How Legal Highs and the Internet Are Transforming the Underground Drug World

One reason that media coverage of drugs so frequently sucks is that few reporters follow the subject regularly enough to develop any real expertise. But the opposite is true for British journalist Mike Power.

He leads the world in his reporting on “legal highs”—a class that includes drugs like Spice, K2 and “bath salts,” which are sold online and in convenience stores as alternatives to illegal substances like marijuana and amphetamine. Because these chemicals are new to the market, they occupy a gray zone—not technically illegal because they haven’t specifically been banned, but not exactly legal, either, because they haven’t been tested or approved for human consumption.

Once relegated to the back pages of High Times or the dark corners of head shops, they are now so popular that by 2012, one in nine high school seniors reported having tried one, meaning that more teens have taken these untested substances than have tried prescription painkillers, heroin, ecstasy (MDMA) or cocaine. The combination of the Internet and Chinese labs that can make chemicals to order with few questions asked is upending the drug trade.

An updated version of Power’s excellent book, Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High, was just published in the US. (It was previously released in the UK under the title Drugs 2.0.) I spoke with him about his work and why “legal highs” present a unique challenge to drug prohibition.

Maia Szalavitz: What got you interested in legal highs?

Mike Power: The thing that interested me was when, in about 2008, supplies of ecstasy, which is the most popular club drug in the UK, completely dried up. There wasn’t any MDMA to be had, which is unusual in a market with 500,000 participants every week.

That was the question I set out to ask in my book: “Why is there no MDMA? Suddenly, after almost uninterrupted supplies for decades.” The answer was, the United Nations [Office of Drugs and Crime] in 2008 burned 33 tons of safrole oil [a precursor used to make MDMA, which it had confiscated in Cambodia].

And how did that affect legal highs?

The [ecstasy] market was incredibly toxic and very desperate, and into that gap came mephredrone. In the space of 12 months, it became the fourth most popular drug in the UK.

The concept of “legal high” was kind of nonexistent. The legal highs before mephedrone, which is 4-methylmethcathinone [a synthetic stimulant], were normally caffeine or ephedrine and didn’t really have an effect. Whereas mephedrone has an extraordinarily powerful effect.

And [eventually] it started to become rebranded as a “legal high” rather than, as previously, a “research chemical” [which was used by a few drug geeks on the Internet].

The role that the internet plays in this is fascinating because the very early Internet was populated with Deadheads and psychonauts of various types.

In those early days it seemed to offer a space beyond hierarchy that was ungovernable. It was part of the whole antediluvian hippie dream, where we could all just communicate and do what we wanted.

What is mephedrone like, compared to ecstasy?

Personally, I couldn’t tell you.

But you have taken some drugs yourself…

I took ecstasy [aged 18] and it was a wonderfully revelatory experience. It taught me a lot about music, sound, dancing and about human interrelations. I smoked pot when I was 16 and 17, loved it and thought it was a wonderful waste of time, a wonderful way to relax and listen to music. For me drugs are always connected to music and socializing.

How has your own experience affected your reporting in this area?

I always wanted to understand ecstasy. I think it’s a fascinating chemical. My experiences of ecstasy were so positive and so discordantly different to the prevailing [media coverage of drugs].

I thought, I understand the drug story really well—I’ve got the background in having a kind of insight into the drug culture from my teens and early 20s—and I was looking at [the reporting on] this mephedrone story, and everyone was talking nonsense. Nobody had any scientific, academic or cultural rigor at all.

So how do they describe the mephedrone high?

The reports are that it is a very fast and harsh buzz. You have a very quick onset, like a quick empathetic beginning, and then it trails off to become more speedy, followed by a kind of jittery anxiousness. That just sounds very unpleasant, but compared to [the alternatives that were available] it was better.

It sounds like mephedrone interrupted the drug markets in the UK just as profoundly as crack did in the US, but it didn’t cause the same kind of violence. Why?

Because it was virtualized, it was online. And the market was big—it was the fourth most popular drug. And we don’t have [so many] guns in the United Kingdom.

And it’s less addictive?

It was a nightclub drug, a party drug rather than a drug of hardcore social deprivation and abuse, although since it’s been banned, it’s become that. People are compulsively injecting it.

[But] even when it was just being snorted, it had a compulsive use profile because it crossed the blood brain barrier very quickly. [It] lasts 45 minutes and then it falls off a cliff, so people would be high as a kite and then down, high as a kite and down.

It was like a cross between crack and ice [smokeable methamphetamine]. It seized the more economically deprived sections of the drug user community. Max Daly has written about compulsive mephedrone injectors who just lost every vein in their body.

You wrote a story for the online magazine Matter in which you had a Chinese lab make an analog of a type of speed taken by the Beatles. What gave you the idea to do that?

I’ve been asked to do this a dozen times. Every editor said to me, “Can you make us a drug?” and I said, “Yes, but what would the point be?” And they couldn’t give me an answer. [Then] I started talking with Bobby Johnson, an editor at Matter. I said, “What was the point at which, culturally, drugs actually became part of the weave of every day society?”

My contention would be that that was the birth of LSD and the Beatles and the ‘60s. So I thought, What was the first drug experience that the Beatles had? And it was Benzedrine, but I didn’t fancy making Benzedrine [an amphetamine] because it isn’t as unusual.

The legal high story represents a pivotal change in the way that drugs are manufactured, consumed, experienced and mediated in a society, and I wanted to find a drug that was taken by the man who introduced LSD to the United Kingdom.

There is a picture of the Beatles holding tubes of Preludin. I thought, that’s no different than young kids posing on Facebook with a pile of mephredrone—except for the way the whole world is so interconnected.

It just tied together a few strings for me: privacy, publicity, the consequences of drug use. [I wanted] to make a legal version of John Lennon’s favorite drug. It’s a great headline, isn’t it?

What was your scariest moment when you were having the drug made?

When I went to collect it, walking through the streets of London with a bag of five grams of white powder. If the police stopped me, I would have to tell them that it was actually a legal version of Preludin that I had had synthesized in a Shanghai laboratory.

I don’t fancy my chances that the police would have believed me. I think I would have been taken to the cells while they sent it off for testing. That was really scary.

Now, politicians in the UK are considering trying to ban any substance that could get you high and then making exceptions for alcohol, caffeine and tobacco. What’s wrong with that approach?

Where does that leave a drug like nitrous oxide [laughing gas, which can be bought for use in making whipped cream]? And on a moral basis, why those three drugs? Why should alcohol, which kills several hundred thousand people per year, be allowed to remain legal?

This whole issue shows that drug prohibition is a result of prejudice, not an attempt to protect people. Historically, we’ve banned drugs in bouts of racist hysteria, while generally allowing those that white Europeans have decided are acceptable.

Absolutely. The legal high question just shines the light onto the logical fallacy of all prohibition. It’s like, “OK, so this drug is bad because it’s banned, but this one is legal, even though it’s more harmful. In that case, why is it legal?” Because we haven’t quite banned it. It’s circular logic.

Also, if you say, “We’re banning everything except alcohol, tobacco and caffeine,” how does a pharmaceutical company know what’s legal? It seems unenforceable.

Medical research could be limited severely by such moves. One of the key [insights] that I had in my study of the new drug market is that the only reason that people take these drugs is that they can’t get the ones that they want.

Out of the 75 new drugs in the European Union last year, the vast majority were cannabinoids. They are trying to replicate a completely safe, nontoxic plant that doesn’t kill anybody.

I interviewed a woman whose son died from three tokes on one synthetic cannabinoid joint. The boy died because his blood pressure suddenly dropped, he had a stroke and then a catastrophic system failure and died— that’s from a synthetic cannabinoid that he bought legally down at the shops, when, if there was a more rational drug policy, if he were allowed to buy marijuana, he would be alive today.

So what do you think should be done?

Let’s legalize: “Anyone can buy and sell marijuana.” If we had courage to do that, straightaway we would cut out at least 60% of the legal high market.

What do you think is the future of drugs?

I think it’s digital: More and more people will buy their drugs on the Internet. On a policy level the future of drugs has to be to dismantle prohibition because it’s discredited. It does not work.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card


Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.