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23 October 2006updated 27 Sep 2015 2:59am

Legal highs: the new ’social tonics’?

Britain's drugs laws are in a mess, and into the confusion has stepped a new breed of drugs entrepre

By Stephen Armstrong

I meet my dealer, Matt Bowden, in the plush foyer of a Kensington hotel. He welcomes me with a big smile on his boyish face, hands over his business card and opens up his laptop. “I’ve got a PowerPoint presentation on the pills if you’d like to see it,” he offers.

Matt Bowden isn’t exactly an ordinary dealer. Indeed, in the truest sense of the word, he isn’t a dealer at all. For one thing, the pills he’s selling are perfectly legal. He’s a smart marketing man from New Zealand who sees Britain’s unquenchable desire for “social tonics” – his favourite phrase – as a big opportunity.

“There needs to be a move away from prohibition in drug laws,” he argues in his soft Kiwi accent. “Today the laws reward gangsters and that’s completely dysfunctional. What I’m saying is: let’s look at it from a marketing perspective and see what consumer needs are currently being met by criminals. Are people looking to relax? Is it a social lubricant? People take E, for instance, to break down barriers so they can communicate in a social environment. I’m saying we should meet those consumer needs with something that has a lower risk profile.”

Until last Friday, Bowden had hoped this country was going to be receptive to his arguments. In January, the then home secretary, Charles Clarke, announced a full review of the UK’s drugs classification system. In July, the Commons science and technology select committee described the current arrangements as “not fit for purpose”. Charities such as DrugScope argued that drugs should be classified according to the personal and social harm they inflicted. Even David Cameron believed that Ecstasy should be downgraded from Class A. On 13 October, however, the new Home Office regime announced its disagreement, and – while moving to upgrade crystal meth (a highly addictive form of amphetamine) from Class B to Class A – decided that things are fine as they are. According to the Home Office minister Vernon Coaker, “It is important that there is a coherent system in place to categorise drugs. I believe the existing classification system does this effectively, allowing for clear distinctions to be made between drugs.”

DrugScope was hugely disappointed. Its chief executive, Martin Barnes, believes the UK’s drugs policies “have clearly failed”. “The current system was introduced 35 years ago and during that time we have seen a significant increase in levels of drug use and drug-related harms,” he argues. “There is no silver bullet, no ideal system, but the government should not be afraid to lead a debate as to whether there are better alternatives.”

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The problem in working out exactly what to do about drugs is the vast amount of conflicting data. Despite dire warnings from Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker, Britain’s streets don’t seem to be awash with Afghan heroin. Indeed, the most recent official figures, which cover 1998-2003, show that seizures of heroin, like for all drugs except cocaine, have been falling since 2001. Data from the British Crime Survey 2005/2006 – also released 13 October – shows levels of crack, Ecstasy and heroin use remaining stable, with only cocaine on the up. Despite cocaine use doubling since 1998, just 2.4 per cent of the population have ever tried the stuff. And surprisingly – or perhaps obviously – cannabis use has plummeted since the drug was downgraded in 2004.

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At the same time, however, the street prices of all drugs are continuing to fall. Cocaine can be picked up for about £45 a gram, Ecstasy for £3 a pill and heroin for roughly £40 a gram. Market deflation is rampant, suggesting that all attempts to restrict supply have failed. This summer also brought an explosion in illegal outdoor parties. Police forces in Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Thames Valley, Norfolk and Essex have reconstituted their “rave units”, disbanded in the mid-1990s after the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 outlawed open-air parties. With dance culture on the rise again, experts predict that demand for drugs will surge.

The basic problem any drugs policy faces is simple: people are always going to want to take them. On that, Bowden and Barnes agree. Whether through alcohol or Ecstasy, most people want to get high now and then. Barnes believes tackling social deprivation will reduce any harm. And yet the typical cocaine user – the only growth area of the drugs market – is white, college- educated and well off. With terrorist attacks being funded by drug money, maybe Bowden’s legal alternatives theory is worthy of attention.

Bowden has already tested his arguments. He developed his legal highs from a compound called benzylpiperazine (BZP) – originally synthesised in 1944 to tackle agricultural parasites – to combat his and his wife’s crystal meth addiction. BZP bonds to the same receptor as meth, but its effects are softer, making it far less destructive. In 1999, the New Zealand government was facing a rising crystal meth problem and took the unusual step of creating a new class for “harm reduction” drugs, Class D, allowing licensed companies to make and sell piperazine-based highs. So far, five million BZP pills have been sold in New Zealand and Bowden’s Stargate business has the lion’s share. The company also sells the pills to Britons via its website.

Indeed, BZP is suddenly very widely available in this country. The chemical is banned in the US, Denmark and Australia, but is legal here. Companies such as Spiritual High and Everyonedoesit have started marketing their own versions. Taking a leaf from Bowden’s book, most offer the pills as a “harm minimisation programme”. “These products offer a safe, highly effective and proven alternative to illicit substances,” asserts the website

Bowden definitely believes this mantra. An astonishing 20 per cent of the New Zealand population tried party pills when they became legal, he explains. “The Centre for Social and Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation found that 44.1 per cent – 60,000 people – who used party pills and other illegal drugs stopped using. That’s a lot of people getting their lives back.” He wants to develop pills to replace a variety of illicit substances, starting with MDMA. Initial trials of his alternative – called Ease – ran into problems in New Zealand because its active ingredient, methylone, is chemically similar to a controlled drug. For now, trials have been suspended.

Ronald Siegel, a psychopharmacologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, fears BZP has moved from the lab to the street far too quickly. “It can take 14 years for a new drug to pass through all the protocols in the US,” he says. He admits, however, that pharmaceutical companies are researching mood-altering chemicals – including one attempt to alter the cocaine molecule chemically and create an antidepressant chewing gum. To date, Bowden insists, there has been only one reported death associated with BZP: in Zurich in 2001, a 23-year-old took two tablets as well as Ecstasy and drank more than ten litres of water in 15 hours. She later died from hyponatraemia, or water poisoning – the same thing that killed the school student Leah Betts.

“If you restrict supply, that doesn’t decrease demand,” Bowden tells me, as we finish drinking our coffee. “All that happens is that the price goes up and the rewards are greater. Why don’t we reduce demand instead? Let’s say we needed uppers to get us through this meeting and the cops took away most of our speed. We might then decide to cut what’s left with something, or we might just order a couple of cups of espresso instead.” He grins as I drain my cup. “There you go. That’s demand reduction through a safer alternative for you . . .”

Legally relaxed?

So do these legal “party pills” actually work? I took a BZP pill and was surprised how potent it was. The physical manifestations of Ecstasy – dry mouth, hot flushes – were there, but the all-consuming rush didn’t arrive. Instead, there was a general feeling of well-being, with a little spaciness.

Research The website of the Auckland-based Centre for Social and Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation carries a paper on the national experiment with BZP: Legal Party Pill Use In New Zealand. The UK’s leading drugs charity, which aims “to inform policy and reduce drug-related risk”.

Drug Classification: making a hash of it? The Commons select committee on science and technology’s report Drug Classification: making a hash of it? argues that the current system is “not fit for purpose”.