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Not so MDMA-zing

Amanda Parker wonders if legal highs are the key to a good time or if they’re more dangerous than you think
Amanda Parker on Wednesday 8th June 2011
Photograph: sxc.hu

I push open the door to the cubicle and yank down the seat of toilet.  It’s reverberating with the music. My friend pulls a small plastic bag from her clutch.  She taps the powder onto the seat and I cut us 2 lines each with my bod card – how Oxford. Ripping the cardboard off a pack of Rizla, we both take our lines and wipe down the seat, and then we leave the bathroom.

That was 2009 and that drug was mephedrone.  In 2009-2010, it was the fourth most popular street drug, only just behind cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy.  Readily available and with minimal side-effects, mephedrone had one especially great draw: it was completely legal to possess and supply.  In April 2010, following widespread media coverage of deaths linked to the drug, intense pressure was placed on the government (who happened to be campaigning for an upcoming election) to ban mephedrone, and it was quickly reclassified to class B. 

Since the reclassification of mephedrone, there has been a marked increase in the number of legal highs on the market.  Due to the synthetic nature of these drugs and the rate at which new highs are being churned out each year, legal highs have been coined ‘designer drugs’. When one becomes illegal, their chemical composition is tweaked in labs desperate to stay one step ahead of the law and cash in on a lucrative market, and soon students across the country are popping, smoking and snorting the latest legal craze.

It’s pretty easy to see why students might find these highs alluring.  After a long day of lectures and tutorials, a drama rehearsal, a sports game and a music lesson, why wouldn’t you consider a harmless pick-me-up before you head off to Park End and return home in time to do your tute sheet for the next day? Drugs are hardly limited to Oxford students, but in an environment where we’re pushed and pressured as elite and gifted, it seems almost sensible to indulge in a little chemical stimulation, and if you can do it legally, all the better. 

The route to the legal high often starts small. You’re fifteen, you’re stumbling around in the local park on your third Smirnoff ice and someone whips out the poppers. Even now, my local newsagent on St. Clement’s has a stash of ‘room odouriser’ nestled in amongst the mars bars and twixes, perfect for a little teenage reminiscence.  About sixteen you move onto the nitrous canisters, concealing the bulky equipment needed to fill your balloons before you headed to a club, fake ID in hand, as a penchant for whipped cream to unsuspecting parents.  To be honest, at that point you probably moved onto choking on a joint that was largely, if not entirely, dry grass and oregano.  But here you are at Oxford, the world at your feet, and a drug charge on your criminal record no longer seems rebellious and thrilling.

I decided to find out whether legal highs that are fast-saturating the drug market could ever be the best alternative to ‘real drugs’.   All in the name of research I found a ‘head shop’ in Oxford town centre to try out one of the current popular additions to the market. My friend was having a house party the next day - crazy, I know, but if it all went wrong, I figured I wouldn’t be the only person vomiting in the garden. Behind a red barrier in the ‘head shop’, surrounded by signs that state the area is strictly for over-18s only, sits a glass topped cabinet in front of rows of shisha pipes and bongs. The cabinet is stocked with all the latest and most popular legal highs. ‘For smoking, Black Mamba and Vanilla Ice are the most popular among students, and for pills, red rocket,’ the guy behind the counter mutters, pointing them out for me. ‘If you want a pill, then this one’s good,’ he indicates towards a small blue packet. What drug is it similar to, I ask. He draws a line with his finger under a box at the bottom of the packet, ‘NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION’. ‘I can’t really talk about it,’ he shrugs. So I opt for ‘a good, new high on the market’ –AMT.  A quick google search tells me that it’s a psychedelic and a stimulant. Apparently I’m in for a ride somewhere between MDMA and LSD; pretty good for over-the-counter.

Wanting to add some scientific weight to my experiment, I decided not to drink for the duration of the party so, having popped the pill 45 minutes before leaving, I was expecting the effects to hit me soon. They didn’t.

One hour in: I’ve spent an hour listening to drunken slurring, utterly sober, desperate for the toilet after copious amounts of lemonade yet with pupils the size of frisbees, hoping the AMT will hit. Two long, arduous hours in: I’m coming up. Three hours: Spaced out and giggly. I’ve had a lot of conversations about who killed my friends’ fish. It’s difficult to focus but I’ve got a good buzzed feeling.  Four hours: Colours are pulsating, I’m nauseous and I’ve got a headache – this is more like a migraine. Five hours: I’ve gone home – the floor’s moving, my jaw hurts, my head’s pounding and I can’t stop moving my legs. Six hours: I fell asleep. For a long time. I’m really not sure this worked that well as a stimulant. 

So did it live up to its expectations? Despite the psychedelic promises, I didn’t discover the secrets of the universe; I did, however, discover that the fish died because someone put rum in the tank. Mind-opening, I think not.

I asked several of my friends the reason why they take legal highs. Of course, all of them pointed out that they were legal, but the responses from my friends indicated one thing – that there was a wide spread belief that legal highs, simply because they were ‘legal’ meant they were safe.  In fact, in 2008, Richard Brunstrom, chief constable for Northern Wales, said that ecstacy was ‘far safer than aspirin’.  In 2009, Professor David Nutt, ex-head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, publically stated that ecstasy, cannabis and LSD are far less harmful than legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.  Ecstasy is said to be solely responsible for between 10 and 17 deaths a years, not inconsequential but a startlingly low number compared to the statistics for alcohol-related deaths. In recent years there has been a call to downgrade ecstasy from class A to class B, and in the light of the extensive testing and information that is now available, the government are in a much more informed position to make a decision about its classification.  With the rate that legal highs are flooding into shops and online, it’s almost impossible for the government to crack down on their manufacture and sale. 

It’s difficult to argue with Nutt’s logic that properly tested drugs, like ecstasy, whose effects are known and recorded, could possibly be more hazardous than drugs which haven’t been tested, whose short-and long-term side-effects are virtually unknown and which can be purchased by anybody from unknown sources over the internet. The majority of these legal highs are cooked up in factories in China, shipped over in packing baring the infamous ‘not for human consumption’, preventing any need to reveal the real chemical contents of that packet, with no regulations and nobody accountable if it all goes wrong. It could be that ‘legal highs’ are in fact more dangerous than the drugs you’re substituting them for.

Websites offer a vast range of  legal ecstasy, speed, psychedelics and herbal highs.  Salvia, a powerful hallucinogen, has become one of the most popular drugs online, and statistics say that its now being taken twice as much as LSD by teenagers in search of a potent trip. The problem is, these websites run without regulation and the unknown substance you’re gleefully shoving into your body could be lethal.

Oxford is awash with drugs; it’s not an underground subculture; you don’t have to scratch the surface very hard to find a coke-coated key, sock-covered fire alarm or a well-used bottle of Oust desperate to cover up any lingering scents before your scout arrives.  Yet the rate at which the use of legal highs is rising is alarming; there have been no trials, no tests, no risks assessed, and no ideas about addictiveness or bodily harm.  And while students keep taking drugs, legal or otherwise, the market keeps increasing, and one drug banned today only paves the way for a new one tomorrow.  I can be honest about the fact that today I’d choose a round of shots over a line off a dirty toilet seat, but it won’t make any difference.  The market is growing because demand is increasing, and in Oxford, these legal highs might be about to become a big problem.  I’m not a hypocrite. I’m the first to admit that mephedrone was good, really good, and its popularity must have meant a lot of people agreed with me too.  But there’s something behind that carrot of ‘legal’ dangled temptingly in front of your eyes that it can be all too easy to forget that legal doesn’t mean safe.

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