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Legal and lethal: the rise in deaths from new-wave drugs


Legal and lethal: the rise in deaths from new-wave drugs

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Cheap but deadly

“Words could never define what that feels like. To bury your child at seventeen for something that is so cheap but deadly.”

“Heroin users have told us that this would wreck your head. Keep taking heroin.”

One year ago Adam Owens was found dead outside a house near Belfast, where he was taking drugs. He had been using a new type of drug called novel psychoactive substances (NPS), better known as legal highs. Although they were legal, they were also lethal.

Valerie Zabriskie: When did you realise your son was taking legal highs?

Adele Wallace: “I first noticed that Adam was taking legal highs about a year and a half before he passed away and I found out because I found the legal-high packet in his bedroom underneath his pillow.

“And when I went to his room, I found vomit all over his bed and all over the floor and it was black vomit. It was very disturbing and soul destroying because I then became aware that my child was actually using these drugs which I hadn’t a clue about.

Adele lives in Belfast. She says Adam could get these substances easily because in Northern Ireland, like throughout the UK, they are still legal. They are sold in head shops, on the street but especially on internet. Today, she tries to warn the young about these legal highs.

Adele Wallace: I actually deliberately measure like one point five gram of icing sugar, that’s icing sugar so there’s nothing sinister. And as you can see it’s quite a minuscule amount really. And the reason that I did this was to highlight and to point out very clearly to school children that 1.5 gram, that’s the amount of legal highs that my son took that night, shared with two other people and that was toxic enough between three people to actually take my son’s life at seventeen years old.

These are images that should sound the alarm on the dangerous effects of these drugs. They resonate even more when you consider the number of deaths from legal highs in the UK, which went from four in 2009 to 115 last year.

Synthetic drugs are said to mimic the effects of cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and cannabis among others. They are substances that have flooded the European market and are a growing nightmare for anti-drug authorities.

Valerie Zabriskie: “K2 Black Edition, Fury Extreme, Pink Panthers, Happy Joker Blueberry, MXE. These are all legal highs but we don’t know what’s inside of them, especially when they say, not for human consumption”

Legal-high misnomer

Knowing what chemical compounds are inside these so-called legal highs is what Stephen Bell is undertaking at Queen’s University in Belfast.

He and his team of chemists
have created a new fast-track approach to identifying these psychoactive substances.

Stephen Bell explains: “The method that we have developed essentially involves trying to identify chemical compounds by looking at the way they vibrate. Basically every different chemical compound vibrates in a different way because it’s got a different composition. So this is kind of like a chemical fingerprint.

“But it also lets us very rapidly find those ones which we haven’t seen before, the new ones that are coming on the market and are potentially hazardous because we haven’t seen them before.

“Calling these things legal highs is a terrible misnomer and it’s really very harmful. In the first place because they’re not legal, many of the compounds and substances that are seized are prohibited substances and therefore they simply are not legal.

“And they’ve never been tested by anyone. We’re simply doing a huge experiment here, where we are feeding all these things to young people and hoping it doesn’t do any harm.

But how to stop this so-called legal high experiment?

The British government has approved a blanket ban on these NPSs which is expected to go into effect sometime in May.

Anyone caught selling these substances can face up to seven years in prison.

It’s being modeled after the Republic of Ireland’s Psychoactive Substance law which was introduced in 2010.

But in Dublin, this law has not been without controversy.

Martin McHugh is a former addict who has used cannabis, heroin, cocaine and ecstasy. But none of these “prepared him” for what came next:

McHugh explains his experience with these new substances: “I started using legal highs when they first became available in the shops in the city centre.

“Then when the shops were shut down you were still able to get them. They were still readily available on the streets. They were coming from online or via the UK.

“The symptoms I was getting personally were severe paranoia, feel like your skin was crawling, you’d be on a high from 36 to 72 hours and any suppressant wouldn’t take you down off that high.

Valerie Zabriskie: Why did you keep taking them?

Martin McHugh: I can’t even describe why I would have kept going back to taking them. Because I know that I’m an addict.

Tim Bingham has researched the effects the Psychoactive Substance Ban has had on drug consumption in Ireland.

He says while the ban has closed shops selling them, the internet is still a buyer, and seller’s, best friend.

Tim explains the ease in which you can buy online:

“So, here we’ve got K2 incense herbal legal highs. So here we can see it’s being sold for 7.95. You’ve got different types, you’ve got the one gram, the three grams, you’ve got the six grams.

“We’re going for two packets of that. I can checkout now. You don’t have to register or anything like that. You can just checkout anonymously and it’s sent to your home address next day. “

Tim Bingham: “These products can be bought on the internet because the servers aren’t actually based in Ireland. So where these servers are based, and where these websites are based it’s not illegal to sell these products.

“We know that people still do supply these products because from our last year student job survey, we found that 19 percent of the students we had surveyed had actually purchased them by themselves or via friends.”

Cheap, legal and pretty packaging. Here, near the border with Northern Ireland, synthetic cannabis has become the No1 drug of choice among adolescents as young as 13.

Law not fit for purpose

Packie Kelly works at a family centre here at the border town of Monaghan – a town which received attention last year when two people died from legal highs.

He says the ban has done little to stop the flow of legal highs onto the market.

Packie Kelly explains why he is not convinced that the new law is effective: “We’ve been collecting some of the drug wrappers that this substance comes in and we have many, many types of it.

“In fact this one they would say, heroin users have told us that they would much prefer to use heroin on a regular basis rather than use this stuff.

“All these substances have been seized in different arrests or searches by the police in Ireland and to date no prosecutions have happened for possession.

“So currently the legislation that we have in Ireland is not currently fit for purpose.

When the blanket ban goes into effect, these UK head shops where legal highs are sold could be a thing of the past.

But critics worry that the problem won’t go away so easily. More than 100 new substances appear, undetected, every year in Europe.

Martin McHugh: “When I went to be tested for heroin my clinic in order to get dispensed methadone, my test were coming back positive for amphetamines and cocaine and I wasn’t taking either or of those substances , I was just taking the legal highs.

“But shortly after, it wasn’t showing up anymore because it was stated that it was this new legal high that didn’t show in the blood or in the urine.

“So they were calling it the new E-drug and then people were having bad side effects to it and they were admitted by ambulance to hospital. They couldn’t administer anything for drug abuse because there was nothing showing up.

Adele Wallace: “How can something be classed as legal that is so deadly, vile and toxic that it’s actually killing children?And adults as well because there is no class barrier for people using these drugs.

“But children especially are more vulnerable because they’re led into thinking they’re safe because they are called legal and it absolutely disgusts me.

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