It’s Really Easy to Create Your Very Own Legal High

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Pick a banned drug, any banned drug. Perform a slight molecular twist. Find a lab-probably somewhere in China-that’s down to pump out a bunch of this stuff et voilà, you’ve got yourself a new, legal version of that illegal substance.

So goes the reportage in the sort of breathless and oftentimes inaccurate (or straight up untrue) press and television coverage we’ve come to expect in the wake of overdoses and psychological traumas wrought on by whichever so-called new psychoactive substance is hot at any given moment. But is inventing and manufacturing a perfectly legal version, or analogue, of an illegal recreational drug a simple matter of tweaking that banned drug’s chemical structure and putting out feelers to some sketchy pill stamper or powder-head outside of Shanghai? Is it really that easy?

Mike Power, a reporter with the Guardian and author of Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High, wanted to find out. It took him about two months. In the end, he emerged only to corroborate the common refrain:

All it took me was a few dozen phone calls to Shanghai, a gmail account, a bank transfer, a PO Box set up in a false name, a few emails to contacts on web forums that gave me the synthesis and the modification and the name of a friendly laboratory, and a bit of reading. Job done.

It’s a stimulant, if you’re wondering. There’s a sack of the stuff, delivered by courier, sitting on Power’s desk. He sent off a sample to Andrew Westwell, a chemist at Cardiff University who’s involved with the WEDNOS project, who has “analyzed it, proved its authenticity, and guessed at its likely effect if taken,” writes Powers.

There’s more where it came from- a whole lot more (pdf), according to the UN’s 2013 World Drug Report. That’s all thanks to waves of old-white-guy legislation in both the UK and the US, the world’s top drug-using countries, that just go on banning these new highs. This seems to only exacerbate the speed at which basement chemists and far-away manufactures, both of whom couldn’t give two shits about the well-being of end users so long as they get a cut of the earnings, keep the supply flowing.

The cycle is relentless. In the time it took Power to draft his last piece about legal highs, he says that fully five new substances appeared on the market. At the rate we’re going, every last one of these, Power’s stimulant included, will in time be banned. In a far shorter time (see: days), a slate of new analogues will have filled the void. This is the reality of the Internet era: The globespanning online drugs market cannot be controlled. It can be dealt devastating, if temporary blows, yes, but more laws will only beget more (powerful) brain-busting legal and illegal highs.

“If I, a journalist who until recently knew nothing of chemistry, can commission a new drug in a matter of weeks, so can many more people.” Power writes. “And they will.”

And they are. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction discovered 24 new drugs in 2009. The following year, it flagged 41 more; in 2011, 49 more. Last year, the Centre counted another 73 legal highs on the market. As of October 2013, 56 more new compounds have been identified, bringing the grand total of new legal highs, documented over just the last four years, to 243.

Actually, more like 244.