Europe's Scary, Legal Drug Boom

Europe's Scary, Legal Drug Boom

Why you should care

Because no one likes a legal killer.

Have you ever heard of Sparkle or Mindy? Or Bromo-Dragonfly? If not, then chances are good your drug habit is nonexistent or at least in check. These are names of new legal highs, designed to replicate the effects of illicit substances like MDMA, LSD or cannabis, that have either killed or contributed to the death of many users. That last part perhaps isn’t so surprising, but the most recent report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that:

101

new psychoactive substances had made their way into European bloodstreams. That’s

2

new drugs a week.

This is a 25 percent increase over the previous year, and part of a decadelong trend. The majority of these new substances are synthetic cathinones — 31 new variations were introduced — which are often sold openly in places like head shops as alternatives to MDMA and amphetamine. Most come in powder or tablet form. The second-most prolific new drug was synthetic cannabinoids, like Spice, which are made of dry, shredded plant material with chemical additives. There were even 13 substances that didn’t fall under any of the seven categories currently used to monitor new psychoactive substances.

Credit globalization and the Internet as well as a shortage in “traditional” drug markets to help account for the rise, says Rita Jorge, a scientific analyst for EMCDDA. Authorities identified 651 websites selling “legal highs” in 2013, while more and more are operating both on the surface and Deep Web, which can’t be accessed using search engines like Google. But, Jorge says, “it’s hard to pinpoint one driver for this unprecedented growth.”

What people seeking a legal buzz may not realize: These substances are potentially more dangerous than the illicit substances they replace since their ingredients tend to be unknown. Some experts, like Volker Auwärter, a toxicologist at the Freiburg University Medical Center, argue that it’s a good reason to legalize weed, given that it’s safer than synthetic cannabinoids. Interestingly, he notes, a designer drug like MDAI seems to be less dangerous than MDMA. “But banning all of these drugs will not solve the problem,” Auwärter says. With so many new drugs hitting European shores every day, authorities are having trouble keeping up. As soon as one drug is banned, a few more pop up in its place. The fact that users or dealers buy the drugs using cryptocurrency like bitcoin makes them all the more difficult to track and regulate.

While Afghanistan and Colombia may jump to mind as drug source countries, legal highs are often produced in China and India, according to the EMCDDA. Laboratories in China, for example, ship the powder forms to Europe labeled as research chemicals, where they are combined with plant matter. The designer drugs are then sold openly in head shops or, increasingly, online. Pro tip: Do not buy Sparkle or Mindy for your niece for Christmas.

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