The danger behind legal highs

Everyone knows that banned drugs are dangerous, but what about the legal ones? explores substances which remain within the letter of the law­

A group of students are sitting in a lounge, discussing their upcoming social schedule. “Nick’s been working overtime specifically to buy mephedrone,” says Tom, a 20 year-old English Literature student. “He says as soon as exams are over, he’s going to stick his nose in the bag and just go for it.” Everyone in the room laughs, and nobody seems unfamiliar with a substance that was unavailable just over a year ago.

Mephedrone is mostly compared to cocaine or MDMA, but is never quite described as being exactly the same as either of them. The effects are shorter in duration than both and not incompatible with drinking alcohol. Whilst it is available in liquid form, most users report snorting it in a powdered form, perhaps consuming orally occasionally.

“I first used mephedrone in October. A friend from London had bought some and was raving about it, so I decided to take the plunge,” says Rob, a 20 year old Politics and History student who shows me a small bag of it. “Since then I’ve done it probably five or six times, and every time it’s been well worth it. I know what happens when you overindulge in anything, and mephedrone is very moreish. Once you start you just want to use it all, so I don’t take more than a gram out with me. Plus if I use too much, my wallet stinks. It has a distinctive smell. I’m not sure what of, but it smells.”

Legal highs are in no way a new thing to Britain. Some drugs, such as salvia, have been available legally for years, whereas magic mushrooms for a long time have existed in legal limbo. Their mere possession was for a long time not a crime, providing that the person with them had not prepared them for consumption. Previously available in hundreds of shops across Britain, they were made illegal to possess in 2005, and their status as a Class A drug was instead enforced.

Mephedrone today stands in a comparable situation. While dramatically easier to consume and boasting a different array of experiences than mushrooms, the substance remains in a legally grey zone that does not expressly forbid sale in certain circumstances. Currently, the drug may not be sold for human consumption. Those looking to exploit the high demand choose to market it as plant food or for “research purposes”, whatever those may be.

Due to ease of access, it has exploded in popularity, and is now widely available in most student party environments across the country. “I don’t even really like drinking, the feeling of being drunk or the cheap club drinks themselves. So mephedrone was definitely a big thing for me. It means I can go out with my friends and not feel like I’m having a totally horrendous time,” says Tom. “I wouldn’t use it every day or anything like that though, just once or twice a week, if I am going to go out and depending where I’m going.”

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He explains just how simple it is to acquire. “It’s so easy to get hold of, there’s so many websites. I send an order to them via the banks and they usually have it to me the next day as long as I get it in by a decent time in the day. If not then, it’ll come the day after.”

The surging popularity of the drug has created a certain amount of its own fallout however, as competitors that are already illegal, such as ecstasy, are perceived to have fallen dramatically in quality. One person in the room, Stuart, offers the advice “don’t buy any pills right now.” With a touch of confidence and experience in his voice, he informs me that between effective enforcement on MDMA and cocaine production in the UK, and the rise in popularity of an easily available alternative, most MDMA and cocaine is now “really, really low quality”. As a means of cheapening both, they are combined with other non-narcotic substances, which at best leads to poor value for money and at worst endangers the user.

As well as creating waves in the market for illegal drugs, the rise of mephedrone is quickly becoming a big ongoing story in the news. Legal highs have already been a tabloid favourite following the death of student Hester Stewart at the hands of an overdose on GBL in April 2009. Mephedrone is no stranger to creating exciting headlines either. The Daily Mail angrily reported on the death of a 14 year-old girl who had died after taking it with other drugs, despite coroners refusing to name a cause of death, while The Sun reported on a gruesome tale of a user ripping his own scrotum off.

When I spoke to Nick and Tom a few days later, they both seemed a bit less jovial about their use. “I’ll probably stop taking mephedrone for normal nights out. Last time scared me,” says Nick. Tom chips in, and informs me that “he took everything he had out with him in one line… when I saw him, he couldn’t speak and all his limbs were shaking. We gave him a joint, and I said “you need to calm down” and he takes one drag and then just fell over on us.”

It is rare that a substance which reaches any level of popularity is not eventually banned. The end of 2009 saw a number of substances, such as GBL,­ become Class C drugs.

Their possession now carries the potential of a two year prison sentence. Mephedrone and the family of chemicals it falls under, cathinones, will almost certainly come up when the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs convenes later this year to update the laws after a Home Office statement labelled it a “priority”.

While the banning of mephedrone does appear inevitable, it will not definitely stem the usage of legal highs. Some of the more famous illicit substances, such as MDMA and cannabis, already attract many legal imitators to mixed reviews.

“I took some fake E,” says Mary, a 22-year old student from Shropshire. “It wasn’t that bad, we did it at a really rainy festival and it was quite good at the time… it just didn’t feel very clean, the come down was definitely far worse than any good quality real ecstasy. The fake weed was awful though, it was like smoking oregano.”

Tom, on the other hand, has not tried imitation drugs, but legal highs that offer something a bit different. “I’ve done salvia. I really liked it. It gave me this really short time when I was just really out of my head, but it was a good feeling. I’d do it again.” Salvia is completely legal in the United Kingdom, and the few attempts to ban or legislate against have so far failed to gather any pace.­

What is apparent though is that users of the drug are enjoying it while it is still around. “Mephedrone is going to get banned eventually, probably this year. But I may as well enjoy it while I can. After that something else will come along, it always does. It’ll get made illegal too eventually if it’s any good, sure, but… the point is, people are always going to get high off something.”

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