Britain Steps Up Its War on Legal Highs

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London's Camden Market is popular with the indie crowd

Strolling through Camden Market, the modern-day mecca for London's indie scenesters, a suspicious mix of darting eyes and exotic smells gives you the impression that the sea of shops and stalls offer something slightly more sinister than your standard Big Ben replicas. Led down to the dingy basement of one of these shops, you're confronted with a stunning stash of drugs — cannabis clones like Amsterdam's Finest, party pills with names like Benzo Fury and more mushrooms than you can shake a sweaty glow stick at. The drugs are designed to mimic the effects of Schedule I and II substances like cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines — but every single one of them is legal.

According to the statistics in an October report by the British government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), as many as 4 in 10 youngsters have tried these legal highs, which — along with now banned mephedrone, a party drug similar to ecstasy and speed — are thought to have contributed to up to 98 deaths in the U.K. since 2009. Dealers working out of high-street "head shops" and through websites have taken advantage of a legal loophole allowing them to sell the drugs as long as they're marked "Not for human consumption." Web sales, in particular, are booming. Figures released on Nov. 15 by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction show the number of sites selling legal highs to buyers in the European Union doubled in the first six months of 2011 — spiking from 314 in January to 631 by July. Which could be why the British government has decided it's time to take action. Claiming that the U.K. is "leading the way in cracking down on legal highs," Home Office Minister Lord Henley announced on Nov. 15 a raft of new measures aimed at slowing the flow of designer drugs into the country. The powers enable the government to place a 12-month ban on any substance deemed potentially harmful while drug advisers investigate whether the ban should be permanent. And the government has pledged a tightening of U.K. border control, with an import ban on two common ingredients found in legal highs — diphenylprolinol and diphenylmethyl-pyrrolidine — making it possible for customs officers to seize and destroy shipments before they leave port.

The hope is that this tougher stance will end the current game of chemical cat and mouse, in which suppliers circumvent U.K. law by subtly changing the makeup of legal highs each time the government bans them. But hard-line backbenchers say the laws don't go far enough, while a number of high-profile figures, including a former government minister and the ex-head of security service MI5, have called for a more liberal approach that would see the drug trade decriminalized and taken out of "the hands of criminals."

And, as is often the case, those whom the new laws are intended to protect are the people least in favor of them. David, 35, spends his days working in London's financial sector and his nights partying on a high-octane fuel of legal highs. His drug of choice is the ecstasy-like Benzo Fury, and his "legendary" capacity for consuming it has earned him the nickname Benzo Dave. "The way I see it, Benzo Fury is just a safer and cheaper alternative to alcohol; legality doesn't really bother me," he says. "The recession has hit everyone hard, so legal highs are seen as a cheaper way of getting a buzz. It only becomes dangerous when people take too much, but you could say that about any drug — even paracetamol."

But experts say that, unlike with most other drugs, the real danger posed by legal highs is the fact that no one knows what constitutes a safe dose. The blink-and-you'll-miss-it rate at which new designer drugs are being produced creates a vacuum of reliable information, leaving users at the mercy of advice from Internet chat rooms.

One man who sees the outcome of these gambles every day is Dr. Owen Bowden-Jones, who recently launched the U.K.'s first clinic dedicated to club-drug addicts. Bowden-Jones thinks the unknown qualities of legal highs not only lead to an underrepresentation when it comes to statistics, but also mean users in trouble have nowhere to turn. "These drugs are so new that not even doctors know about them; people suffering from addiction are often left in limbo," he says. Describing the explosion in the number of people taking up legal highs as "unprecedented" compared with those turning to traditional drugs, Bowden-Jones says he has received calls from users across Europe seeking help. Visitors to his clinic tell tales of chronic addiction, causing side effects that include incontinence, insomnia and paranoia. "Many of our patients are affluent professionals in their mid- to late 20s who find their addiction has grown from what started out as a once-a-month dabble on a night out."

The rise in the number of addicts mirrors the rise in the number of drugs they can get hold of — in its October report, the ACMD said that a record 41 new substances were produced in China and the rest of East Asia before being sold in the U.K., while similar figures are expected for 2011. Many in the business of stemming the tide, including the government's chief drug advisers, are looking to harsher U.S.-style antidrug laws as a possible answer. But even with tougher laws and a federal antidrug budget of $50 billion, the U.S. is still playing catch-up in the war against legal highs. In October, the Drug Enforcement Administration was forced to bring in an emergency one-year ban on so-called bath salts — designer drugs that come in powdered form — when they were linked to a number of violent crimes, including the attempted murder of a sheriff's deputy in Montana by a teen wielding an AK-47.

Mindful of the effect these kinds of tragic headlines can have on public opinion, Britain's leaders believe tough tactics are the only way to quell the legal-highs epidemic. Time will tell if this form of prohibition can be more successful than its predecessors.