Page last updated at 13:22 GMT, Thursday, 18 March 2010

Legal highs: A game of m-cat and mouse

By Denise Winterman and Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

No sooner is one legal high banned than another appears. The latest facing calls for a bar is mephedrone, or m-cat. It's part of a war of attrition between dealers and the authorities. So how does it all work?

No title
Small structural changes to an illegal chemical can create a new legal compound
Legal high dealers scour scientific literature for substances similar to recreational drugs
These are then produced by legitimate chemical firms, typically in China

It's a thriving market - and an increasingly worrying one for the government. Legal and herbal highs are nothing new, but ever stronger variants are emerging all the time and legal loopholes are being exploited to make them easily available.

The death of Louis Wainwright, 18, and Nicholas Smith, 19, on Monday has raised concerns again. The two friends died after taking the legal stimulant mephedrone which is used as an alternative to ecstasy and cocaine. Their parents are now calling on the government to ban it.

Under medicines legislation it is illegal to sell it for human consumption, but it is sold as a plant fertiliser and is available on the internet for as little as £4. Just the one-line warning "not for human consumption" covers suppliers legally.

It is the latest in a string of legal highs to be scrutinised. Such substances mimic the effects of illegal drugs, but are not controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. They can be anything from herbal blends to synthetic chemicals.

It is a very difficult area because as soon as one thing gets banned, then there are others that come on to the market
Maryon Stewart

Several were banned last year after they were linked to deaths. These included GBL, which was used as a substitute for banned drug GHB, and some synthetic cannabinoids - man-made chemicals sprayed on herbal smoking products -such as "spice".

There's a bewildering array of similarly named drugs with different legal statuses. M-cat is one of the street names for mephedrone, but it is also in use for the illegal substance methcathinone.

Drugs in the UK are banned by the home secretary, with parliamentary backing. But the initial steps are usually taken by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which advises the government on drug-related issues.

The ACMD is an independent expert body made up scientists, experts from the pharmaceutical industry, police and drug charities.

Its job is to investigate a substance which is being "misused or appears to be being misused" and "is having or appears to be capable of having harmful effects sufficient to cause a social problem". That can be anything from legal highs to alcohol. In recent years it has suggested a ban on selling strong lagers and beers.

The council can be asked to investigate a substance - by the government or the public - or do it off its own bat.

Chemical listing

It has often started gathering evidence on a specific drug before it has hit the headlines because it has such good contacts in the field, says Harry Shapiro of drugs advice charity DrugScope.

Legal and  illegal drugs
Legal highs mimic the effects of illegal drugs

"The ACMD's members come from across the profession so its intelligence on substances and how they are being used is very good," he says.

If the council favours a ban, it recommends this to the home secretary, who proposes an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This goes before parliament for approval and if voted through goes onto the statute books to become law. The ACMD is expected to report back to the government at the end of this month on mephedrone.

It's a robust process, "as it should be", says Mr Shapiro. "This is changing the law, not just issuing a public health warning. A knee-jerk response is not the answer."

Dr John Ramsey, head of drugs database unit TicTac Communications at St George's University of London, agrees.

"Essentially the problem is in writing legislation which controls what you want to control without inadvertently controlling something you don't intend to. The pharmaceutical industry needs to be able to continue its business, the chemical business needs to be able to supply chemicals for legitimate use.

"Some countries have a list of chemicals that are banned which is fraught with problems. The British legislation has been somewhat generic. We have described the chemical structure of compounds rather than the names. It covers things that we currently know about or that we think might come about."


This approach has benefits in that it can cover drugs before they rise to prominence.

Mephedrone is seen as an alternative to ecstasy

"Ecstasy was already controlled by the misuse of drugs act by the generic legislation although it wasn't named in the act," says Dr Ramsey.

But for some campaigners, like Maryon Stewart, whose 21-year-old daughter Hester died after taking GBL, the process is long and cumbersome.

"It is a very difficult area because as soon as one thing gets banned, then there are others that come on to the market," she says.

Most agree the rapid evolution of such "designer drugs" (or, more correctly "designed drugs") is a big problem. Although the term first rose to prominence in the 1980s, it may be more prevalent than ever, says Dr Ramsey. The core of the problem is that none of these drugs have been properly tested to see how toxic they are to humans.

"Quantitatively it has become much more significant. People are being much more innovative than they were - they are coming from leftfield."

In some cases legal high traders have consciously looked for a tiny variation to an existing compound. The "beta keto" family is one such case, says Dr Ramsey.

"They have looked at things like MDMA, MDEA and MBDB [all bracketed as "ecstasy"], chemically modifying those to bring them outside control."

So you have chemicals used recreationally, and with some of the same effects as ecstasy, that are not illegal. They are sold openly in legal high shops.

Made to order

But there is no suggestion that there is a generation of brilliant bedroom chemists out there dedicated to finding legal highs. Instead, their job is done by legitimate chemists.

This can be seen in the example of "Spice". A group of chemicals have been identified that are similar to the active ingredient in cannabis, THC.

Louis Wainwright and Nicholas Smith
The friends had taken mephedrone

"Those have come about because somebody has looked at the pharmacology literature and found papers where these were investigated as potential analgesics, synthesised because they were like cannabis and discarded because they made people high," says Dr Ramsey.

"They read the appropriate literature, contact the Chinese chemical industry and say 'make me this'. It needs a modicum of intelligence but not a great deal of pharmacological knowledge. These chemicals, for example 1-alkyl-3-(1-naphthoyl)indoles, were created by a legitimate scientist and then hijacked by the legal high searchers."

And underlying all of it is the problem that many hijacked chemicals may currently or later have a valid use.

But campaigners say the process for banning substances in the UK can be adjusted to stop the law always being behind the market. In New Zealand new drugs are put into a special category, where it is not illegal to sell or possess them but their effects are monitored.

In Germany emergency regulations can be used to make a new, unregulated drug illegal for the first year, giving toxicologists the chance to investigate and decide whether it is dangerous or not.

But no system is perfect, and even if it was the problems with legal highs wouldn't stop overnight, warns Mr Shapiro.

"The way we go about banning a drug in the UK does seem like a long process when there have been deaths, but just by making something illegal you don't just turn off the tap."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Thank you so much for bringing this substance to the attention of the public. My son started using this substance and it completely changed his life. He became obnoxious, rude, aggressive and sold all his possessions. His so-called friends took him to the cleaners for sat navs, mobile phones, computers and let them use his car as well. We called the police and car back, trashed. He is getting over it but very long prison sentences and confiscation of the proceeds of crime is what is needed. Please get these substances made illegal.
Brendon Flint, Ibstock

It is misleading to say these two teenagers died after taking mephedrone. The TV report mentioned - in passing - that they had also taken the heroin substitute, methadone, and had been drinking alcohol (which is a contributing factor in many cocaine deaths). As the government's former drugs adviser Prof Nutt pointed out, there has been no evidence to say that mephedrone was to blame. What IS interesting, however, is the outcome of toxicology tests on a 46-year-old in Sussex on Thursday which found he DID die of "mephedrone poisoning". I can only assume, though, that although this is a more watertight story, this particular victim is too old to make the headlines.
Roz, Gillingham, Kent

I am a post-doctorate in medicinal chemistry and let me tell you that you will never be able to stop new analogues coming out. Through out university I used MDMA (ecstacy), but the market has become corrupted and dangerous substances such as pipperazines are sold as ecstasy. When you look at an ounce of crystal MDMA, there is a colour change through it - one side is clear, the other is darker implying impurities from catalysts and solvent used in synthesis. Hence regulation and making it illegal actually harms you by exposing people to dangerous contaminants - this has become particularly acute recently with the EU banning certain precursors used in MDMA synthesis, hence increasing the demand for alternatives (ie: m-cat).
John Dalton, Cambridge

I agree that this new batch of substances should be controlled because their misuse is spiralling out of control but what really needs answering is why people of all ages feel the need to get smashed on whatever stimulant they can lay their hand on?
Wagonline, Loughborough

It is futile trying to stop young people who are intent on getting high from getting substances, legal or not. The knee jerk reaction to a couple of deaths is to ban a substance, but another will rise up in its place. A far more pragmatic approach is required, for example allowing legal highs, but with researched doses, age limits and clearer guidance on the possible ill effects. After all, tobacco is still legal, and it has killed far more people than legal highs. Making these substances illegal will just drive people into the hands of drug dealers.
John Clayton, Manchester, England

I have a group of friends who take and sell mephadrone and a regular basis. Every week, they will stay awake from Tuesday or Wednesday right through to Sunday taking it and it can create a really hostile environment. After a couple days they get quite aggressive and short with everyone - including their friends - and people no longer enjoy being around them. You can't talk to them about it - with mephadrone being legal, they think that what they are doing is normal.
Anonymous, Nottingham

It's time for a complete rethink incorporating a changed view that people should be able to use drugs for a high BUT with the drugs being delivered though a controlled industry as is alcohol. So you pop into the chemist for a box of XXXdrone which have been produced in a controlled manner and have adequate safety instructions - after all even aspirin and paracetamol can kill in relatively small doses. If the news stories are to believed there are thousands of illegal drug users each weekend deaths are few but very sad - had the drugs been legal how many of those deaths would have been avoided bringing the overall deaths /thousand users down below that of other prescription medicines?
Barrie Shepherd, Sydney, Australia

This instinct to get high permeates the entire history of humankind (e.g. Egyptians and blue lotus flowers), so perhaps it's time to admit that a legal and safe means to this effect needs instituting. Aldous Huxley wrote about the possibility of designed drugs as safer and less violence-inducing alternatives to alcohol back in the 1950s (amongst other possibilities), so now we have so many - let's just find the safest and legislate dosage/dispensation. Though I expect fear and intolerance will result in ever more banning, and in a few years we'll be reading about kids brewing embalming fluid with hair dye, or some other strange mix, in order to have their means to get high - and so dying in ever greater numbers. What a victory for common sense that will be.
A Ward, Bath, UK

Educate people! Please, for the love that you profess to have for them, teach them about cause and effect, because at the moment we've a country full of young people who have been blinkered and smothered who will take ANY opportunity to escape. Give people back their responsibilities to themselves and each other, stop this knee-jerk reaction to anything and everything and maybe we will find the real criminals will have to start looking for a proper job.
Jon, London

You have no idea. At uni there is an epidemic of people using this substance. Staying awake for up to five days just sniffing this stuff. More people WILL die.
Matthew, Manchester

Methadrone appeared shortly after one of the substances used to create MDMA (ecstasy) was recently cracked down on - saffrole. MDMA production has essentially halted in the UK since. The cause here is lack of MDMA, the affect being people turning to methadrone... a FAR MORE dangerous drug. There must be a much wider discussion on illegal drugs; millions upon millions of people use drugs everyday, clearly the "war on drugs" is failing. Better, like safe sex, to educate safe usage and let people decide for themselves. And tax it to pay for addiction issues and therapy. Might help bring the budget deficit down too.
Tony, London

If you're going to ban drugs that get people high, what I'm wondering is why do they ban specific drugs. Why not have a list of conditions, and say any substance that causes any of these conditions when used is a drug is illegal?
Andrew Morrison, Montreal, Canada

I don't understand why there is talk of banning these chemicals. Mephedrone is a plant food and it's not suitable for human consumption so you would have to be pretty daft to take it in the first place. Would these people drink bleach? Also, banning other drugs like cocaine, heroin etc have not stopped them from being used. Anyone who takes any sort of drugs should be aware of the side effects.
Gillian, Glasgow

The UK seems to take a more enlightened approach to drugs but still falls under the same pattern: banning. Many things will kill you, should they be illegal? My heart goes out to the parents and friends of people who've died while taking drugs. But denying someone else their right to do with their body what they please is unfair. My brother is NOT my keeper.
Robert Vance, Grand Rapids, US

Every day I cringed watching the news regarding "legal highs". There has already been other young adults die in different countries due to m-cat and those countries have banned it or made it controlled. Why do we always seem to be the last ones - do we have to wait until there are more deaths? It just makes me so angry.
Lisa Lloyd, Barnsley

So what does this tell us? Simple - prohibition of ancient drugs and plants has led to the creation of a whole new generation of designer drugs; which are generally much worse than the original ones for our nation's health. Read the last section about the "spice" range of products. Would this have ever happened if cannabis was legally available in the way alcohol is? I haven't seen any alcohol substitutes on sale. Don't get me wrong, I have seen the devastation that hard drugs cause. I have seen the awful effects of heroin on people who I knew when I was younger and it is not something I would ever want anyone to be stupid enough to get into. However, we have to be realistic. Prohibition of any drug has never been effective in preventing its use and has been proven to raise associated crime levels. The end result of decades of misinformation and misguided policy making is that the drug problem is now worse than ever. Forcing cannabis underground along with hard drugs has laid to alienation and mistrust between those growing up and the government. It has led to the creation of hideous chemicals - one of which took my nephew's life at 23 - in an attempt to beat the laws. Legal or illegal, some people will always be foolish enough to take risks with their lives. Sensible attitudes and no criminalisation, however, gives the users, potential users and the health workers a chance to work together. It gives the educators the chance to address the subject without the "us and them" feeling which causes youngsters to trust the teachings of their peer groups and not the authorities.
Stuart, Portsmouth

The war on drugs is already lost and society has to be open to alternative ways of regulation. The government's own report Drug Classification: making a hash of it? clearly shows that the effects of alcohol and tobacco are far worse that the majority of illegal drugs; only you don't see news reports every night stating and naming another 100 people who have died today due to alcohol and tobacco. People are going to take drugs: fact. Banning everything that appears on the street just pushes people onto the next, an usually more dangerous, high. It's a zero sum game. Society is encouraged to be responsible drinkers (of the drug alcohol); could it be encouraged to be one of responsible drug takers?: Discuss.
Richard, Notts

Banning things is not the answer. Education is. Abusing drugs is idiotic and kids should be shown this, clearly and unequivocally.
Caroline Brown, Rochester

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