It is not just law-abiding British society that is being polarised by the faltering economy. A huge gap is also opening up in the country's illicit drugs market, as cash-strapped users switch to generic stimulants while wealthier buyers in search of a high opt for "premium" products.
A paper to be published in the online edition of Drugs and Alcohol Today has found that young adults are turning to unidentified white powders following the ban on mephedrone, the former "legal high", and the decline in the purity of popular street drugs such as cocaine.
The paper is based on research conducted earlier this year by a team from Lancaster University who conducted a random survey of more than 200 young adults across four Lancashire towns and cities. Those surveyed were questioned about their drug use to see how it had changed in the seven months since the April 2010 ban on mephedrone.
An increasing number of young adults were found to be buying a drug they refer to as "bubble", once a street name for mephedrone but now a term for any white powder. Users are uncertain about what they are taking and any potential health risks.
"We found that one in 10 of the young adults questioned had taken mephedrone within the past year and one in 20 within the past month," said Dr Fiona Measham, who led the study. "In the case of the next generation of 'legal highs', no clear substitute for mephedrone has emerged. Instead, there was uncertainty, confusion and a degree of disinterest. In this vacuum, bubble has emerged and evolved as a generic term used in the north of England to refer to any unknown white powders which are synthetic stimulants."
The paper notes that the emergence of unidentified white powders and pills comes at a time when the purity of established street drugs – including cocaine, ecstasy pills, heroin and amphetamines – "remains low in many areas of the UK". The team found that this resulted in some respondents reporting that they buy and mix bubble with cocaine for added stimulant effects. The paper noted: "As one experienced drug user told us: 'There's no drugs in drugs these days'."
At the same time, the team discovered an emerging trend in the previously moribund ecstasy market. In the early 90s, ecstasy became the drug of choice with many clubbers. With each tablet containing between 80mg and 120mg of MDMA, the drug, often manufactured in the Netherlands using products shipped from China, was considered a potent new stimulant. But the MDMA content diminished over the years, causing ecstasy to decline in popularity. Today a tablet contains as little as 20mg of MDMA.
However, the team noted that a far more potent version of ecstasy was making a comeback, with tablets – believed to be made in China – now on sale containing up to 80mg of MDMA.
The team noted that there has been an "emergence of a two-tier market for "pill"', with generic pills (expected to have some minor stimulant effect but not necessarily containing an active dose of MDMA) being sold for around £3 each; "ecstasy pills" (assumed to contain an active dose of MDMA) being sold for about £10 each; and in the summer of 2011 the emergence of exceptionally high-strength Ecstasy pills in some parts of the UK, containing a much higher dose of MDMA than seen in recent years."
The findings of the study, funded by Lancashire Drug and Alcohol Action Team, also calls into question reports that mephedrone acted as a "gateway drug" for young adults who had never before consumed illicit drugs.
It found the former "legal high" has been added to the "polydrug repertoires" of already experienced drug users. As a result, drug users in the north-west of England are taking mephedrone and "bubble" as well as, rather than instead of, popular illegal drugs such ecstasy pills, cocaine and amphetamines.
Dr Karenza Moore, who helped conduct the study, said its findings had important implications for those tackling the UK's drugs problem. "Street mephedrone, 'bubble' and generic pills and powders signals the reappearance of drugs with predominately stimulant effects that carry little of the 'celebrity culture' kudos of powder cocaine or premium quality MDMA," Moore said. "We could be witnessing the renaissance of cheap and cheerful stimulants appropriate to our age of austerity".
Young drug users turn to 'bubble' for a cheap high