Natural-born thrillers

Herbal drugs may be legal, but are they safe? asks Emma Cook. And do they work anyway?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
For Every chemical drug, a herbal equivalent will surely follow. So, it should come as no surprise that even ecstasy has spawned a natural alternative - "herbal highs".

They may sound anodyne, but the effects are meant to be anything but. "Literally rob your mind with a concoction of psychedelic sensations," raves the description of one herbal pill, Mind Banditz. Charly Hughes, owner of Dr Herman's, a shop that sells club merchandise and other herbal products, started producing the range a month ago for his two branches in Manchester and Camden, north London.

They are, he says, 100 per cent natural and, for the moment at least, completely legal. "Our aim is to produce a natural herbal synthesis that provides an alternative to taking illegal drugs. With these pills, people know what they're buying and they won't have rubbish in them." What they do have instead, according to Hughes, is a mixture of ingredients including calamus, "a known psychedelic used by Cree Indians", guarana, ginseng, amino acid and kola nut, "a strong African stimulant that gives pleasant spinal tingles with loads of energy".

Costing between pounds l and pounds 4 per tablet (you can take up to ten at a time), punters can choose from a number of different ones, all sounding uncannily similar to the real thing: Love Doves, Druid's Dream, Mind Banditz, Yellow Submarines and Jack In A Box. According to the manufacturer's blurb, Love Doves contain "MDA-like substances - MDA is a cousin of MDMA and this gives the loved-up, emphatic feelings that supply the difference."

They may be marketed in a similar way to ecstasy, but, claims Hughes, their product is actually a very sensible response to drug culture. "All of them have been tested," he says. "We take people through the possible effects you can expect. If we can say to kids, 'Don't take ecstasy, take something natural instead,' I think that's a valuable role for us to play."

But Professor Vincent Marks, dean of medicine at the University of Surrey, cautions: "It really plays on people's fear of synthetic versus natural. The deadliest poisons come from plants and nature has invented far more chemicals than mankind." But Hughes argues: "The majority of the ingredients contained in Love Doves are available in most health-food stores. And certainly no herbal high carries any of the risks associated with illicit drug use."

But the fact that these pills do claim to have a physiological effect has already attracted the attention of the Department Of Health, which is currently investigating the "herbal highs" market. A DoH spokesperson explains: "We know they're unlicensed medicines and their sale is illegal. We need to find out which ones are really innocuous and which ones should be licensed as medicines."

Since they went on sale a month ago, Dr Herman's in Camden has sold about 100 a week. One customer enthuses: "You feel light and fluffy with masses of energy. They made me feel totally blissed out."

But the verdict from an office guinea pig was considerably less effusive. After two supposedly mind-altering Yellow Submarines, he commented: "You'd probably have to take about 20 to have a strong effect. Absolutely no visual distortions and nothing that's at all overpowering. I feel quite buzzy, but I'm still waiting to go over into another dimension."