Dangerous synthetic drugs becoming more widespread
A new study reveals that synthetic drugs are on the rise with online purchases and can cause permanent harm, even in recreational doses, writes Cate Cadell.
A recent study from the University of Sydney has revealed that the drug Mephedrone, also known as ‘meow meow’, can cause long term brain damage and memory loss. Researcher Craig Motbey has recently shown that recreational doses of the drug are harmful and he is concerned by the surge in synthetic drugs. “There’d be at least 40 new drugs coming onto the market every year,” he said. “It’s hard to keep up, for all I know mephedrone could be replaced soon.”
“One thing that could push [mephedrone] here is that markets in Europe and America are systematically banning it,” Mr Motbey said, “and most of the mephedrone being produced is being produced on an industrial scale in China, so their obvious alternative market is next door.”
However, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) has argued that continuing to ban new synthetic drugs in Australia could be fatal, as users turn to the internet to purchase alternatives.
According to NDARC researchers, tweaked or ‘analogue’ drugs such as mephedrone are becoming dangerously easy to buy as more and more users go online. The chemical composition of the drugs are periodically changed to stay one step ahead of the law, meaning that there is a surge of new un-tested substances on the market.
“Creating a longer and longer list of banned substances is certainly not the approach we need,” said Laura Scott, a research officer at the NDARC. She has been involved in monitoring trends on online marketplaces and estimates that up to 50 percent of drug parcels ordered online circumvent customs.
“People will contact the seller directly online and have the drugs sent to them in the post. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who do it. A reasonable amount of the parcels that come here are held up,” she said. “But there’s also an equally substantial amount that will get through.”
According to a press release from the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, there has been “a significant increase in the importation of substances reported as ‘legal highs’ in the last 12 months.” Mephedrone itself was only banned 18 months ago.
Sellers openly market their products as ‘legal highs’ although they are slight alterations on illegal drugs not yet encountered by authorities. “It’s fairly unlikely a legal high will be legal,” Ms Scott said. It’s suspected that the ban on new substances encourages dealers to create tweaked alternatives.
Mephedrone is a chemical compound, slightly altered to differ it from its cousins ‘speed’ and ‘ecstasy’, and maintains a strong presence on online marketplaces. Like the number of other drugs mushrooming onto the market, these slight alterations were made to keep manufacturers and dealers ahead of the law.
While banning the offending substances could mean a surge in untested rivals, there’s light at the end of the tunnel in the form of an unlikely ally, according to Ms Scott.
“There’s evidence that the purity of ecstasy is increasing,” she said. “There’s a strong suspicion among people who work in the field that if ecstasy purity returns to the levels it was four or five years ago then there would be a large shift away from these synthetic drugs.”
In the meantime, authorities and researchers urge individuals to be wary of the ‘legal high’ label. “It’s become very hard to spread safety messages to people because there are different aspects of different drugs that are risky,” Ms Scott said, “harm reduction is hard when we have such a huge range of untested possibilities.”