“Legal highs” are the new fad when it comes to synthetic drug abuse. Easy to use, relatively cheap, friendly-looking and, as the word suggests, “legal”, they are easy to acquire and exploit loopholes in legal systems right around the world. However, the fact is that they may be no less harmful than traditional hard drugs like cocaine, heroin and amphetamines.

Mephedrone has been linked with the death of scores of people around the world. Pic: AP.

Legal highs are chemical compounds which have drug-like effects but are not covered by national and/or international laws, often because new types appear too quickly for governments to intervene. As soon as authorities study and outlaw one, others are already pouring into the market. According to the UNODC 2011 World Drug Report, many of these new synthetic substances are substitutes for illicit stimulant drugs such as cocaine or ecstasy. The same report suggests that Europe is at the forefront of global trade: more than 40 new substances were notified in the European early-warning system in 2010, compared to 24 in 2009. However, a new UNODC report to be released later this month will reveal that legal highs are now a global problem.

(MORE: Asia: Walking the “legal high” wire)

According to joint research by the EU Monitoring Center For Drugs And Drugs Addiction and the Interpol, mephedrone – a drug outlawed in 2010 – has been “found to have some of the same toxic features as MDMA [ecstasy] and cocaine, causing acute problems similar to those seen with the use of illicit stimulants. Moreover, the available data suggested that the drug could produce dependence in users”.

It seems that the case of mephedrone has been of little concern to unscrupulous sellers, as online shops offering legal highs have been mushrooming for years in Europe, from 170 in January 2010 to 693 in the same month of 2012. If only the overall European economy was performing that well.

Online outlets

One such online outlet advertises several products, with prices ranging from tens to hundreds of US dollars. Sellers appear to well aware that these products may be risky, as the disclaimer at the bottom of the page states: “by using this website and experimenting with the legal highs, research products and novelty collectors items which are not for human consumption, you here by agree to hold harmless, this website, it’s owners, contributors, product manufacturers, distributors, retailers and wholesalers for any damages arising out of the use of any products or information found on this website”.

Another website sells wholesale and has more than 20 items on display. One of them, significantly named WTF!, is advertised as “white crystal research chemical”, but the picture next to it may say more about its effects than words can: it shows an Asian man – presumably of Chinese origin, as on the background one can read Chinese characters – drilling his head. 5-APB comes with more detailed information: “5-APB is variant of the research chemical 5-APDB developed in the 1990s by David E. Nichols whilst investigating non-neurotoxic MDMA analogues.”

Mr. Nichols, who works as a pharmacologist at Purdue University, has been quoted by the Wall Street Journal saying that the fact that his scientific research is being exploited by drug makers is “very troubling” to him.

As legal highs are numerous and fast changing, their effects are poorly studied. In some cases, they not known at all. The aforementioned EU-Interpol report contends that, “a common feature is that there is usually limited information about the effects of these drugs in humans and the harm that they may cause”.

Interviewed by the Telegraph, John Ramsey, a toxicologist at St George’s University of London hospital, said, “We haven’t got a clue how harmful these drugs are. There is no question they can cause deaths – there have been several deaths associated with mephedrone, but there could also be some long term health effects – they could be carcinogenic, they could cause kidney problems or birth defects”.

As a matter of fact, the toll is rising. The BBC, quoting a report for the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths, stated that in 2010, 43 people died in the UK after taking methcathinones. Mephedrone alone was behind 29 deaths.

Many new psychoactive substances reportedly come either from India or China, though hard evidence on where these substances are being manufactured is scant. In 2010, according to the EU-Interpol report, 22 EU member states announced seizures of mephedrone and some of them noted that “production and export took place in Asia and in particular China”. Professor Barry Everitt, a neurobiologist at Cambridge University interviewed by the Telegraph, confirmed that most of the 40 new drugs designed in 2010 and imported in the UK were produced in China.

Researching the topic on the Chinese internet has proven fruitless. Legal highs are neither discussed in the press nor on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter. The topic does not seem to be covered by the media and is not popular among people.

However, in 2010, the Daily Mail conducted an investigation into a Shanghai company which “manufactures and ships hundreds of kilograms of drugs to Britain every week.” Acting as customers, the journalists talked with the company’s owner, who told them that they produce two tons of MDPV (a psychoactive drug) every month and avoid customs checks in the UK by shipping their products through other European countries.

Restraining production

Asian Correspondent spoke over the phone with an employee of a producer based in Fujian province who confirmed that his company sells mephedrone to international customers. Asked about what his company considers “legal highs” and whether the staff is aware that such substances can be used as drugs, he replied that “all things have two sides”. According to the interviewee, you need a purchase permit in order to buy from them. “The government has this policy of restraining production for this kind of drugs,” he said.

Whether it would be better to fight drugs by every means or loosen restrictions is a matter of heated debate among experts. If governments choose to take a tough stance, however, there is space – need might be a better word – for cooperation on both the consumption and the production side. And this, at a time when Reuters writes about a possible solar panels trade war between the EU and China, could be something they can actually cooperate on.