This article first appeared at VICE UK
DISCLAIMER: Although all of these products are completely legal, we wouldn't advise using any of them, for reasons you will discover.
A lot of us have had a rough time in 2016, but spare a thought this Christmas for the families of the poor men and women of the once proud legal highs industry. There'll be no presents under the tree for their kids this year, not since the Roflcopter factories were shuttered and all the Meow Meow labs closed down. Things just haven't been the same since the 26th of May this year, when the Psychoactive Substances Act came into effect, banning the sale of legal highs in the UK.
When the law was introduced, some police chiefs said it would be impossible to enforce. And at first glance it looks like they were right. Go online and you'll still find products being sold that look very similar to all of the formerly legal party powders that are now illegal to sell in the UK. However, my first thought is that, to be sold, they must be legal, meaning they also must not have any kind of "psychoactive effect" on the human brain, because otherwise they'd be blocked under the act.
There was only one way to find out: buy a load of them and review them one by one. So I set off for Camden, spiritual home of the British head shop, to find out what had managed to slip through the ban.
"We don't sell that stuff any more – all banned now," one shopkeeper on the high street told me. "Stop taking that shit!" shouted another, which was a bit rich considering his shop was 90 percent bongs. I think they thought I was a narc, and you can't blame them for being wary given that police raided those same shops as the ban was coming in.
The last place still promising you "a one stop shop for all your party needs" this side of the dark web is the online ICE head shop, which will still deliver a range of "research chemicals" straight to your door. I ordered the lot.
What I Ordered
Snow Blow (1g)
Smiley Face (0.5g)
Bosh (2 pill pack)
Jester (2 pill pack)
What They Promised
Snow Blow, Blowout and Smiley Face powders all clearly state they're based on what they call "the world's most consumed psychoactive drug". Then there's POW. Here's how they describe it on the website: "The Psychoactive Bill was a real downer, but here at ICE we've worked hard to bring you a new range of research powders to make sure you get up again in no time. Here's introducing the brand new POW – the 1st proper research chemical since the ban!"
What Was in Them
The main ingredient in all of these is something called "1,3,7-trimethylxanthine". What have those clever-clogs in the lab cooked up this time to evade the UK's strict anti-weird-internet-drugs law? Let's ask Google:
Looking more closely, "the world's most consumed psychoactive drug" is actually caffeine. Smiley Face cuts it up pure. Snow Blow and Blowout both mix it with taurine and vitamin B, which is almost certainly not what your mum had in mind when she told you to take more vitamins. POW combines caffeine with the black pepper extract bioperine and a mystery compound which looks to be similar to stuff you'd normally find in angina medication.
Bosh and Jester are both caffeine, guarana and cola nut extract mixed in big red capsules. Festive.
What Doing a Line Feels Like
There's a sort of placebo effect to cutting and snorting a line of white powder where, for a moment, your brain goes: 'I'm about to get fucked up.' There's a slight antiseptic taste and, after Blow Out, the back of your throat tastes like Red Bull, presumably due to the taurine. Sure, there's an initial buzz as the caffeine hits your blood stream, but half an hour later and I'm not chatting any shit whatsoever.
Roughly Equivalent Experiences
– Drinking a strong coffee first thing in the morning before you've eaten anything.
– Seeing off a Red Bull.
– Going up two flights of stairs slightly faster than you're strictly comfortable with.
– Falling over.
What You Imagine Taking a Pill Called Bosh Might Feel Like
Being in a field and your mate leaning in under the music, going: "Are you feeling anything yet?" and you shake your head, but then your legs start to go and – are you maybe too hot? – and you're grinning now; wait, you love this song – and your mates are grinning too, and, is everyone here really, really fit? No, not being funny, but this might be the best song ever made – and you can't believe you've never noticed before, but god it feels so great to stretch your arms.
What Taking a Pill Called Bosh Actually Feels Like
Taking an ibuprofen.
Situations Where These Products Would Be Useful
– If you're in the presumably slim Venn diagram of people who a) want to throw a Narcos themed party, but b) don't really like drugs.
– You're nervous about sneezing while doing a line at a party like Woody Allen in Annie Hall and want to practice at home. A sort of Fisher Price "My First Line".
– Cramming for an exam. You find you can no longer stomach another can of that Shark energy drink stuff but need an extra hour or two awake to really get a handle on osmosis.
– Shooting a low budget remake of Blow.
Situations Where These Products Would Not Be Useful
If somebody asks you: "Have you got any drugs?"
Others Way of Consuming Large Quantities Of Caffeine That Don't Involve Fucking Up Your Septum
There are many, many ways capitalism is already providing for you:
– Venti coffee from Starbucks: 400mg
– Grande coffee from Starbucks: 320mg
– Tall coffee from Starbucks: 240mg
– Can of Monster Energy: 160mg
– Espresso from Starbucks: 150mg
– Can of Red Bull: 80mg
– Black tea: 30-80mg
– Pro Plus tablet: 50mg
– Can of Diet Coke: 47mg
– Can of ordinary Coke: 35mg
– Häagen-Dazs Coffee Ice Cream: 29mg
To put that another way, you'd have to snort almost half a gram of Smiley Face before you get as much of a kick as a million office workers get over the counter every single morning of their sensible lives.
What I've Learned
Drugs are bad. We all remember being told that at school, but bad drugs are the worst. As a wise man once told me: "Just stick to the classics."
On a wider note, far from being un-policeable, the Psychoactive Substances Act does seem to have succeeded in reducing the legal highs industry to websites pushing sachets of powder not significantly more potent than ground-up Pro Plus.