The recent story to break in the press about legal highs caught my eye but was not much of a surprise. Deaths due to so-called 'legal highs' have shot up by 80%. The figure sounds appalling but does not, in reality, tell us much, except that there are more reported deaths accounted for by the usage of synthetic drugs. Statistics lie, after all. Or rarely tell the full story. I was pleased to be able to step in when LBC 97.3FM asked me for a professional opinion this evening (the piece was subsequently deferred due to the recent developments in Syria).
Spice, meow meow, black mamba, mexxy, benzofury, bath salts*. They're all the rage. Have been for a while, and this tragic reality is an accident that's been waiting to happen. It was, I think, only a matter of time.
The main problem with these manufactured psychoactive substances so readily available to anyone with access to the internet is that they are largely untested. Law enforcement and safety testing lag behind, as the young market laps up the next stimulant or cannaboid to hit the massive market.
Asia is the source for the majority of these substances that are deliberately packaged in a way to appeal to their target audience. While the US accounts for the lion's share of the booming market, Britain remains particularly receptive - we're well known for our experimentation and over 700,000 Britons between the ages of 15-24 have tried something or other.
The numbers stack up. A quarter of European adults, that's 85 million people have used an illicit substance. There's little wonder that no fewer than 73 substances were 'launched' last year alone.
The problem is immediately apparent - there has been an explosion in the production resulting in a complex market boom that is way beyond the resources of the powers that (in theory) be who are left to pick up the pieces after the damage has been done.
So, what's the answer? Well, there isn't an easy solution. We live in a world that is developing faster than we know, and thrive on the thrill of the new. What's really scary is how these narcotics occupy a socially acceptable position, and lead people to think their experiments are low risk. When mixed with alcohol many of them have deadly effects. We need to wake up to legal highs.
* Some more about legal highs...
Annihilation, Black Mamba, Spice, Amsterdam Gold, Bombay Blue Extreme, X, Karma...
These mimic the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main active compound in cannabis, and are usually sold as herbal smoking mixtures.
Annihilation, for instance, is marketed as 'herbal incense' and sold in packets decorated with a picture of a mushroom cloud.
Anecdotal evidence of the effects of AM2201, the synthetic cannabinoid commonly found in Annihilation and Black Mamba, includes increasing heart rate and causing panic attacks and convulsions.
As with all legal highs, it is unfortunately not clear for users what brands are legal and which are not, and many brands vary enormously in the compounds they contain.
Miaow miaow, Bubble, White Magic, MC, M-Cat, Bounce, 4-MMC
The stimulant mephedrone is the leading new drug to gain traction in the British drugs market, despite being made illegal several years ago.
Often regarded as having an effect similar to ecstasy and cocaine, mephedrone can make users talkative and euphoric or sick and anxious.
Like similar more traditional drugs, it can risk overstimulating the heart and nervous system.
Mephedrone is now a class B drug but some similar brand names have not yet been banned.
Ivory Wave, Purple Wave, Vanilla Sky, D2PM
A powerful stimulant usually sold as 'bath salts', the amphetamine-like effects of 2-DPMP, 2-diphenylmethylpyrrolidine, or desoxypipradrol, have been found to cause 'prolonged agitation' lasting for up to five days in some cases.
Like many other 'new' and once-legal highs, there is little research into its long-term effects.
APB or Benzo Fury
APB compounds such as 5-APB and 6-APB are stimulants found in the drug Benzo Fury, which is marketed as a legal high. Testing of Benzo Fury purchased online has found some to contain 5-APB or 6-APB whilst others contain completely different active substances.
This is regarded as an ecstasy-type drug, based on MDA and with similar effects and risks.