A Look Inside the British Government's Legal Highs Lab


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A Look Inside the British Government's Legal Highs Lab

We spent a day at ground zero for the UK's new war on synthetic drugs.

FEWS Project Manager Audrey Carmichael testing NPS in the lab. Photos by the author

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

It looks like a head shop is taking inventory in a college science lab. On one side of the work surface are a few bags of white powder labeled with the very complicated names of chemical compounds; on the other is a range of foil packets sporting dodgy graphic designs and names like Gogaine, Ching, Exodus, and Herbal Haze.

Machines buzz and whirr in the background as chemists sit at computer screens, monitoring the compounds that pass through them. It's eerily quiet, and beyond the small selection of buildings in front of the window, there is no sign of civilization for miles.


The white powders are a selection of novel psychoactive substances (NPS), a group of drugs that have been blamed for a string of high-profile deaths in the UK since 2009. However, this isn't a Chinese laboratory manufacturing the stuff you see sold to college kids at Glastonbury, nor is it a home chemist's clandestine DIY workshop in an Ipswich industrial estate. This is the lab of the Forensic Early Warning System (FEWS) at the UK Home Office's Center for Applied Science and Technology in St. Albans.

A selection of NPS in the FEWS lab

The FEWS was set up in 2011 to identify all the NPS—dubbed "legal highs"—reaching the market, and to tackle the problem of the rapid rise in number seen in the preceding three years. Currently, chemists—predominantly in China, India, and Pakistan—closely monitor new laws and apply minor tweaks to controlled substances, taking them back outside legislation faster than authorities can ban them.

But the blanket ban announced here a couple of weeks ago in the Psychoactive Substances Bill will prohibit the production, distribution, sale, and supply of any substance defined to have a "psychoactive effect," with anyone caught doing so facing up to seven years in jail.

"The bill will put an end to the game of cat and mouse in which new drugs appear on the market more quickly than government can identify and ban them," explains Mike Penning, Minister of State for Policing, Crime, Criminal Justice, and Victims. "Young people who take these substances are taking exceptional risks with their health, and those who profit from their sale have a complete disregard for the potential consequences. That's why we are targeting the suppliers."


You'd have thought the new legislation, which applies a blanket ban to all NPS, will leave the team at FEWS out of a job. However, fears remain that the number of NPS will continue to grow despite the ban, and that the lack of regulation due to manufacturing being forced underground will create more risk around these products. So what is the future of NPS in the UK under a blanket ban?

Audrey Carmichael, the FEWS project manager, continues frantically trying to keep up with new products that hit the UK market. "Psychoactive substances will still need to be identified. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 will continue to control drugs where there is expert evidence of their harms," she explains, setting up another sample for testing.

"For almost every traditional drug you can think of that's on the market, we will see a synthetic version," Carmichael explains, summing up the new front on the UK's war on drugs. "We still see completely new compounds around once a month."

Some more NPS in the FEWS lab

During a recent test purchase, the team found that two branded packets from the same head shop contained entirely different chemicals. "They're marked with each ingredient by weight, so they look legitimate, but it often doesn't correlate to what we see when we do analysis," Carmichael remarks. "We've found antibiotics and all sorts. We don't know if they are by-products, or just something to bulk it out with."

As one of the biggest service providers of forensic toxicology to UK police forces, this lack of regulation is something that Dr. Mark Piper, head of toxicology at Randox Laboratories, has firsthand experience of.


"You can buy two batches of the same product, and what is in them can vary massively. You never know what's in that packet – it's just a white chemical," he explains. "There is little in the way of quality control in the manufacture of these."

However, Piper is clear in what he sees happening once the ban is enforced: "I don't doubt for a minute that it will be driven underground."

Other experts also fear the ban may only serve to make the current situation even worse. "One of the worries when you use criminal law is that you drive the form of drug use further underground," explains Dr. Neil McKeganey, founder of the Center for Drug Misuse Research. "You have less access to the production process as there is no scope for any kind of cooperation. These substances are not well understood at the moment in terms of their chemical components—it can take an extraordinarily long time to work out what is in them. If you use regulation, it becomes much harder to work that out."

This lack of regulation within the market is something that Donal (not his real name), director of one of the UK's original legal high manufacturers, bemoans. "We would welcome a regulated market," he says. "The better guidelines there are for a supplier, the better. It became so popular that people have just set up in five minutes without really understanding the product or knowing where it has come from. It has given the industry a bad name and put people at risk. We need licensing and compliance, like you have in other industries."

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Donal also feels that the government is building bad legislation on top of an already flawed system. "The restrictions that are currently in place actually cause more problems, as we can't give any information. If you stop pharmacies telling people how many paracetamol they can take, quite quickly people will start dying from using paracetamol," he points out.

Donal believes the ban is only set to make the situation worse. "People are not going to stop abusing substances because legislation says they can't; it just means that the more reputable and scrupulous people will stop selling it, and the less reputable ones will continue, creating organized crime and a more dangerous market," he says. "The bill has been brought in with the intention of protecting the youth, but it will have the opposite effect. It's an Elastoplast on a gaping wound: slightly pointless and getting in the way of the healing process."

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