Drugs

Watching the Death of the UK’s Synthetic Drug Industry with One of Its Last Distributors

An interview with the man who owned the UK's biggest legal high wholesale business.

by Max Daly
May 26 2016, 2:35pm

Photos courtesy of Donal O'Dwyer

As of today, legal highs are no longer legal in the UK. The Psychoactive Substances Act—a Home Office bill that bans any and all of those vac-packed bags of synthetic drugs with weird names—came into effect at midnight, the hope being that banning all of these substances will stop people from doing them.

Yesterday, alongside hundreds of online and high street head shops, one of the largest and oldest legal high outfits in the UK, Herbal Highs, shut down for good. Herbal Highs began selling herbal ecstasy, magic mushrooms, and hippy highs at Glastonbury 23 years ago, but went on to became the biggest legal high wholesaler and distributor in Britain.

I spoke to owner Donal O'Dwyer to get the inside story on the rise and fall of the much-maligned legal highs game, and how it was ruined by the very people set to benefit from the ban.

VICE: I've noticed on your website it says "Closing Down Offers" and "Last Orders." Is it really all over?
Donal O'Dwyer: The Home Office have again made a massive mistake in creating a blanket ban on the sale of legal highs, closing down all the legitimate businesses and giving clear way for the unscrupulous criminals. When will they learn prohibition just doesn't work?

You've been selling legal highs for twenty-three years—you must have been one of the first on the scene.
When we started selling legal highs from a tent at Glastonbury in the early 90s, it was a different world: Opening up a video rental shop seemed like a great idea, the internet was just a concept, and festivals were held in places full of smelly hippies.

What did you sell?
We used to sell a range of ethno-botanical products and khat tinctures. All our legal highs, such as Druids fantasy, EX-1, and Bliss, were herbal, made from morning glory seeds, mahung, and many other herbal extracts. We also sold herbal ecstasy, blue pills with a butterfly on them, which contained Sida cordifolia, made by [filmmaker and herbalist] Shaahin Cheyene. But herbal highs were considered to be ineffective by the masses. Like many good ideas, legal highs and herbal highs seem very obvious now, but they took a long time to catch on. In fact, in the early days, people used to stand and look at our stall and point and laugh. The most asked question for the first ten years was, "So, do they really work then?"

But you were onto something?
During our first months doing mail order, back in the "please allow twenty-eight days for delivery" era, we printed something like ten thousand leaflets, distributed them out at Reading Festival and took just £28 [$40] in the first month. Hardly a brilliant start, but it was a start nonetheless, and I believed the world would eventually catch on. Because we were out there at festivals, people who possessed knowledge were drawn to our products: herbalists, chemists, people who had created samples and read about various chemicals. Our business didn't really take off until the success of broadband during the 2000s, where the masses could buy things successfully online.

So the internet acted as a catalyst?
The digital age allowed information to be exchanged easily, and this provided access to lots of previously hidden papers and journals that had been developed and shelved by pharmaceutical companies, from as early as 1910. Now people including ourselves were looking at how to get these products produced and distributed. There were already lots of people trying out various research chemicals, and the internet allowed them to write blogs and share their personal experiences.

Not only had the products changed, but the way these were consumed changed too. People read reviews, looked at forums, and knew what they wanted. They expected consistent quality, unlike like the old days when people just bought something in a dirty public toilet and hoped for the best. Our business was founded on customer satisfaction and repeat sales, and the laws were changing every day to keep us on our toes and ensure all of our products remained legal.

This is where synthetic weed and stimulants came in. How did you make them?
Around the mid 2000s, we were looking for something to replace a very popular and expensive powder that was sold on the streets that has a terrible human rights record relating to its chain of production and importation. As our community expanded, we met people like Dr. Zee from Israel, who helped with developing one of our most popular products, Charge, which contained a cathinone—and this was a synthesized version of khat.

On synthetic cannabinoids, we had experimented with thousands of compounds and extracts and did a huge amount of research. We already knew where to source the plant matter and the active compounds required to add to that. We got them synthesized in labs in China and India we had built up relationships with.

We had a team of people who did clinical trials who actually wrote reports on the effects of the products, and this was a long, drawn out process. We eventually produced fantastic, safe products such as Green Dream, Skunk, and Big Buddha. They were manufactured in lab conditions, and when we received the raw materials, we would hand them over to contract manufacturers in Britain who would put the products together and package them.

And this is how you became the biggest supplier of legal highs in Britain?
By 2009, herbalhighs.co.uk was being compared on a BBC documentary to Amazon; it was a proud moment. We never sold mephedrone, which didn't fit in with our ethos because we thought it was dirty and unsafe. Charge became an almost overnight success, and we just couldn't make it fast enough.

In 2010, the business grew ten thousand percent within six months, and we were dealing with huge deliveries every week. Because of our rapid expansion, we automated much of the packing process, but with a team of twenty to thirty packers finishing things by hand. We therefore didn't have time to carry out an interview process or assessment of employees, but hired anyone regardless of ability or acumen. These were exciting, crazy times.

We sold our products to a growing number of online and high street head shops, and this made previously poor people very rich; lots of people bought houses because of our stock, and I was told our business model inspired others to get into this business, and I mentored everyone I could.

A letter Donal received from the NCA, telling him to cease his operations

But then the market became flooded with cheap imitations?
Unfortunately, the things that positioned us well for success at one point [ended up working against us]. For every one packet of Charge we produced, there were at least five forgeries on the market. We became a victim of our own success, but unlike Nike, trading standards didn't seem to be interested in our plight. We were very concerned that people would buy substandard or dangerous products believing them to be ours. We looked at ethical and legitimate ways to demonstrate the herbal highs standard to our customers, including the introduction of holograms.

There was an attempt to organize an industry association to monitor the quality of legal highs, but people in the industry had their own agendas, and, in the end, it was impossible to even arrange where to meet, never mind an outcome. It was a bit like OPEC.

How would you compare the synthetic weed you sold to the stuff that's out there causing people to collapse and become addicted today?
Consistency and strength. Our products were far less potent. We had consistent suppliers and a consistent manufacturing process. You will struggle to find a negative comment about the Herbal High Company on the web. Maybe people said our products weren't strong enough, but they never said they made them ill. But what they are selling is nonsense, like selling one thousand percent proof beer. You won't enjoy it; you'll just use it to get totally numbed.

Synthetic cannabinoids were never the problem; the problem was the fact people have been selling stronger and stronger products to get ahead of their competitors, such as Annihilation. Our products were mild.

So the competition to make legal highs as strong as possible has ruined it for everyone?
Many of the fly-by-night sellers are ex-drug dealers, and after the law change, it will go back to being drug dealers. The irony is that those who created these problems come from the illegal side and people who were never cut out for legitimate business, but they are ones who are going to benefit from this new law. It's like the banking crisis, as the people who caused all the problems are ultimately the ones who will gain from it.

Donal O'Dwyer hopes to turn the Herbal Highs story into a movie and a book.

Disclaimer: Herbal Highs only sold products not for human consumption.

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