Pretty pills...but do you know what is in them?
They come in kid-friendly packets with kid-friendly names, like "Scooby Doo," and are available online, in "head" shops and even in gas stations and convenience stores. They are cheap, legal and they can be deadly.
Also known as "club drugs," MDAT, Eric 3, dimethocaine, bath salts, new psychoactive substances (NPS), 5-IAI and silver bullet are analogs of established illegal drugs.
They are designed to produce the same effects as cocaine, ecstasy and the like, but their chemical structure is sufficiently changed to evade prohibition under the Controlled Substances Act.
Like the drugs that they mimic, so-called legal highs can be classified as depressants, stimulants or hallucinogens.
A dangerous game
Since they are untested and cannot be approved as safe, the new drugs are marketed as bath salts, research chemicals or plant food, and they carry labels like "not for human consumption" or "for novelty use only."
Not being sold for human consumption means they have not been tested for that purpose. Their effects are unknown, and the manufacturers can change the contents without warning.
What is in that bright little packet, and what it will do to you, is a mystery.
It may contain substances that are, in fact, illegal.
Or, it may just be downright dangerous.
Even a list of the chemical ingredients on the package does not guarantee that those are the contents, as forensic testing has shown. What you see may not be what you get, and what you get may be more than you bargained for.
Powders, pills and crystals
The drugs usually come as powders, pills or capsules, ranging in color from white to brown to yellow, and from flour-like powder to crystals in texture. Pills and capsules come in a range of shapes, sizes and colors, sometimes stamped with cute little pictures.
Legal highs often come as powders or pills.
Synthetic cannabinoids, such as "K2" and "spice," consist of an unspecified mixture of plant matter sprayed with chemical grade synthetic cannabinoids. The chemicals can be in powder form or dissolved in solvents, such as acetone. It is often marketed as "herbal incense."
Synthetic cathinones, known on the street as "salts" or "bath salts," are stimulants, related to amphetamine or "speed." Products such as "Molly" (short for molecule), replicate methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) or ecstasy. They often consist of methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), mephedrone and methylone.
Synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, are particularly dangerous. Used as a strong pain killer for cancer patients, fentanyl and its relatives have been implicated in a number of drug deaths in the US.
Street names for synthetic opioids include Apache, China Girl, China White, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfella, Jackpot, Murder 8, TNT, Tango and Cash. Fentanyl can originate from legal prescriptions, but street fentanyl may be an illegal copycat with altered chemical structure and properties. You cannot be sure what you will get.
Just shop online: discount available
Synthetic drugs are easily and openly available on the Internet, complete with coupons, vouchers, discount codes and clearance sales.
"Simon the Sorcerer," creator of the website, Simon's Legal Highs, gives this advice:
"When you hear the word 'drug,' 'highs' [or] 'narcotics,' you think of something illegal, although it should not necessarily be the case. There are plenty of legal drugs out there. Just take a look at this list of the best legal drugs to change your mind. Many of them are easily available in your grocery store, online or you can pick them yourself if it's the right season."
Simon is careful to caution: "Warning: I do not advocate consumption of legal highs. They can have adverse side effects and if you are allergic, or if you overdose, you might even die."
Or, as teen advice site, Vice, puts it: "Remember: if you smoke synthetic cannabis, and your blood turns into sulfuric acid, and your organs melt, the company isn't responsible. It said right on the package that it wasn't for human consumption!"
Simon's site includes a handy blacklist of outlets selling fake drugs that have no effect.
Effects: from out-of-body experience to coma
A 26-year old mother, Lucy Simms, died in 2013 after taking "Benzo Fury," also known as ABP. The packet, labelled "chemical research pellets," was purchased on the Internet.
Fast facts about illicit drugs
- In 2015, 48.9% of 12th graders had used illicit drugs at some time in their lives
- From 2001-2014, the US saw a 2.8-fold rise in overdose-related deaths
- From 2000-2014, nearly half a million Americans died from a drug overdose.
In the journal Lucy kept of her experiments with different drugs, she noted, "My heart is going to attack." Days after she died of high blood pressure, raised heart rate and hyperthermia, the drug was banned in the UK. She did it "for the buzz."
In 2015, the mother of Owain Vaughan, aged 14 years, was called to the Emergency Room where she found her son having fits, with low blood pressure, vomiting violently, his elbow fractured and burst blood vessels in his face.
He had taken something his friends gave him. He "thought it would be safe because it was legal and [...] he'd never taken drugs before."
People use psychoactive drugs, "legal" or illegal, for the stimulant, sedative or hallucinogenic effects. In some cases, they hope to find an "out-of-body experience."
Since there is no way of knowing what a "new drug" contains, snorting, smoking or swallowing one is a risky business.
On the next page, we look at the effects of different synthetic drugs, why people use them and what the law says.