Ministers announced last week that two more legal highs are to be banned, joining mephedrone and Ivory Wave in the graveyard of illegalised internet drugs.
After being subject to a temporary ban since June, Benzofuran – or Benzo Fury, as it's more commonly known – and NBOMe are to be made class B and A drugs, respectively. This is due in part to a series of high-profile deaths, allegedly caused by the drugs; Jennifer Whiteley, died after taking Benzo Fury to celebrate a job offer and Jake Harris reportedly slit his own throat in a spasm of psychosis brought on by NBOMe.
I spoke to a couple of Benzo Fury users, who wanted to remain anonymous, to gauge how dangerous the drug really is. The first took the stimulant in capsule form; "The capsule was half full – maybe 100 or 150 mg – and it was a different high to MDMA; less hectic, more focused and very clean," he told me. "There was no comedown to speak of."
While his experience actually sounds pretty enjoyable, the second user I spoke to made Benzo Fury sound more like a synthesised torture aid than a recreational drug. After double dropping the stimulant in pill form, she couldn't get to sleep for four days. Over that time she suffered anxiety and psychosis, before seeking assistance at a hospital and being prescribed diazepam – more commonly known as Valium – to counter the insomnia.
Experiences of NBOMe are also polemic; a couple of users raved about the hallucinogen on the drugs forum Erowid: "The visuals are amazing and I've only just scratched the surface," wrote the first. "Bliss. Nirvana. This is the ultimate human experience," said the second.
But, of course, NBOMe doesn't always enable users to transcend reality and reach chemical ecstasy. Sometimes it just sounds fucking horrible. "My body felt like shit," wrote one user. "I wasn't sure if I was going to shit or puke myself all over the couch or wherever I was [...] In the meantime, I could barely move – I felt like I had drank an entire bottle of vodka. But everything around me had gone to absolute crazy town. I mean, I completely lost sanity."
Given that not that many people seem to be taking NBOMe, the drug has been associated with a worrying number of deaths – something Harry Sumnall, a member of the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs, has picked up on. "The NBOMe compounds seemed to have a disproportionately high mortality rate being as use was so low," he tweeted at me.
Such testimonies aren't supposed to show that these drugs are either good or bad, merely that there are plagued by inconsistencies – which isn't surprising when dealing with substances whose short- and long-term effects we know very little about. In fact, we know next to nothing about the estimated 243 new psychoactive substances that have appeared since 2009; a troubling number considering that each of those – although mostly very similar – is a unique drug in its own right, with its own idiosyncratic risks.
After speaking to users, I popped down to my local head shop to ask what has to be done when a ban of a legal high comes into force. Turns out it's exactly what you'd expect: "You take it off the shelf as soon as it's made illegal, destroy it and get rid of it completely," the clerk told me.
He anticipated that other products of his would soon be subject to the same laws, in particular the synthetic cannabinoids that attempt to mimic the effects of cannabis. As for whether shops will be losing any money, "I don't think it affects the business," the clerk continued. And it seemed like his assumptions were correct – the store's cabinets were filled with a variety of different research chemicals, all carrying the label of "not for human consumption". This is the loophole that leaves stores and the producers of the drugs exempt from responsibility if someone does decide to put two grams of the stuff up their nose rather than use it to feed their plants.
"I tell people it's not for human consumption for personal reasons, because I feel people should know," said the clerk. "I think it's a bit out of order to sell someone something and not mention that the only reason they're buying this is because of a small technicality."
The technicality he's speaking of are the tiny molecule changes in the drugs' composition. These are what allow each new substance to dodge legal sanctions. Whipping up a new drug in this way is incredibly easy, as demonstrated by Mike Power's experiment for the Guardian, where he managed to create a new legal high and get it shipped over from a factory in China.
According to Martin Powell from drug policy reform organisation Transform, all these new research chemicals "are a direct product of prohibition of other stimulants. Through prohibition we have created an endless stream of new substances that are potentially even more hazardous than the ones that have been banned."
So, rather than protecting the public from the latest chemical concoction to be unleashed upon their nostrils, it's likely that the government's approach to drugs like Benzo and NBOMe is instead exacerbating the problem. The approach, according to Martin, is "entirely fruitless; all you're doing by banning is guaranteeing that another drug that we know absolutely nothing about will be on the market".
Martin suggests that the UK government pays more attention to the progressive steps being taken in New Zealand. The country is now implementing a system of state-regulated legal highs, all of which will have to pass stringent clinical trials to be deemed "safe" for human consumption.
Though the idea is, on the surface, a good one, there are caveats. If the bar set by these clinical trials is too high and no drug that anyone actually wants to consume passes, then it's essentially still prohibition, albeit under a sexier libertarian-cum-harm-reduction guise. If the standard is too low, then you're exposing people to drugs that may seriously harm their health. If it is set to a reasonable level and married with clear, unbiased and accurate health warnings, the risk to users could reduce significantly. The difficulty for governments, of couse, is in finding that reasonable level.
Nevertheless, Martin thinks New Zealand's approach will be a successful one and is hopeful that similar testing will be introduced in the UK. "With the new Home Office minister Norman Baker's review, looking at drug policies from around the world – including having extensive discussion with New Zealand – we hope the government will follow the evidence of what works, rather than a knee-jerk reaction that makes things far, far worse," he said.
It's too early to tell if New Zealand's approach will be as effective as its advocates are hoping, and it certainly won't be a silver bullet policy for eradicating the harms of legal highs. Ideally, Martin says, there would be strict regulation of all drugs. In that scenario, "If someone wants to take a stimulant, you can steer them towards the one that poses the least risk to their health, rather than having an unregulated free-for-all, which is what we have currently got – and what will continue to happen under prohibition."
Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephfcox
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