The rise of synthetic drugs

Rise of synthetic drugs image Synthetic drugs and legal highs are becoming increasingly popular. This week saw the Association of Independent Festivals – which includes T in the Park, Bestival and Sonisphere – announce a ban on the sale of legal highs by on-site traders, a move they said would help fans make “safer choices”.

Five years ago, substances like ‘Spice’, ‘K2’ and ‘Meow Meow’ very virtually unheard of. Today they are household names, widely available and sold openly to anyone with the nerve to walk into a shop and ask for them.

These are chemical substances, created to mimic the effect of drugs like marijuana and cocaine. They are largely unregulated and are sold under the pretence that the packages are being exchanged as incense, bath salts or some other household product.

Distributors are able to sell these synthetic highs because the compounds are too new on the market to appear on any banned lists. When regulators do catch on, the formula is tweaked to allow the substance to continue being sold.

Whilst these highs are often marketed as ‘party drugs’, the reality can be far more severe. A report from the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths found that the number of deaths in which legal highs had been directly implicated rose from 10 in 2009 to 68 in 2012.

The same report also found that there had been a significant rise in the number of times legal highs had been mentioned as a cause of death along with alcohol or other drugs.  In the same period, the overall number of drug-related deaths actually fell from over 2,000 to 1,613.

For many people, legal highs offer a kind of safety blanket from the usual drug-buying process. Rather than an illicit meet with a stranger you met online or a quick exchange in a nightclub toilet, the sale is made over a countertop, free from the threat of police intervention.

On the surface of it, there appears to be less chance of getting ripped off and less chance of being sold something totally different from what you thought you were buying. In a lot of ways, legal highs seem like the safer option – the term itself creates greater confidence.

However, the nature of the market means that proper tests aren’t carried out on new substances and often the first sign of trouble is long after the pills or powder have been sold on to the user. In reality, this means that the gamble of taking a synthetic, legal high is no less than taking a pill from a stranger.

Really, legal highs are the product of a failing “war on drugs”, where the consumer is the one who suffers as a result of stubborn ideology and false propaganda.  People will always seek out substances for recreational use but regulation would allow users to be more confident in what they were taking.

Instead, consumers have been exposed to another avenue where exploitation and corruption run rife. More than ever before, young people are being exposed to a plethora of powders and pills. Surely the time has come to formulate a more sensible approach and make sure people have the ability to make informed decisions about the risks they take in the pursuit of fun.


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