Hippie herbalism meets Nineties club culture at the first shop in Britain to sell over-the-counter herbal dance drugs. They're safe, natural and completely legal, but do they work? Simon Beckett reports
THE PRODUCTS have the exotic ring of serious narcotics: Meta Blast, Meta Buzz, Wild Opium Lettuce. The sales pitch is similarly impressive. "A potent stimulant used regularly in Africa and Jamaica," claims one. "A very nice high with a psychedelic edge," offers another. Set out in four sections, Smokes, Stimulants, Pills and Hallucinogens, the printed "menu" would do justice to one of Amsterdam's cannabis cafes. Except the setting is a shop in Sheffield, not Holland. And everything an sale is completely legal.

Based in The Forum, a crucially trendy shopping complex an the edge of the city centre, Meta Legal Highs has lifted what was once seen as the province of herbalists and hippies into the club culture of the Nineties. The company was formed eight months ago by Sean Marshall and Chris Smith, who had been importing Egyptian artefacts until they realised that certain types of vegetable sold better than stone statues. Made from plants, nuts, roots, bark, and berries from all over the world, Meta claims that all its products are "psychoactive and 100 per cent natural and safe".

Although a few items they offer have been available through mail order for some time, Meta (which also sells through mail order itself) claims to be the first shop in the country to specialise in selling "natural highs" over the counter. "We haven't come up with a new product, just a new marketing strategy," says Sean. "These have been around forever. If you look at it, cavemen were doing herbal drugs."

Meta's "menu" offers two dozen alternatives to drugs such as ecstasy, amphetamines, and marijuana. Some of the items on sale are made up from single herbs, such as broom, smoked in the same way as marijuana, or calmus root, a hallucinogen purported to have LSD-like properties in strong enough doses. Others, especially the pills, are combinations of different plants, with names like Meta Dream (a "downer"), or Up Yer Gas, which claims to be "the number one US ecstasy alternative". The ingredients for these, however, are kept as a jealously guarded secret.

None of Meta's products are, according to existing government guidelines, deemed to be either habit-forming or harmful, although some are regarded dubiously in other countries. Khat, for instance, a Middle Eastern shrub used as a stimulant, is classified as a grade A drug in America. But Meta insists that it does not sell anything over which there is any substantial doubt - two hallucinogens, Druid's Dream and Yellow Subs, were dropped after complaints of nausea.

It is, they say, probably better to compare their products with coffee, an accepted "legal high", than illicit drugs. Because their products are natural, it's necessary to take more of them to get the required effect than with stronger, man-made chemicals. But, says Chris, the compensation is that they are much more easily assimilated. "Your body deals with them as it does food, just breaks them down and releases everything. With things like ecstasy your body has a hard time getting rid of all the toxins."

So do they work? After hearing how even a couple in their 80s bought some Meta Blast tabs to pep them up for a ballroom dancing night in Bournemouth, curiosity demands personal experience. Whizzard Tea is made from a Chinese herb called mauhang and contains ephedrine, a stimulant similar to amphetamine, which gives it an edge over lapsang souchong. It's also supposedly good for colds, flu and asthma, so it's ideal for a clubber with a chesty cough. Just the thing to replace my mid-afternoon boost of coffee. The pounds 2.99 pack makes a small teapot full of murky looking infusion. It tastes surprisingly pleasant - less wishy-washy than herbal tea.

As for the effect - well, there does seem to be a bit of a lift at one point, but whether that's due to the tea or the fact that I'm waiting for it is difficult to say.

Other customers, though, are in no doubt. "I've tried everything," says Kev Baker, owner of a record shop and one of Meta's regulars. "I went to Reading this summer and spent nearly a full day on khat. It was just absolutely fabulous, it was sweet. I wasn't drinking, I was just there, watching this band, chewing on this ball of khat. I had all the energy I needed. And there's never any come-down. Your next day is normal, instead of being a big, spaced-out nothing."

Since Meta claim about 70 per cent repeat business, he's presumably not alone in his enthusiasm. But not everyone is prepared to add a few tabs of Meta Rush to their weekend shopping list. In Bath recently, a pair of like-minded entrepreneurs (copyists, say Meta) found their shop padlocked on its opening morning when their landlord learned they weren't just selling joss-sticks. And, legal or not, there are those who argue that any drugs, no matter how safe, are only stepping stones to shooting up in shop doorways. Chris an Sean dispute this theory. "It's not a case of people trying out stuff and then deciding they want to lead a life of drugs," Chris says. "It's quite the opposite, it's more a case of people coming in who have already tried the illegal drugs, and are looking for something that won't be detrimental to them, that won't rob them of their senses for the next few days. This is a service that you're not going to get off a guy stood at the back of a night club.Going into a shop in a nice, open shopping centre and discussing what you're buying with someone who knows what they're doing has got to be a more intelligent way of doing things."

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