Open market

Max DalyHow easy is it to have any drug you want delivered to your door with no questions asked? This and other issues raised at HIT’s Hot Topics conference gave a revealing snapshot of changes in the drugs field, as Max Daly reports. 

The change that has been buffeting the drugs field for the last five years was neatly contained in two images shown at HIT’s latest Hot Topics conference, held in Liverpool in November. On the first slide, shown to a captivated audience at the Foundation for Art and Technology, appeared an encrypted message sent to an online drug dealer. It appeared as a stream of 500 or so random letters and numbers. Total gobbledygook in fact. The second slide was the same email before being encrypted. It simply read: ‘Dear XXX. Please can I order some heroin? I’d like three grammes to my house in London at this address.’

What investigative journalist Mike Power, the author of Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High was showing the audience was how easy it is, with a bit of online know-how, to order any drug you want on the internet and get it delivered, no questions asked, to your front door from anywhere in the world. No shady bedsits or risky street corner transactions, just a polite email requesting to be sent one of the most vilified substances on the planet.

Accompanied by other, highly fresh Hot Topics talks on naloxone, legal highs, club drugs, the drug trade, harm reduction, sex work, employing users and policing, Power’s presentation shed light on the world’s rapidly changing drug market, and with it, a whole new raft of problems for those working in the harm reduction sector.

By way of Colombia, Cambodia, Liverpool and China, he described how recent developments in the way drugs are produced, sold and consumed has led to him to deduce that regulation is the only sensible way of stemming the decades of ‘bloodshed’ created by the war on drugs.

What set him going on his investigation into the modern drug trade, he explained, was a story he covered in deepest Colombia in 2007, accompanying a UN-sponsored team whose job it was, backed with heavily armed Colombian soldiers, to destroy, field by field, as many coca plants as they could.

Power asked one of the coca farmers what he was going to do next in order to feed his family. The farmer explained that, economically, coca was the only feasible crop to grow. As soon as the soldiers had moved on, he’d start planting coca in the next field.

At the time, with cocaine use rocketing across much of the West, Power knew that what was happening in the Colombian field was indicative ofthe ‘relentless, circular, insane story’ of the drug war ‘that fascinated me’. Spin the globe and Power took us to the rainforests of Cambodia in 2008, where the UN scored a major strike in its battle to stop the production and trafficking of safrole oil, the major component of ecstasy pills. The huge seizure of the oil stopped an estimated 245m pills reaching the European market and resulted in a drought in good quality ecstasy.

This bust, he explained, created a gap in the market for a substitute, and mephedrone emerged to fill that gap. Mephedrone gained rapid popularity and acted as a catalyst for the modern online market in a new breed of psychoactive substances that we all know today.

But how easy exactly, Power wanted to know, was it to make your own drug? Power decided the best way of answering this question was to try and make one himself.

Which he did, using a phone, an internet connection and PO box. Within a few weeks Power has contacted a Chinese lab and ordered up a tweaked legal version of phenmetrazine, a now-banned slimming drug prescribed in its millions in the 1960s which also became a recreational drug of choice for The Beatles.

Encrypted message

The manufacturers sent him a chromatography rendering of the drug and offered to deliver it for free. As Power says, this ‘concierge drug design offered better customer service than Tesco’. When the packet arrived he got it tested and confirmed it was his own phenmetrazine hybrid.

But why would anyone bother doing this? Simple, said Power, who claimed he could quickly have made 50 times his original investment. ‘Given the right hype I could have been a millionaire within six months. Yes it was easy for me because I’m a drug journalist, but if you want to do it you can do it. It’s possible.’

So what does this all mean, asked Power. Well, he said, ‘you can ban drugs but you can’t ban chemistry.’ And this unstoppable chemical free for all, this ‘access with no barriers’ is proving deadly, as has been proven with the number of PMA-related deaths in the last six months.

‘Over the course of a century, a clear a pattern has emerged. As each law is made, a means to circumvent it is sought and it’s found. Those means can be chemical, legal, social or technological.’ Power said we stand at a crossroads formed by these four elements, with the web maximising communication and distribution.

‘What we have done is outsourced the responsibility to criminals, dealers, gangsters and drug-obsessed internet psychonauts for our drug policy. So I’d argue it’s time to change the drug laws that have failed to reduce demand or consumption and failed to reduce the proliferation and emergence of ever more dangerous drugs on our society. Even I can make them.’

Power relayed a neat drug war analogy given to him by Dr David Caldicott. ‘If you see drugs as an illness and prohibition as an antibiotic. If you treated any illness with the same antibiotic for 50 years, medical people would be astounded if a resistance had not developed.’ And that’s exactly what’s happened said Power. ‘The only reason legal highs exist is because of drugs laws – it’s a paradox.’ Power called for supply, distribution, purity and consumption to be controlled.

Coming back full circle to Colombia, Power said recent news about the FARC rebels planning to lay down their arms after 50 years of bitter civil Deciphered messagewar offered hope that the inertia on drug policy can be broken. ‘If the civil war in Colombia which has resulted in 50,000 deaths over 50 years can be negotiated to an end in my lifetime, I remain optimistic that we can overhaul our outdated drug laws and after 50 years of bloodshed, make peace.’

The raft of new highs now being peddled in head shops, by dealers and over the internet was also addressed by Dr Russell Newcombe of 3D Research. He has been keeping an eye on drug trends for the last 30 years. His presentation, aptly titled The Game Changer navigated a path through the jargon and myths around these often fly-by-night substances that continue to bewilder parents, journalists and drug workers alike.

Newcombe began by addressing terminology. ‘Legal highs’ includes drugs, new or old, such as nitrous oxide, that are not banned, while novel psychoactive substances (NPS) are new drugs that are either controlled, like mephedrone, or uncontrolled, as in the case of Power’s online Chinese creation.

He explained that the legal loophole used by shops and online retailers to get round the 1968 Medicines Act, by branding packets ‘Not for Human Consumption’, ensures that they are not classed as a medicine and therefore no tests or trials are required.

Although there is a plethora of chemicals out there, he said that most are synthetic cannabinoids, hallucinogens, stimulants or benzo-type drugs. In 2012 for example, 50 of the 73 new NPS drugs that appeared in Europe were synthetic cannabinoids, although Newcombe said these marijuana substitutes were farm from harmless, with one, XLR-11, causing kidney injuries.

These are not niche substances, said Newcombe. Four in ten young people responding to a survey by the music magazine NME said they had tried legal highs, while 12 per cent of respondents to the 2013 Global Drugs Survey had done so. Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, is the most used of the legal high/NPS drugs despite the fact it has such a low profile in the media, in educational literature and in terms of research.

The web has acted as an enabler for the trade in NPS, added Newcombe. He said the number of detectable sites selling NPS across Europe had risen from 170 in 2010 to 690 in 2012, while the number of Google search results for the phrase ‘buy legal highs’ is now nearly seven million. But the downside to this innovation is that, for the drug buyer, the drug market now exists in a sea of chaos.

Newcombe said that buyers have little idea what they area getting or how dangerous it will be. Analysis of one ‘Rockstar’ ecstasy pill found it contained 11 different drugs. Moreover, these drugs are mutating. A packet containing two legal highs identified in Japan was found to contain a third drug that had been produced by an unexpected reaction between the original two drugs.

It’s certainly a game changer. Legal highs/NPS have expanded the drug menu beyond recognition and new drugs are created as quickly as existing ones are banned. This has resulted in a whole host of new harms that many drug services are unprepared to deal with.

The next move, suggested Newcombe, should be to use the knowledge of legal high/NPS users – the very people whose bodies are being used as human guinea pigs – to inform policy-making and drug services.

Slides and footage of HIT’s Hot Topics 2013 conference can be seen here:

Max Daly is the author of Narcomania: How Britain Got Hooked on Drugs

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