Mind-altering drugs: does legal mean safe?
Lying back, exhaling: usually the last thing a person does before leaving this world. Only in this case it is the world that is leaving me.
A few minutes ago I smoked a pipe of Salvia divinorum, a powerful hallucinogenic herb that I bought openly and legally from a shop near my home. Of the £25 I handed over, more than £4 will find its way into government coffers in the form of sales tax. And salvia was just one of dozens of powerful but entirely legal psychoactive substances that I could have chosen.
All that was far from my mind as the salvia took me on a consciousness-expanding journey unlike any other I have ever experienced. My body felt disconnected from "me" and objects and people appeared cartoonish, surreal and marvellous. Then, as suddenly as it had began, it was over. The visions vanished and I was back in my bedroom. I spoke to my "sitter" - the friend who was watching over me, as recommended on the packaging - but my mouth was awkward and clumsy. When I attempted to stand my coordination was off. Within a couple of minutes, however, I was fine and clear-headed, though dripping with sweat. The whole experience had lasted less than 5 minutes.
My salvia trip was part of a journey into the world of "legal highs", a new generation of powerful mind-altering substances that are growing in popularity across the world (see Table). Accurate figures are hard to come by, as these substances are rarely monitored by drug-enforcement agencies. But the proliferation of online and high-street retailers suggest they are an increasingly lucrative business, and one company specialising in legal drugs recently reported an annual turnover of $16 million.
The reasons for their rising popularity are not hard to fathom. Not only are they legal and openly available in many countries, they work. Whether or not they are a good thing, however, is more difficult to decide. Supporters argue that legal highs are a bit of fun with a social conscience - a harm-reduction measure that allows people to experiment safely with psychoactive substances while separating drug use from criminality. Others say no one should be allowed to take such powerful drugs: the risks are too great. Some of the disagreement is down to the dearth of information about the short and long-term health effects of most of these substances, their potential for abuse and their addictiveness. But legal highs are also a battleground between those who see the use of mind-altering drugs as a human right and those who think it is plain wrong.
Faced with growing use and an information vacuum, governments are playing catch-up. Some, notably the US and Australia, are clamping down on each new substance as soon as they encounter it. Some are doing nothing. Others are commissioning research into the drugs and their effects before deciding what action to take.
And this is just the beginning. With hundreds of synthetic drugs on their way, not to mention traditional herbs that are being introduced to western consumers for the first time, some believe that cheap, easily available, legal highs could render the street drugs market redundant. So what do we know - and not know - about legal drugs?
Legal highs are nothing new. Paul Anand, manager of Shiva, the shop in Greenwich, London, where I bought my salvia, has been selling them for 15 years, starting with a stall at the Glastonbury festival. "Back then, I was selling guarana, damiana and wild lettuce," he says, "basically poor imitators of cannabis." There was a small market for the stuff, but among experienced drug users they were regarded as a joke, with few discernable effects.
That all changed with the arrival of new, reliable and effective substances, beginning in the UK at least with magic mushrooms. At the end of the 1990s, vendors started taking advantage of a legal loophole that permitted the sale of fresh mushrooms as long as they were not prepared in any way. Business boomed. In the year to April 2004 the number of shops selling magic mushrooms in England and Wales rose from a handful to over 400, according to the British Crime Survey. In the same period 260,000 people bought mushrooms - an increase of 40 per cent on the previous 12 months.
In July 2005, the government closed the loophole, outlawing the sale of fresh mushrooms containing the hallucinogens psilocybin and psilocin, but by then it was too late. The demand for legal highs had been established, and high street and internet vendors rushed to fill the void with an assortment of alternatives. These include another type of magic mushroom, the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), which does not contain psilocybin or psilocin but is packed with other hallucinogens including muscimol. Salvia is another. And then there is an astonishing assortment of psychoactive herbs, pills and potions designed to mimic the effect of pretty much every illegal drug going.
No dodgy dealers
Inside the shop, the cornucopia of offerings cannot be exaggerated. Vials and bottles crammed with herbal extracts, tinctures, seeds and powders jostle for attention with packets of "party pills". There are hallucinogens, relaxants, aphrodisiacs, trippy highs, "loved-up" pills and euphorics. All entirely legal, at least in the UK.
"There are hallucinogens, relaxants, aphrodisiacs, trippy highs, 'loved-up' pills and euphorics. All entirely legal"
So why the sudden explosion? Anand says that his customers are attracted by the safety and quality of his products. "People are confident in what they're buying - that it's not cut with rat poison. They enjoy coming into the shop. They're not forced to meet a dodgy git in a UV-lit disco to buy an aspirin."
Vendors also make a selling point of legality. With drug testing increasingly routine at workplaces, 30 and 40-somethings are switching to highs that don't put them on the wrong side of the law, Anand says. And with legality comes, if not official approval, then at least an imprimatur of safety.
The majority of Anand's customers are aged between 20 and 30, he says. Most have tried street drugs and are now looking for something safer, more reliable, legal and affordable. And they're part of a growing movement: one leading vendor of legal highs, Stargate of Auckland, New Zealand, recently reported an annual turnover of NZ$24 million (approximately US$16 million).
Among the most popular legal highs are "party pills" made from compounds called piperazines, which are chemically similar to Viagra but with an amphetamine-like action. Known by various brand names such as PEP and Bliss, their main active ingredient is BZP (benzylpiperazine) - the "Z" pronounced US-style to rhyme with the "B". Originally developed as a drug to treat parasites in livestock, piperazines have been sporadically used on the dance scene for many years but began to seriously take off about three years ago - though not in the US, where they have been strictly illegal since 2002. Anand started selling them in January 2006 and says that every month they grow more popular.
The BZP story started in the late 1990s, when the drug was "discovered" by New Zealand entrepreneur Matt Bowden. The former musician and recreational drug user became hooked on illegal amphetamines in the 1990s during an epidemic of methamphetamine - "crystal meth" - addiction that swept the country. He had already lost a family member to ecstasy when, in the mid-1990s, he witnessed a friend on meth commit a horrific suicide - disembowelling himself with a samurai sword - at a party.
Bowden became determined to kick the habit. His efforts to quit led him to experiment with legal alternatives and he sought out a professor of neuropharmacology to tutor him and work alongside him on the project.
"I said, let's find something which is like methamphetamine but non-addictive and has an extremely low risk of overdose or death," Bowden says. They searched through the scientific literature and came across a piperazine which occasionally cropped up as an ecstasy alternative called A2.
"We looked at a US study and found that one part of the molecule caused liver damage in rats, but the other part appeared to be perfectly safe. That part was BZP," he says.
In 2000, Bowden used the compound to break his addiction to methamphetamine and then began giving it out for free to friends. By 2002, companies had begun making and selling BZP. The move led Bowden to set up his own company, Stargate, to market safe, legal alternatives to street drugs.
Stargate now produces and sells a range of pills based on piperazine blends. BZP is often combined with another piperazine, TFMPP (trifluorophenylmethylpiperazine), which gives the pills a relaxing, euphoric effect that has been compared to ecstasy.
Both drugs activate the 5HT serotonin receptor in the brain - the same receptor targeted by amphetamines and MDMA - and cause the release of dopamine (Neuropsychopharmacology, vol 30, p 550). This is responsible for the "high" associated with the pills, though it can also lead to anxiety, overheating and dehydration. In one survey, only half of people who had used BZP said they would describe its effects as "good"; 16 per cent said it was "good early but bad later", 10 per cent "bad" and 14 per cent "neither good nor bad". My own experience of using BZP was mixed, with some enjoyable effects but also a bout of paranoia, insomnia and a bad hangover the next day.
Worldwide, Bowden sells a million pills a year and, all told, New Zealand's legal party pills industry is worth around NZ$50 million a year. As these figures suggest, a lot of New Zealanders take BZP. In June, researchers at Massey University in Auckland released the results of a survey of more than 2000 people, commissioned by the New Zealand government. "We expected that no more than 5 per cent of those questioned would have tried BZP, but we actually found that 20 per cent of people had tried the drug, and 1 in 7 of 15 to 45-year-olds had used BZP in the past year," says study leader Chris Wilkins.
Wilkins says that the highest usage was by those in their 20s, as he had expected, but he also discovered high levels of use by people in their 30s and 40s.
A separate survey of around 1000 people carried out in Hamilton, New Zealand's seventh-largest city, yielded similar figures. It found that 12 per cent of the city's total population, and 30 per cent of 14 to 25-year-olds, had taken BZP at some point (Emergency Medicine Australasia, vol 18, p 180).
The popularity of BZP, along with anecdotal reports of adverse reactions, withdrawal symptoms and psychotic episodes, has led some politicians and doctors to start campaigning for a ban. Bowden, however, argues that his products are "harmless fun" and actually reduce demand for street drugs and the damage they cause; the pills are even labelled as "drug-harm minimisation solutions". He and other vendors have an agreement to sell them only to adults and in outlets where alcohol is not available.
"If we accept that people have the right to experiment with their minds, just as they try paragliding or drag racing, then it is the responsibility of governments to ensure that they have access to well-designed drugs," Bowden says.
There is some evidence in support of Bowden's argument that BZP reduces the demand for street drugs. In the Hamilton survey, 44 per cent of the 15 to 45-year-olds who had tried BZP said they had stopped taking illegal drugs as a result. In 2005, the head of the New Plymouth Criminal Investigation Branch, Grant Coward, said that the use of ecstasy had dropped after BZP became available. It also appears that the relatively low price of BZP diverts people away from illegal drugs. An ecstasy pill in New Zealand costs up to NZ$80; the same amount will buy you up to 12 BZP tablets. "Most users said that they would rather take ecstasy than BZP because the effect is preferable and the hangover not as bad, but they're priced out of it," Wilkins says. What is not clear, however, is whether BZP acts as a gateway to illegal drugs among people who would otherwise never have taken them.
Wilkins also points out that the drug seems to have less abuse potential than amphetamines. "It gives you quite a bad hangover, so people tend to limit their usage of it," he says. Overall, however, Wilkins says it is too early to conclude that BZP reduces harm...
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