Friday, November 1, 2013 2:48 EDT
Since 2008, the emergence of legal highs has wrong-footed policymakers, parents and police. These drugs imitate the effects of cocaine, amphetamines, MDMA and cannabis. They are popular, legal to take and supply, and their use is growing. Barely a week goes by without a press or TV report of a death, or major psychological consequences, as a result of using them. These reports often claim that it is a trivial task to take a banned drug and, with a little molecular trickery, get a Chinese lab to produce a new, legal version.
Most stories about legal and illegal drugs in the mass media are at best hysterical and inaccurate, and at worst simply untrue, so I decided to put this particular claim to the test.
The market in legal highs is growing. In 2009, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction’s early warning system discovered 24 new drugs. In 2010, it found another 41; in 2011, another 49; and in 2012, there were 73 more. By October 2013, a further 56 new compounds had already been identified: a total of 243 new drugs in just four years.
Or rather, make that 244, because as part of a two-month investigation for the online science and technology publisher Matter, I just devised a new, legal drug, had it synthesised in China, and delivered to a PO Box in central London. It is a close chemical cousin of a substance that was well-loved by some of the world’s most famous musicians, and, it’s rumoured, by John F Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Truman Capote – but was banned decades ago.
There’s a bag of it sat in its courier packaging on my desk as I write. There’s also a sample at Cardiff University, where Andrew Westwell, a brilliant chemist at the WEDINOS project, a Welsh government-funded initiative that tracks and identifies new drugs. He has analysed it and proved its authenticity and guessed at its likely effects if taken: a stimulant.
All it took me was a few dozen phone calls to Shanghai, a gmail account, a bank transfer, a PO Box set up in a false name, a few emails to contacts on web forums that gave me the synthesis and the modification and the name of a friendly laboratory, and a bit of reading. Job done....
The real issue is this: we are confusing cause and effect. The reason so many new drugs are appearing is precisely because we keep banning them. That approach worked in the 1960s and 1970s, and even perhaps until the 1980s. But in the internet era, it is impossible to control this market. More laws equals more drugs. If I, a journalist who until recently knew nothing of chemistry, can commission a new drug in a matter of weeks, so can many more people. And they will.
Policymakers’ prime concern should not be which drugs are legal or illegal, but which are the most harmful. Their next problem is how to regulate the market in psychoactive chemicals. That will be more complicated than anyone – even those who advocate radical new approaches, including decriminalisation – dare consider.
• You can read Uncontrolled Substances, Mike Power’s investigation into the past, present and future of the designer drugs scene, for $0.99 (60 pence) on the science and technology site MATTER
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
FULL ARTICLE AT RawStory