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High-speed connection: technology and drugs in London

Posted at 6:15 pm, February 24, 2013 in News

© Ed Marshall
With internet dealing on the rise and legal highs booming, Rebecca Taylor investigates the impact of new technology on drug use in London.

I’ve been trying to buy drugs online for the last 15 minutes and I’m feeling like I need a PhD in chemistry to know what I’m potentially checking-out with. Legalhighz.co.uk is offering me amphetamine-like substances 5-IAI and MDA1, as well as ‘Liquid Gold Room Odourisor’, which reviews suggest has little to do with banishing bad smells; BuyMadcat.com is offering 6-APB with a discount; and if you missed the January sales, Legaliiis.com has ‘10 percent off NRG-2’ tablets. Many sites offer next-day delivery, some ‘free postage for orders over £50’. If you want to get high in London in 2013 the easiest way to do it is with an internet connection and a credit card.

‘Online dealing is something that has had a huge influence on the way in which drugs are being bought and sold,’ says Elliot Elam from Addaction, a charity which offers support services for drug users across the capital. ‘It has made a huge impact on London’s drug landscape.’ Users agree. ‘I had my batch of GBL delivered as a parcel straight to my door,’ says Carmel, 26. ‘It was packaged as “alloy wheel cleaner”.’ GBL is a depressant which contains paint stripper-type chemicals and can leave you feeling chilled-out and horny – or drowsy, vomiting and in a coma. Carmel, from Brixton, became addicted to it when she was 19, after being offered some at a party. ‘It’s too easy to get,’ she says. ‘You don’t have to run around ringing people to find some, and that makes it harder not to do it.’

© Ed Marshall

According to Global Drug Survey’s independent research, 21 percent of Londoners have bought drugs from a website. And not all of them sell ‘legal’ highs. One of the most successful, Silk Road, is a digital black market that resembles something from ‘The Matrix’. Using sophisticated identity obscuring technology, Silk Road (set up by a man known as Dread Pirate Roberts, thought to be based in the USA) makes buying and selling drugs easy. Imagine Amazon stocked with mind-bending stimulants instead of CDs and casserole dishes. And yes, you can also post ‘user’ reviews.

On Silk Road, purchases are mostly illegal but untraceable, thanks to the use of Bitcoins, a virtual online currency. Recently, we found 10g of Moroccan hash selling for 15.70 Bitcoins – at the going exchange rate of one Bitcoin to £8, that’s a pricy £120. ‘I’ve used Silk Road a couple of times,’ says Jamie, 24, from Essex. ‘Bitcoins are a hassle but the quality is higher and you can obtain rarer drugs from a variety of sources. It’s the future of buying drugs.’

© Ed Marshall

The online drugs market has grown steadily since 2009, and has coincided with the boom in ‘legal highs’, which mimic the effects of illegal drugs and are often sold as ‘bath salts’ or ‘plant food’. Three years ago, 314 EU-based online sites offered legal highs. By 2011 that had risen to 690, with the biggest growth in sites operating from the UK. The charity Drugscope estimates this global market to be worth over £10 million annually. Some of these substances are herbal extracts, such as salvia (a Mexican plant with hallucinogenic leaves); others are ‘designer drugs’ – chemical variations of illegal substances. Mephedrone, or meow meow, which mimics the effects of cocaine, became the most notorious of these before it was banned in 2010.

This ever-evolving culture has already generated a new type of drug user: the internet psychonaut. These are the human guinea pigs who have made it their mission to try out new substances and experiment with established drugs in order to blog or, increasingly, tweet, about their experiences. Some are chemistry students, or pharmaceutical professionals; others are thrill seekers; some regard this research as a part of a wider interest in alternative culture and technology.

© Ed Marshall

‘From an early age music has been my passion, and as my music tastes grew more experimental, so did my drug use,’ says Jamie, who has been using ketamine regularly since 2005. He credits his drug use with inspiring his techno music project, Boadicea Dynamos, and posts his experiences on psychonaut websites such as Bluelight.ru and rave forums. ‘Last summer I was using some rarer chemicals like DOI, 3-MeO-PCP and methoxetamine’, he says. ‘I think there will be more experimentation, particularly with tryptamines and DMT [powerful psychedelic chemical compounds]’.

Bluelight and other drug forums such as Erowid are full of psychonauts’ accounts (for which the term ‘drugs bore’ was surely invented). They range from naive burbling about the effects of taking cough medicine – ‘I did not want neighbours thinking I was on drugs, so I walked the rest of the way with Slipknot cranked up to full volume’ – to scarily meticulous accounts of heroin overdoses. Users often post recipes of the concoctions they are trying, which was exactly how meow meow took off: one psychonaut uploaded its chemical formula to an online forum and immediately people all over the world began synthesising it.

‘People are trying any new name that comes on to the market,’ says Dr Paolo Deluca of King’s College London, where he is currently working on the Psychonauts Research Project.‘Most of these new compounds are completely untested, or only tested on rats. So when people test them and report back in online forums or use Twitter or Facebook to “like” what they’ve taken, they are doing scientists a favour!’ They’re not necessarily doing themselves a favour. With new drugs, hearsay and anecdotes are the only guidelines on how much to take, or how chemicals might react with alcohol or other drugs. ‘The bottom line is we don’t know what the health consequences are for most of what’s out there,’ says Deluca. Consequently, London’s drug treatment services have struggled in cases involving substances they have little experience of. ‘Until recently many treatment clinics just didn’t have the understanding about the effects of these drugs,’ says Dr Owen Bowden-Jones. Since 2010, he has been treating drug users at his Club Drug Clinic, based at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. GBL user Carmel, who has been clean for two months since undergoing detoxing and extensive counselling at Bowden-Jones’s clinic, says: ‘The clinics I first attended had never heard of GBL; they didn’t know what the symptoms were or how to deal with you if you overdosed.’ Drug culture and the drugs market are moving so fast it’s hard for lawmakers to keep up and many wonder if it’s worth trying.

© Ed Marshall

In December 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron rejected calls from the Home Affairs Committee to set up a royal commission to consider decriminalising or even legalizing certain drugs. But this January, the All- Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform called for a major overhaul of Britain’s drugs laws, proposing that the ‘less harmful’ of the new substances might be regulated and sold in chemists.

Legalisation would add to the large tax revenue already provided by addictive tobacco and alcohol. But it obviously doesn’t solve health problems. According to the US government’s Center for Disease Control, addiction to prescription painkillers is one of the leading causes of drug deaths in the States and is becoming a problem here, with customers bulk buying drugs like valium from online dealers outside the EU to avoid legal regulations. Meanwhile, last October Met officers raided an address in north London to close down a website selling the stimulant modafinil – also sold as Provigil and Modalert –which can only be bought by somebody with a doctor’s prescription for treating sleep disorders. But it’s readily available online. Like Ritalin (medically used to treat ADHD), and ampakines (used to treat Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s), modafinil is one of a growing list of drugs prescribed for psychiatric disorders that are being taken to enhance memory and aid concentration.

Nothing is known, yet, about the consequences of long-term misuse of these or any new drug. But while politicians and the police express concern about this new wave of drugs, it’s easy to forget one sobering fact: the behavior altering substance behind the largest number of hospital admissions in London is alcohol. And that’s something that’s legally available right now at knockdown prices from thousands of websites and on every street in London.

For more information on the Club Drug Clinic contact 020 3315 6111; clubdrugclinic.com To get feedback on your own drug use – and help researchers find out more about drugs and alcohol – go to drugsmeter.com or drinksmeter.com.

THE NEW KETAMINE: Methoxetamine, 3-MeO-PCP A psychoactive drug which produces sexual energy, hallucinations and the urge to giggle. It’s now illegal: it was the first drug to be banned temporarily under new government powers in 2012.

THE NEW LSD: DOI A psychedelic drug similar to LSD which produces 16- to 20- hour trips. It is illegal – although not specifically covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act, it is regarded as a Class A drug.

THE NEW ECSTASY: 5-IAI, MDA1, 6-APB, NRG2, Benzo Fury Legal highs that mimic the make-up of amphetamines and ecstasy and produce a happy, ‘loved-up’ feeling.

THE NEW CANNABIS: Black Mamba, Spice, Bombay Blue Extreme All contain synthetic cannabinoids which ape the effects of THC, an active compound in cannabis. It’s often unclear whether such preparations are comprised of legal substances or not.

THE NEW MAGIC MUSHROOMS: Salvia divinorum A species of plant known as ‘diviner’s sage’: it’s one of the most powerful herbal hallucinogenics known to man. Used for centuries, it had a huge rise in popularity after YouTube footage of users taking the drug went viral in 2010.

Read the results of our drugs survey now.

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