Britain is at the centre of a booming trade in “legal highs” – chemicals designed to replicate the effects of illegal substances – a United Nations drugs watchdog warned today.
It raised the alarm over the “unprecedented proliferation” of “designer drugs” with the numbers of different highly-addictive chemicals legally on sale over the Internet increasing ten-fold in a decade.
A new legal high – often with a composition subtly altered from a substance that has just been outlawed – now appears in the European Union every week.
Almost 700 websites are selling and advertising such substances – often advertised as “plant food” or “research chemicals” – to users in the European Union, according to the UN agency, the International Narcotics Control Board. They include about 140 sites hosted on servers in Britain.
The board’s president, Raymond Yans, said: “The United Kingdom was probably in the first line of this because the market started to spread here in the UK, and also in America and Australia.”
New psychoactive drugs are being created largely by chemists in China, India and Pakistan to mimic the experience of taking such substances as ecstasy, ketamine cocaine and cannabis. They are sold through online “head-shops” largely hosted in western countries.
Mr Yans said the number of new “psychoactive” substances found each year in the EU has increased from five in 2001 to 49 in 2011.
He added: “This is not to mention those substances which escape detection, of which there are many more.”
Forty-three deaths were linked in 2010 to substances such as mephedrone – dubbed meow meow by the tabloid press - which are now banned.
Last month a Yorkshire man’s death was blamed on legal highs acquired from the Internet, while a 23-year-old man from Cumbria and a 14-year-old Colchester girl have been treated in hospital in recent days after taking substances bought legitimately.
The most notorious designer drug is methoxetamine, which is known by brand names including Mexxy and MXE and was designed as alternative to ketamine. It was designated a class B substance last week by the Home Office.
Synthetic versions of cannabis sold online under such names as Annihilation and Black Mamba were also outlawed last week.
But experts said last night that as soon as one substance was outlawed, a similar product was developed to evade the Misuse of Drugs Act.
Charities said drug users were switching to alternatives created in laboratories because they knew they are not breaking the law if they were caught in possession – and in the mistaken belief that they were less harmful than illegal substances.
Martin Barnes, the chief executive of DrugScope, said: “When these new substances appear, we don’t know what is in them, we don’t know their toxicology, we don’t know their physical health harms. It is something to take very seriously.”
A spokesman for Addaction said: “These drugs can spring out of nowhere and there is a tacit implication they are safer because they are not illegal.”
Mr Yans called for governments to work together to combat the “disturbing phenomenon” of designer drugs – especially as the EU was a single market in which it was so easy to cross borders.
“This situation cannot last, with some substances controlled in the UK, some controlled in Italy, some others which are going to be controlled in Portugal. Inside the European Union there needs to be a global response,” he said.
The board’s annual report said: “The total number of such substances on the market has been estimated to be in the order of thousands, posing a significant challenge to public health systems in preventing and dealing with their abuse.”
49 new legal highs reported in EU in 2011
690 websites selling psychoactive drugs (Jan 2012)
1/3 had no disclaimer or product warning
0.9 per cent of adults bought drugs over the Internet in 2011-12 (0.7 per cent in 2010-11)
98 deaths linked to party drug mephedrone in 2010 and 2011 (banned in 2010)
£15 approx price of a gram of mephedrone before it was banned.