When 26-year-old Joe gets home from work at one of the world’s biggest banks in the City of London, he rolls up the sleeve of his designer shirt, goes to the bathroom and shoots a dose of morphine imported illegally from a crooked pharmacist in the Far East. Then he gets a white packet from his stash in the kitchen and shows off a baggy with white powder inside. It’s a compound called 5-MeO-DALT, a psychedelic with almost no history of human consumption, bought from the Internet. It’s a research chemical, which means that it’s perfectly legal to buy and sell, as long as it’s not marketed as being for human consumption.

“It’s the cousin of the gym teacher who fucked LSD, rather than a sibling,” he says.
 
Forty years after the Misuse Of Drugs Act 1971 was passed in the UK and a year after the last drug to be classified, Mephedrone, was banned, people are still trying, and mostly succeeding, to get high. While illegal street drugs still have millions of users a year, an increasing number of people are staying ahead of the law by ordering new and obscure drugs, mostly ‘research chemicals’, from the Internet. They can be found on sites like Disco Food Store or Wide Mouth Frog, and like Mephedrone, they’re cheap and posted to your house. The legal stimulants they sell now are either known by their chemical names like MDAI and 5MeO-DALT, or they’ve got a name like Ivory Wave, Benzo Fury or now get this: Flephedrone.
 
Mephedrone was the first Internet drug to break into mainstream society around 2008, when it became the legal alternative to cocaine and ecstasy. It cost about a quarter of the price, usually about £10 a gram, and was marketed as ‘plant food’ on websites. It quickly became as popular as its illegal cousins. The fact that it could be ordered from the Internet meant that even school kids were ordering it using their parents’ credit cards and getting off their tits in the playground. They didn’t need to trawl a council estate looking for a dealer. They used Google.
 
When the tabloids found out about it, they started a hysterical campaign against the new powdered menace to society. Every day there were stories about the dangers of this new designer drug that was killing people who took it. Some of them were plain ludicrous, like the Sun’s memorable “Meow-meow drug teen ripped his scrotum off,” and most were based on distorted or fictional versions of events. The story about the guy who ripped his scrotum off was based on a joke posted on an Internet message board. The cases of death by Mephedrone were found to be misleading, since the fatalities had been caused by a mixture of Mephedrone and copious amounts of other drugs. But despite the government’s drugs adviser Professor David Nutt warning that there should be a scientific consultation before implementing a ban, it was made illegal with widespread support from society.
 
But there are still plenty of drugs not covered by the Misuse Of Drugs Act that do similar things to the illegal ones. Ivory Wave, MDAI and NRG-2 for instance—which are similar to Mephedrone—have already become pretty popular at parties. And there are loads of others whose effects were largely unknown five years ago, and have almost no history of human consumption. It’s not as though people are snorting totally unknown white powders with no idea what the effects are going to be, because you only need a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry to analyse the chemical structure of a compound like MDMA and look for something similar. For example, MDAI is chemically similar to MDMA, so it doesn’t take a chemist to work out what it’s going to do. The same applies to another legal research chemical called Dimethocaine. The name sounds similar to cocaine, as is the structure, and so are the effects. 

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“It’s not particularly good,” says Joe, referring to his legal psychedelic. “None of these things are. There’s a reason people started taking LSD in the ’60s and ecstasy in the ’80s. It’s not because they couldn’t synthesise this stuff. I bought a bunch of it because it’s not that expensive. I don’t get any side effects, but I’ll give it to someone else and they get a headache or they get sick.”
 
There is a community of people like Joe on the Internet, taking chemicals that the authorities haven’t even heard of, let alone outlawed. They share knowledge about these obscure compounds on websites such as Erowid, an online pharmacopeia and the message board Blue Light. These drug geeks post quasi-scientific reports of their new chemical experiences so that people who are tempted by something new can find out what they’re getting themselves in for. The reports often state the exact amount taken and then scientific data like the person’s body weight, what they’d had to eat that day, and anything else that may affect the experiment. They collect experiences like other people collect stamps. At age 17, Joe had a colour-coded list of all the different drugs he’d taken. It had 56 entries. If he was still keeping his list, nine years later it would be a whole lot longer.
 
Users of the new breed of legal highs aren’t that impressed with them. “Mephedrone was absolutely brilliant. I must have taken about a hundred grams of it myself while it was legal, and a lot of my friends were the same,” says 21-year-old economics student Martin Cleaver. “But this new stuff’s definitely a grade or two below in terms of quality. I’ve done MDAI and Ivory Wave a few times, and it’s given me a buzz, but it was mainly just like shit coke.”
 
Asked if he’s more likely to stump up £50 for a gram of bad coke or just over a tenner for a gram of the new legal highs, he says, “If I planned ahead, I’d always go for the legal stuff because you can get five grams for the price of one gram of Charlie. But if I was on a night out and wanted something there and then, I’d probably get some coke or MDMA.”
 
“I think the kind of people who take these drugs it’s out of curiosity,” says Joe. “If they tried a bit harder they could buy illegal drugs. The fact they’re not illegal is the only thing most of these things have going for them.”
 
It’s clear that the quality of legal drugs is decreasing as manufacturers turn to dodgier, more obscure compounds that aren’t covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act. People think Mephedrone was bad—it gave them nosebleeds and suicidal comedowns—but its successor, Ivory Wave, certainly doesn’t look any better. Beside media reports of psychosis and suicide, people on the drugs forums—always a more reliable source of information than tabloid scare stories—have reported having panic attacks and heart palpitations after snorting it. It’s marketed as ‘bath salts’, but it seems to be about as much fun as plunging into a bath full of tepid piss.
 

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Of course, the tabloids are starting to whiff another scandal with the new wave of legal highs. In August 2010, the first scare story came out in the Sun which reported a man jumping off a cliff after taking Ivory Wave. In January 2011, the Daily Mail ran a story about how new products on the market with comically blatant names like Snow Blow and Trip-e Happy Caps were “flooding our streets.”
 
It won’t be long before the squares in Westminster amend the law to make these new drugs—or at least some of them—illegal like they did with Mephedrone. The government is passing a law allowing the Home Secretary to ban a substance for one year while it carries out research. The Police Reform and Social Responsibility bill is currently being debated in parliament, and will almost certainly pass. You would think that this would reduce the incentive for manufacturers to produce the likes of Ivory Wave if they know it could be banned quickly after hitting the market. 
 
But the previous trend of banned substances being replaced with a slightly different formula suggests that something even more shit and in all likelihood dangerous will replace the current batch of research chemicals, as manufacturers resort to even more obscure and unknown compounds to satisfy the demand.  It’s not such a mad thought that in a few years’ time, kids will stay ahead of the law by snorting lines of ‘dog-shit purifier’ made of toxic sludge.
 
Text: Lewis G. Parker

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