Making legal highs illegal — does it mean making them unpredictable?

in life •  2 months ago

Only two years ago, things were more or less in a groove In the UK. The so called “head shops” were in business and selling what their customers knew they wanted — psychoactive substances that emulated the effects of the prohibited ones and could be bought without getting into trouble with the law. These substances are known as legal highs and came under various, exciting names in attractive packaging. The packaging contained all kinds of forms and shapes — pills, powder, liquids, patches, inhalable or injectable stuff. Some very common names of these new drugs are Spice, Clockwork Orange, Party Pills, Snow Blow, Black Mamba, Kratom, and many more.

Legal NPS — or New Psychoactive Substances — were not exactly safe. Their effects, of course, depended also on the person using them, on physical condition, diseases, chronic conditions. But on the whole, they had the negative effects during and after the high that a narcotic will have. But along with these negative effects, there were additional risks.


The main risk when using a new psychoactive substance, legal or not, is the very fact that it is new. NPS came into existence as a recognized group no earlier than the turn of the century. By 2010, there were about 30 identified NPS in the world. By 2014 the number had grown to more than 400; now the estimated number of existing NPS is expected to be around 700. Using scientific expertise and ingenuity, these substances multiply with frightening speed. So the market is flooded with chemical substances that are virtually untested. Also, there have been cases when two batches of the same drug were inspected and compared. These batches showed significant and dangerous variations in the concentration of the active element. Which means that you may not get what you thought you were getting. You may inhale or ingest more than you expected; you may experience unwanted and totally unknown side effects. The drug you bought today may not be the same as yesterday or tomorrow and you can never know for sure where the attractive package comes from and what exactly is inside.

Still, one could not deny that there were established brands and predictable effects. Which is not quite the case since May 2016. Then, a revolutionary act came into power in the United Kingdom. This is the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. This act makes illegal the supply, production and offer to supply of any substances that interfere with the functioning of the human brain and affect emotional states. The maximum punishment is seven years. Possession of such substances is not punishable, unless it is with the intent to supply. Certain substances have been excluded — alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, already controlled drugs; and certain professionals — mainly medical staff and researchers — have been exempted. The police have been given rights to take action — make searches in case of suspicion and destroy detected NPS under certain conditions. And the UK is not the only country resorting to this.

Different states bring under control different NPS drugs. However, the prohibition legislation is not unified and one thing may be perfectly within the law in one country while it is banned for production and sale in another. Which means that in the current situation the research, development, production and supply of these substances cannot be effectively controlled. Moreover, the main producers are mostly in the Far East — China stands out — a region which is far beyond the limits of European legislation and control authorities.

So, it appears that the effect of the blanket ban is predictable — the trade went underground. On the face of it, the head shops are closed, the flashy and enticing packets are gone. Below the surface, however, tragic deaths and traumas due to NPS are reported to have actually risen. The use of NPS, after all, is still legal, and regular users still use them. Suppliers are inventive and the high street head shops have been replaced by online “head shops”, by websites, social media profiles, delivery services, or the “dark web”- websites that cannot be reached only through encrypted search engines. The names and packages have also changed. What was Spice, Frenzy, China White, Legal E and so on before, is now called research chemicals, bath salts, incense, plant food, pond cleaner, car freshener. Clever ideas are applied to avoid searching. NPS are known to have been smuggled in little silica desiccant packs or in shampoo samples. This tactic made use of a law that small packages may be opened and searched only after permission given by the recipient. To circumvent laws, the NPS are often marked as “not for human consumption”.


Inventiveness in the packaging is accompanied by the more dangerous shrewdness on a scientific level. The formula of a freshly banned drug is very often changed promptly to get around the ban. Authorities are slow to detect and take measures against the new product. It flows out onto the market, untested, unknown even for its creators. Each further restriction leads to the same process over again. As a result, the originally known legal drugs have changed. They have moved further and further away from their original formulae, they are becoming more and more untraceable, and the intention to control these new psychoactive substances has actually made them virtually uncontrollable. British officials have expressed opinions that

“these drugs are not controlled now, they are totally uncontrolled and control has been left into the hands of nasty people”,


“a hydra effect has been created — you cut off its head and nine more spring up.”

So, for your own health, it is not advisable to buy, use, or even try these substances. But if you must, remember that you are trusting extremely clever people who do not particularly care about your health, physical or mental. They are doing business and that business involves a high risk and millions of profits. All you dealers will care about is giving you what you want — the immediate satisfaction that you are paying for — and getting hold of your money. Along with the drug, they are selling you a trip into the unknown — for you can never be sure what the effect will be in a couple of years, and the dealer himself doesn’t know, and very probably even the producer.

If you are buying and using the stuff, do make sure the supplier is reliable and, most of all, competent. A newbie can even poison you, selling you something that is too strong, for example. On the other hand, there are dealers who know what they are giving you, who include detailed information and who offer reasonable prices. One of these is Each substance listed in its shop is very well described along with the expected effects, and the site offers a free sample of all their best products in discreet packaging. Operation is worldwide, with a period of 21 days allowed for distant shipping. The free sample does not require registration, only names, address and e-mail, but to order regularly, you need an account. Payment is by bitcoin and bank transfer. The site specifically warns buyers to make themselves familiar with the laws of their country and the risks such orders may pose. An example — 1g of NEP (n-ethyl-pentedrone) is offered for 5.00€. A chemical description of the substance is included, along with a warning that long-term effects of human use and optimal dosages are unknown. Airmail is also 5.00€. Shipment is made from Europe. From this point on, you need to register and add the product to your cart.

Let us look at these substances scientifically

Since the dawn of its history humanity has tried to find ways to affect its perception, brain functioning and emotional states. Alcohol, opium, nicotine and caffeine are the oldest ways to do that, and although they are legal and established, they are extremely addictive and by no means safe. Apart from those, psychoactive substances that may be abused, usually by young people, can be classified into the following categories:

Stimulants (uppers)

These substances make you feel energized and enhance you performance in sports, for example. They boost alertness, blood pressure and glucose levels; they suppress your appetite and open up breathing passages. Stimulants are prescribed for certain conditions, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or asthma. Examples of stimulants are caffeine, cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, or synthetic cannabinoids such as Spice/ K2.

Depressants (downers)

They have the opposite effect. They sedate you, allow you to relax and forget stress. Doctors may prescribe those for treating insomnia or OCD. Rophynol, the “date rape drug”, falls in this group. Known also as “roofies”, it was often mixed with the drink of the unsuspecting victim to make her sleep or simply black out, and then she is taken advantage of. All benzodiazepines and barbiturates are downers. These include Valium (Diazepam), Xanax, Lexotan (Bromazepam), Seconal and others. Alcohol and tobacco can also be included in this group, because they eventually cause slowing down of mental functions, despite the initial stimulation.


LSD is the most famous hallucinogen, also salvia, peyote and “mushrooms”. These substances interfere with the communication with the brain and cause perception and experiences that were not there. Their major subgroup is also called psychedelics, meaning that they bring out into the open the things that were in your brain anyway, but hidden. Shamans in the past were aware of these effects and made use of them. Hallucinogens are very addictive and have dangerous long-term, sometimes life-time consequences, such as distorted cognition, paranoia, flashbacks, psychosis.

Dissociatives may be treated as part of this group, or as a separate category. Their most typical effect is the sensation that you are far away from your physical person, watching yourself from aside and not experiencing emotions or pain as acutely. Sometimes these substances can cause suicidal moods or dangerous behavior.

Deliriants, as their name shows, cause a state of delirium, and can also be treated as a part of the hallucinogens group or separately.


These substances are among the oldest psychoactive agents. They are derived from the poppy plant and were known to have been in use as early as about 5000 years BC. For medical purposes, they are mainly prescribed as anesthetics and pain killers. This category includes the well-known morphine, heroin, opium, codeine, hydrocodone, OxyContin, Vicodin. These drugs are extremely addictive. Sometimes an addiction may result even after three days of use. The withdrawal symptom can also be hard to near. For example, hydrocodone withdrawal can cause you to suffer influence syndromes for weeks on end.

Morphine has an interesting story in its past. From 1849 till the 1930s it was sold in the United States as Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. It was intended for infants who were nervous and sleepless while teething. It took time for scientists to realize that what was actually given to babies was a dangerous and addictive substance.

By the way, the same happened with cocaine, a stimulant. It was sold until the 1920s as toothache drops, and given to young children, too. Coca-Cola had it among its ingredients and was extremely successful, and Freud praised cocaine as a great reliever of depression and cure for impotence.

Heroin was produced and sold as cough suppressant by Bayer around the end of 18th — dawn of 20th century. Those were times when tuberculosis, pneumonias and even simple colds were raging. Addiction was detected soon and the drug was banned in 1924 in the USA.

OxyContin/ Percocet are brands names for oxycodone. The OxyContin drug is prescribed medically for pain relief, but is widely abused in the US. There are serious concerns that patients developed an addiction to opioids after being medically prescribed OxyContin at least once in their lives. Actor Heath Ledger died after an OxyContin overdose, at the age of 28. The overdose is said to have been accidental, occurring after mixing the drug with other similar prescribed medication.


Fentanyl is another opioid, but it is so powerful that it is outright dangerous — 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. A single gram of fentanyl can make tens of thousands of doses. There have been attempts to counterfeit OxyContin by replacing oxycodone with fentanyl, which increases the risk of accidental overdosing. The effects of a fentanyl overdose can also be confused with those of a heroin overdose. Medically, fentanyl is widely used as an anesthetic or pain reliever, but the ease with which it can be ordered, and then broken into doses and resold, makes it a danger as well. Fentanyl can be swallowed, but it can also be acquired as a nasal spray or skin patches.


These substances are basically fumes exuded by household items such as glue, paint, paint thinner, gasoline, markers. After prolonged use, they can cause loss of smell, nosebleeds, brain damage, euphoria, weakness, loss of consciousness.


Cannabis is also called marijuana, ganja leaves, hemp. Its main psychoactive chemical is THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol. Some plants have been cured to contain more THC — the so-called cannabinoids. Other plants, intended for non-industrial use, contain less THC. Hemp is derived from the strong fibres of the stem — an age-long practice. Compounds such as hashish and hash oil are also derived from cannabis.

Marijuana can be first a depressant, causing relaxation and slight euphoria. Then the effect changes into introspection, philosophical thinking, but also potential hallucinations and delusions. Finally, users may suffer increased heart rate and hunger.

The effect wears off after 3 hours, usually. Withdrawal symptoms are on the whole mild. Marijuana is regulated as highly addictive, although many researchers claim that it is actually much less addictive than alcohol or nicotine. Recently, steps toward legalizing cannabis have been made. Marijuana is legal in Uruguay, and as of October 17, 2018 it will be legal in Canada, too.

Still, users must be aware that marijuana is linked to schizophrenia in young people, also sedation, memory and cognition problems, reduced sperm count.

What are the ways to counteract the spread of NPS?

Prohibition, of course, is the one governments resort to, and as we already mentioned, such acts serve to drive inventiveness and distribution strategies further into greyer and greyer areas. Legislation and border control cannot cover the whole world. Postal services and couriers cannot be closely monitored worldwide. If a NPS source country — such as China — decides to put a stop on this and regulate certain substances, there are many other places worldwide that will willingly serve as substitutes. Mexico, for example, has cartels powerful and rich enough to afford scientists and production facilities. Monitoring at borders is not so effective — rather than parcels, illicit drugs can be successfully smuggled on people, due to the tiny size of the packaging and the potency of the concentrated chemicals. Illegal online traders and social media accounts disappear at the slightest suspicion, or simply as precaution. Original formulae get endlessly tinkered with and altered, waiting for the next prohibitive legislation. New concoctions are not even illegal until they are proven to be psychoactive. Banned substances have advantages like being undetectable in urine tests. Labels disguise the illegal product as a harmless household item, not intended for human consumption. So are there alternative approaches to this growing problem?

There have been opinions that continuing bans make NPS even harder to scrutinize and control, as they become unavailable and specialists suddenly find out that something which was legal yesterday is already outside the law. New Zealand considered an alternative in 2013. Authorities were thinking of giving NPS producers the chance to apply for a permit. Then they would have a year of testing to prove that their product is not dangerous, and if successful, they would be allowed to offer the drug on the market to persons over the age of 18. The idea was that, after all, some of these new NPS might be benign, or actually better than the original substances they were derived from. But the project stalled because of a different reason — protest against harming animals to do the initial one-year testing. There were no other reliable ways to test the substances, so the project stalled.

Another path worth exploring could be the so called psychonauts, the “sailors of the soul”. In our context, this term means persons, usually young, educated and well-off, who are willing to try out those new chemicals and the effects they have on their emotions, experiences and inner worlds. Somewhat milder legislation could give these people the chance to be of help in this field where even creators do not know for sure what they have created.

Meanwhile, the situation under the blanket ban in the UK is not much different. Users continue to use, only they buy not from licensed places, but from criminals. The most vulnerable groups, the homeless addicts, say they simply cannot live without their relieving dose. The drug they take keeps them warm, relaxed and helps them forget their dreary lives and surroundings day by day. Young people were recently photographed in zombie-like states, helplessly lurching in the streets of Manchester. Rough sleepers in Camden , rioting prison inmates — these are linked with NPS illegal use, especially Spice. Some high official express the view that the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 may have been a rash, hasty reaction.

If you happen to encounter a person who might be under the influence of such a substance, be careful when approaching them, even if you are trying to help. You never know how the person will see you — in his/her eyes you might well be an invading alien. Use law and order authorities and, emergency telephones and helplines. If you are a user yourself, first of all try to stop, and if that is impossible, be aware that you can get help — in real life as well as online. Many informative sites also have 24/7 live chat, where users or their families can share their suspicions or problems. You can see ex. The easiest solution, of course, is never to begin.

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