Drug addicts turning to herbal highs

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The Independent Online

Plans to outlaw magic mushrooms have raised fears of a surge in the use of potentially harmful hallucinogenic herbs and plants. Drugs experts are calling for these legal so-called herbal highs, now widely available on the internet and in high street shops, to carry clear warning labels because inexperienced users mistakenly believe they are safe.

Plans to outlaw magic mushrooms have raised fears of a surge in the use of potentially harmful hallucinogenic herbs and plants. Drugs experts are calling for these legal so-called herbal highs, now widely available on the internet and in high street shops, to carry clear warning labels because inexperienced users mistakenly believe they are safe.

These dried or powdered substances include salvia divinorum, a variety of sage which can be smoked. Salvia is not a controlled drug in Britain but has been banned in Italy, Denmark and Australia because it can leave users disoriented.

At the end of last year, the Government announced that hallucinogenic fungi would be treated as a class A drug such as heroin or cocaine, with harsh penalties for supplying or possessing them.

But these new laws do not extend to herbs such as salvia, which has now become one of the biggest sellers on the legal drugs market and is cheaper than some illegal drugs at between £8 and £25 a packet. Many of these "natural" drugs, now being sold on sites such as eBay, imitate illegal stimulants. For example, kratom resin, which has been banned in Thailand but is again widely available in this country, produces an effect similar to that of opiates.

However, the doses of these "alternatives" are often difficult to judge, resulting in lethal consequences. Angel's trumpet contains the chemical scopolamine which can cause unconsciousness and death. The plant, which grows in parks and gardens, is responsible for several deaths in the US where it is banned.

DrugScope, the harm reduction charity, said the clampdown on magic mushrooms will mean users will instead experiment with unfamiliar alternatives.

A spokeswomen said: "The change will mean people are going to move to herbal solutions. Any information regarding harm and understanding the risks has got to be a lot more effective than using criminal penalties."

One worrying new trend is young people mixing natural drugs with other substances such as amino acids to increase their high but with potentially dangerous side effects such as panic attacks and heart problems. Another concern is that the increasingly lucrative herbal high market may be taken over by gangs who do not care about quantity, dosage or the age of their customers.

Andrea Zangara, an expert in the side effects of drugs, has carried out a study into the use in Europe of legal and natural high-inducing substances and is planning a similar investigation in Britain. "There is a growing interest for a wide range of "smart drugs" [mood enhancing] and "legal highs" which are freely available in trendy shops," said Mr Zangara, a researcher in the Department of Human Cognitive Neuroscience at Northumbria University.

The current government strategy on drugs is targeted at illegal class A drugs. The Home Office said laws had been tightened up on magic mushrooms because its active ingredients are already classified as class A drugs under existing laws. A spokesman said that the Government would legislate on other substances only on the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

Additional reporting Jenny Silver