Mind-altering drugs: does legal mean safe?
Print Edition,.29 September 2006
Lying back, exhaling: usually the last thing a person
does before leaving this world. Only in this case it is
the world that is leaving me.
A few minutes ago I smoked a pipe of Salvia
divinorum, a powerful hallucinogenic herb that I
bought openly and legally from a shop near my home. Of the
£25 I handed over, more than £4 will find its way into
government coffers in the form of sales tax. And salvia
was just one of dozens of powerful but entirely legal
psychoactive substances that I could have chosen.
All that was far from my mind as the salvia took me on
a consciousness-expanding journey unlike any other I have
ever experienced. My body felt disconnected from "me" and
objects and people appeared cartoonish, surreal and
marvellous. Then, as suddenly as it had began, it was
over. The visions vanished and I was back in my bedroom. I
spoke to my "sitter" - the friend who was watching over
me, as recommended on the packaging - but my mouth was
awkward and clumsy. When I attempted to stand my
coordination was off. Within a couple of minutes, however,
I was fine and clear-headed, though dripping with sweat.
The whole experience had lasted less than 5 minutes.
My salvia trip was part of a journey into the world of
"legal highs", a new generation of powerful mind-altering
substances that are growing in popularity across the world
Accurate figures are hard to come by, as these substances
are rarely monitored by drug-enforcement agencies. But the
proliferation of online and high-street retailers suggest
they are an increasingly lucrative business, and one
company specialising in legal drugs recently reported an
annual turnover of $16 million.
The reasons for their rising popularity are not hard to
fathom. Not only are they legal and openly available in
many countries, they work. Whether or not they are a good
thing, however, is more difficult to decide. Supporters
argue that legal highs are a bit of fun with a social
conscience - a harm-reduction measure that allows people
to experiment safely with psychoactive substances while
separating drug use from criminality. Others say no one
should be allowed to take such powerful drugs: the risks
are too great. Some of the disagreement is down to the
dearth of information about the short and long-term health
effects of most of these substances, their potential for
abuse and their addictiveness. But legal highs are also a
battleground between those who see the use of
mind-altering drugs as a human right and those who think
it is plain wrong.
Faced with growing use and an information vacuum,
governments are playing catch-up. Some, notably the US and
Australia, are clamping down on each new substance as soon
as they encounter it. Some are doing nothing. Others are
commissioning research into the drugs and their effects
before deciding what action to take.
And this is just the beginning. With hundreds of
synthetic drugs on their way, not to mention traditional
herbs that are being introduced to western consumers for
the first time, some believe that cheap, easily available,
legal highs could render the street drugs market
redundant. So what do we know - and not know - about legal
Legal highs are nothing new. Paul Anand, manager of
Shiva, the shop in Greenwich, London, where I bought my
salvia, has been selling them for 15 years, starting with
a stall at the Glastonbury festival. "Back then, I was
selling guarana, damiana and wild lettuce," he says,
"basically poor imitators of cannabis." There was a small
market for the stuff, but among experienced drug users
they were regarded as a joke, with few discernable
That all changed with the arrival of new, reliable and
effective substances, beginning in the UK at least with
magic mushrooms. At the end of the 1990s, vendors started
taking advantage of a legal loophole that permitted the
sale of fresh mushrooms as long as they were not prepared
in any way. Business boomed. In the year to April 2004 the
number of shops selling magic mushrooms in England and
Wales rose from a handful to over 400, according to the
British Crime Survey. In the same period 260,000 people
bought mushrooms - an increase of 40 per cent on the
previous 12 months.
In July 2005, the government closed the loophole,
outlawing the sale of fresh mushrooms containing the
hallucinogens psilocybin and psilocin, but by then it was
too late. The demand for legal highs had been established,
and high street and internet vendors rushed to fill the
void with an assortment of alternatives. These include
another type of magic mushroom, the fly agaric (Amanita
muscaria), which does not contain psilocybin or
psilocin but is packed with other hallucinogens including
muscimol. Salvia is another. And then there is an
astonishing assortment of psychoactive herbs, pills and
potions designed to mimic the effect of pretty much every
illegal drug going.
No dodgy dealers
Inside the shop, the cornucopia of offerings cannot be
exaggerated. Vials and bottles crammed with herbal
extracts, tinctures, seeds and powders jostle for
attention with packets of "party pills". There are
hallucinogens, relaxants, aphrodisiacs, trippy highs,
"loved-up" pills and euphorics. All entirely legal, at
least in the UK.
There are hallucinogens, relaxants,
aphrodisiacs, trippy highs, 'loved-up' pills and
euphorics. All entirely legal”
So why the sudden explosion? Anand says that his
customers are attracted by the safety and quality of his
products. "People are confident in what they're buying -
that it's not cut with rat poison. They enjoy coming into
the shop. They're not forced to meet a dodgy git in a
UV-lit disco to buy an aspirin."
Vendors also make a selling point of legality. With
drug testing increasingly routine at workplaces, 30 and
40-somethings are switching to highs that don't put them
on the wrong side of the law, Anand says. And with
legality comes, if not official approval, then at least an
imprimatur of safety.
The majority of Anand's customers are aged between 20
and 30, he says. Most have tried street drugs and are now
looking for something safer, more reliable, legal and
affordable. And they're part of a growing movement: one
leading vendor of legal highs, Stargate of Auckland, New
Zealand, recently reported an annual turnover of NZ$24
million (approximately US$16 million).
Among the most popular legal highs are "party pills"
made from compounds called piperazines, which are
chemically similar to Viagra but with an amphetamine-like
action. Known by various brand names such as PEP and
Bliss, their main active ingredient is BZP (benzylpiperazine)
- the "Z" pronounced US-style to rhyme with the "B".
Originally developed as a drug to treat parasites in
livestock, piperazines have been sporadically used on the
dance scene for many years but began to seriously take off
about three years ago - though not in the US, where they
have been strictly illegal since 2002. Anand started
selling them in January 2006 and says that every month
they grow more popular.
The BZP story started in the late 1990s, when the drug
was "discovered" by New Zealand entrepreneur Matt Bowden.
The former musician and recreational drug user became
hooked on illegal amphetamines in the 1990s during an
epidemic of methamphetamine - "crystal meth" - addiction
that swept the country. He had already lost a family
member to ecstasy when, in the mid-1990s, he witnessed a
friend on meth commit a horrific suicide - disembowelling
himself with a samurai sword - at a party.
Bowden became determined to kick the habit. His efforts
to quit led him to experiment with legal alternatives and
he sought out a professor of neuropharmacology to tutor
him and work alongside him on the project.
"I said, let's find something which is like
methamphetamine but non-addictive and has an extremely low
risk of overdose or death," Bowden says. They searched
through the scientific literature and came across a
piperazine which occasionally cropped up as an ecstasy
alternative called A2.
"We looked at a US study and found that one part of the
molecule caused liver damage in rats, but the other part
appeared to be perfectly safe. That part was BZP," he
In 2000, Bowden used the compound to break his
addiction to methamphetamine and then began giving it out
for free to friends. By 2002, companies had begun making
and selling BZP. The move led Bowden to set up his own
company, Stargate, to market safe, legal alternatives to
Stargate now produces and sells a range of pills based
on piperazine blends. BZP is often combined with another
piperazine, TFMPP (trifluorophenylmethylpiperazine), which
gives the pills a relaxing, euphoric effect that has been
compared to ecstasy.
Both drugs activate the 5HT serotonin receptor in the
brain - the same receptor targeted by amphetamines and
MDMA - and cause the release of dopamine (Neuropsychopharmacology,
vol 30, p 550). This is responsible for the "high"
associated with the pills, though it can also lead to
anxiety, overheating and dehydration. In one survey, only
half of people who had used BZP said they would describe
its effects as "good"; 16 per cent said it was "good early
but bad later", 10 per cent "bad" and 14 per cent "neither
good nor bad". My own experience of using BZP was mixed,
with some enjoyable effects but also a bout of paranoia,
insomnia and a bad hangover the next day.
Worldwide, Bowden sells a million pills a year and, all
told, New Zealand's legal party pills industry is worth
around NZ$50 million a year. As these figures suggest, a
lot of New Zealanders take BZP. In June, researchers at
Massey University in Auckland released the results of a
survey of more than 2000 people, commissioned by the New
Zealand government. "We expected that no more than 5 per
cent of those questioned would have tried BZP, but we
actually found that 20 per cent of people had tried the
drug, and 1 in 7 of 15 to 45-year-olds had used BZP in the
past year," says study leader Chris Wilkins.
Wilkins says that the highest usage was by those in
their 20s, as he had expected, but he also discovered high
levels of use by people in their 30s and 40s.
A separate survey of around 1000 people carried out in
Hamilton, New Zealand's seventh-largest city, yielded
similar figures. It found that 12 per cent of the city's
total population, and 30 per cent of 14 to 25-year-olds,
had taken BZP at some point (Emergency Medicine
Australasia, vol 18, p 180).
The popularity of BZP, along with anecdotal reports of
adverse reactions, withdrawal symptoms and psychotic
episodes, has led some politicians and doctors to start
campaigning for a ban. Bowden, however, argues that his
products are "harmless fun" and actually reduce demand for
street drugs and the damage they cause; the pills are even
labelled as "drug-harm minimisation solutions". He and
other vendors have an agreement to sell them only to
adults and in outlets where alcohol is not available.
"If we accept that people have the right to experiment
with their minds, just as they try paragliding or drag
racing, then it is the responsibility of governments to
ensure that they have access to well-designed drugs,"
There is some evidence in support of Bowden's argument
that BZP reduces the demand for street drugs. In the
Hamilton survey, 44 per cent of the 15 to 45-year-olds who
had tried BZP said they had stopped taking illegal drugs
as a result. In 2005, the head of the New Plymouth
Criminal Investigation Branch, Grant Coward, said that the
use of ecstasy had dropped after BZP became available. It
also appears that the relatively low price of BZP diverts
people away from illegal drugs. An ecstasy pill in New
Zealand costs up to NZ$80; the same amount will buy you up
to 12 BZP tablets. "Most users said that they would rather
take ecstasy than BZP because the effect is preferable and
the hangover not as bad, but they're priced out of it,"
Wilkins says. What is not clear, however, is whether BZP
acts as a gateway to illegal drugs among people who would
otherwise never have taken them.
Wilkins also points out that the drug seems to have
less abuse potential than amphetamines. "It gives you
quite a bad hangover, so people tend to limit their usage
of it," he says. Overall, however, Wilkins says it is too
early to conclude that BZP reduces harm.
Worries are also emerging about the health effects of
the drug. According to emergency doctor Paul Gee from
Christchurch Hospital, BZP-related admissions were almost
unheard of two years ago but are now commonplace. Between
April and September 2005, his team dealt with 80 users
complaining of nausea, vomiting, anxiety and palpitations.
Some had seizures; two cases were life-threatening (The
New Zealand Medical Journal, vol 118, p U1784). And
while there have been no deaths directly attributed to BZP,
in 2001 a woman died in Zurich after taking it with MDMA.
One of the biggest worries is that, because BZP is
advertised as a "safer alternative", it fosters the belief
that it is completely harmless and encourages people to
take more than the recommended dose (about 200
milligrams). In the Hamilton survey, around a third of 14
to 25-year-olds who had taken BZP said they did not read
the instructions on the packaging. Nearly half took more
than the recommended number of pills, and 66 per cent
drank alcohol at the same time, which is not advisable as
alcohol exacerbates the dehydrating effects of BZP.
The non-addictiveness and limited abuse potential of
BZP have also been called into question with a study
showing that rhesus monkeys will intravenously
self-administer the drug at rates as high as they would
for cocaine (Drug and Alcohol Dependence, vol 77, p
161). What's more, work due to be published in the journal
Neurotoxicology and Teratology shows that
adolescent rats given BZP grow up into anxious adults.
With the doubts about BZP growing, it is no surprise
that governments are sitting up and taking notice. In 2002
the US temporarily placed the drug on its schedule 1
rating, the same category as MDMA and heroin, and
confirmed this in 2004. BZP has recently been made illegal
in Japan, Denmark, Greece, Sweden and, as of 1 September,
Australia. In the UK, BZP remains legal but is on the
agenda for discussion at the government's advisory council
on the misuse of drugs meeting on 2 November, where a
decision will be taken as to whether BZP needs to be
New Zealand, however, has taken a different and
arguably more enlightened approach. In 2001 Bowden
approached the government to ask for its help in
regulating the new industry. In response the government
introduced a new class of drug called "non-traditional
designer substances", also known as class D. This class is
a repository for new and little-researched drugs, such as
BZP, pending further information. Class D drugs are legal,
though there are some restrictions on them; in BZP's case
that means a ban on sales to under-18s and in places that
The government also commissioned three studies into BZP.
One, the Hamilton prevalence study, has already been
published. The other two concern the drug's health effects
and are due out in November; Wilkins expects both to be
critical. The outcome of these studies will heavily
influence the legal status of BZP in New Zealand.
Whatever the fate of BZP, party pills won't be the last
legal high to occupy government time. Thanks to the
efforts of Bowden and like-minded individuals, new
psychoactive substances - both natural and synthetic -
continue to enter the market.
The next craze is likely to be for a legal high called
kratom. This extract of a tree native to south-east Asia
has been dubbed the "herbal speedball" for its euphoric
and energising properties. Kratom's main active
ingredient, mitragynine, binds to the same opiate receptor
(mu) as opium, heroin and cocaine. There are no documented
overdoses or fatalities and proponents claim it is
non-addictive, although last year a team from Josai
International University in Togane, Japan, published
evidence to the contrary (Life Sciences, vol 78, p
2). It is legal almost everywhere except Thailand and
Australia. In high doses it is supposed to produce
hallucinogenic effects. However, when I tried it - boiling
the leaves to make a nauseating tea - it merely made me
sick and sleepy.
According to a US National Drug Intelligence Center
report published in 2005, kratom is cheap and widely
available in the US and has "high abuse potential", though
up to now there have been no moves to ban it. That is sure
to change. Arguably, drugs such as kratom are legal not
because they have official approval but by default: they
have yet to become popular enough to attract the attention
of lawmakers. Once that happens - as with magic mushrooms
in the UK - governments are quick to clamp down.
Another high that appears to be on the brink of losing
its legal status is salvia. Also known as diviner's sage,
"magic mint" or "Sally D", Salvia divinorum is a
white-and-blue-flowered sage plant that grows in the
Oaxaca mountains in Mexico. It has been used for centuries
by the Mazatec people in shamanistic rituals and in
The first westerner to experience salvia's powerful
hallucinogenic effects was anthropologist Brett Blosser,
now of Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. In
the late 1980s, he was invited to take part in a Mazatec
shamanic ceremony in which the participants rolled up
salvia leaves and chewed them. The effect was profoundly
psychedelic, Blosser reported.
Inspired by Blosser's account, Daniel Siebert, an
independent ethnobotanist from Los Angeles, distilled the
plant's juices to produce white, needle-shaped crystals
which he called salvinorum A. Just a tiny crumb of this on
his tongue produced what he describes as the most awesome
and frightening experience of his life. "Suddenly I lost
all physical awareness. I felt as though I were completely
conscious and yet I had no body. I wondered if I had
died," he says.
I lost all physical awareness. I felt
as though I were completely conscious and yet I had no
body. I wondered if I had died.”
In 2002, with recreational use of salvia on the rise in
the US and elsewhere, Bryan Roth, director of the National
Institute of Mental Health's psychoactive drug screening
programme at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland,
Ohio, took an interest. He discovered that salvinorum A is
highly selective for the recently discovered kappa opioid
receptor in the brain (Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences, vol 99, p 11934). Like the other
two opioid receptors (mu and delta), kappa is involved in
pain sensations. But, unlike the other two, chemicals
bound to it can cause hallucinations.
It's still unclear why salvia produces hallucinations.
"Some of the experiences people have on salvia may be
similar to the psychosis that occurs in late-stage
Alzheimer's," says Roth. "There is an increase in the
number of kappa receptors in the brains of people with
All studies so far have shown salvia to be
non-addictive. It also appears to have limited potential
for abuse. "Most people taking drugs are not looking for
an out-of-body experience, they want something gentle,"
says Harry Shapiro from UK drugs information charity
DrugScope. "Salvia is so strong that people try it once
and never take it again."
Playing with fire
Even so, possession of salvia has recently been made an
offence in four US states - Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee
and Delaware - and a federal ban appears inevitable.
Thomas Prisinzano of the University of Iowa in Iowa City,
who is studying salvia to research new methods for
treating substance abuse and pain, believes it is only a
matter of time. "If LSD is schedule 1, then salvia will
almost certainly be classed the same," he says.
Some researchers would welcome a ban on salvia and
other new drugs. One of these is pharmacologist and
substance misuse researcher Fabrizio Schifano of St
George's Medical School in London. He says that the main
problem with psychoactive substances - and hallucinogens
in particular - is that they may incite psychosis. "How do
you know if someone will have a sensitivity to the drug?"
he says. "I am really worried by the prevalence of these
drugs, and the fact that most users get their information
from the internet. It is not peer-reviewed research, just
people's opinions, and that is very dangerous."
Tim Kendall, deputy director of the Royal College of
Psychiatrists research unit, says: "When you take salvia
you are playing with fire. People can be very damaged in
terms of their personal functioning. They frequently have
flashbacks that intrude into their life, which can be
almost like a post-traumatic stress problem after very bad
"My recommendation is that people should keep their
minds clean," adds Roth.
Others believe that knee-jerk bans are the wrong
approach. People have a natural drive to enter alternative
states of mind, argues Richard Boire from the Center for
Cognitive Liberty and Ethics in Davis, California. "The
role of governments is to prevent harm to people and
society from dangerous drug use. I think the government
has lost sight of this and now thinks its role is to stop
people from entering other mindsets."
For governments intent on pursuing prohibition at all
costs, there is a sobering thought. For every banned
psychoactive substance there are dozens more that remain
legal. The legendary pharmacologist Alexander Shulgin has
synthesised more than 230 novel designer drugs, and
according to psychologist John Halpern, associate director
of alcohol and drug abuse research at Harvard University,
there are dozens of legal hallucinogenic herbs besides
salvia that are already widely available on the internet
and growing in popularity (Life Sciences, vol 78, p
519). What is more, there is clearly a demand for the
stuff, and plenty of people like Bowden willing to supply
it. Salvia, BZP and kratom may be on the way out, but
others will take their place.
From issue 2571 of New Scientist magazine, 29 September
2006, page 40-45