when I posed this question, and it may explain the wi despread reluctance to speak on the record about any aspect of legal highs. Those who would discuss the issue say, on the contrary, they do not want to be quoted because anything that draws attention to them is more likely to catch the government's eye and precipitate a full-scale ban.
One widely used product is about to face exactly this type of new control. Under the direction of the European Union, a chemical used in the manufacture of ecstasy replacement pills, benzylpiperazine (BZP), is to be reclassified as a controlled substance, which will make it illegal to possess. The EU has put this forward on account of the fact that it has no known medical benefits and is suspected (although no serious scientific study exists) to be fairly unhealthy. At the moment it's widely used: in my Part-E Pills, for example, although not my Doves.
This is not the first time that the law has changed to make a legal high illegal: in recent years, the horse tranquilliser ketamine and gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) have both been classified as controlled substances as a direct result of their widespread use as recreational drugs. But Goreton isn't worried. He says he has never stocked products containing BZP anyway: 'The manufacturers are clever. They'll just add another molecule and make a new ingredient.' Interviewed from New Zealand, Matt Bowden, who runs Stargate , which is one of the world's leading producers of legal drugs, agrees: 'It's not about the product, it's about the culture. Once the shift has occurred towards regulation of safer drugs [such as BZP] we will probably see a gradual repositioning of pharmaceutical technology into new consumer markets. The drugs won't lose.'
According to the TICTAC drugs database, the active ingredient is benzylpiperazine, which the EU wants to get member states to ban. For the time being, it's a legal alternative to ecstasy.
The active ingredient is butylone, another legal ecstasy alternative, though weaker than BZP and nobody's looking to ban it.
3. Enhanced salvia joint
Pre-rolled for the lazy or short of time, this contains the famous salvia divinorum herb, which has psychoactive properties. Here it's enhanced by other ingredients, though they don't specify which ones.
Ingredients in this herbal cannabis alternativeinclude blue lotus, dwarf skullcap, indian warrior and Siberian motherwort, though whether the manufacturers have in fact gone all the way to Siberia for their motherwort is an untested assertion.
5. Soma spliffs
The packet records fly agaric caps and extract, which is hallucinogenic but also poisonous if consumed in large doses and is therefore used as a garden insecticide.