The term ‘legal high’ may lead consumers to believe they are purchasing safe substances to mimic the effects of illicit hard drugs, yet these designer drugs are to blame for roughly one death a week in the United Kingdom. Online forums are spurring popularity for the mixed designer drugs at such a rate that consumers do not have access to information on the possible dangers of the products they purchase.

Legal highs, designer drugs, psychoactive substances, and party pills are a few names to describe a new wave of drugs commonly taken as stimulants or hallucinogens at social gatherings. While they have similar effects to hard drugs, they are sold legally over the internet with minor adjustments to their product branding to avoid consumer protection laws. While many are sold legally, their obscure and unidentified chemical make up has become a dangerous dilemma for government officials and health professionals. Last year, deaths due to these substances spiked, spurring the European Commission to tighten regulations and research the drugs.

Over the last ten years, an EU-funded project, the Recreational Drugs European Network, has been identifying emerging psychoactive substances in eight EU countries in order to spread informed data to vulnerable individuals. The program has identified these individuals as being mostly young adults. Since the start of the program, it has found 650 variations of designer drugs or novel psychoactive substances in Europe. Currently, the network has 280 drugs on its radar and continues to learn of more than one new substance every week. Due to the continuous emergence of new variants on the market, current governmental regulations have not been able to effectively control the substances or spread public awareness about their effects.

“Legal highs are a growing problem in Europe and it is young people who are most at risk. With a borderless internal market, we need common EU rules to tackle this problem,” said Viviane Reding, vice-president of the European Commission.

The proposed legislation aims to accelerate and expand the process of testing and banning legal drugs on the market. Under the current policy, a minimum of two years is required to complete a risk assessment and decision on any drug. However, the new system could take drugs that pose severe risks off the market immediately, and drugs that pose a moderate risk within 10 months.

Party pills pose unidentified risks for youth

The European Commission has found that young people are the most at risk of consuming psychoactive substances, otherwise referred to as ‘party pills’ in social situations. The nickname comes from a habit of young people taking energizing, psychoactive pills before going to concerts or parties, in order to enhance their energy and stay up all night. These pills are ‘designed’ by manufacturers through a selection of various chemicals, which is why they can also be referred to as designer drugs.

About five percent of 15-24 year olds in the European Union consumed psychoactive substances in 2011, according to a report by the European Database on New Drugs. More alarming are usage rates in Ireland, at 16 percent, and the UK, at 8 percent.

According to the 2013 European Drug Report, manufacturers often avoid controls by mislabeling the substances as ‘research chemicals’ or ‘plant food,’ with disclaimers saying the product is not intended for human consumption. Products are also frequently disguised as bath salts or herbal incenses.

First Light Party Pills, a UK distribution company for legal highs, is just one website that labels its products as “research chemicals.”Disclaimers on the bottom of the packaging read, “not for human consumption.” However, under the company’s terms and conditions page, it requires consumers to have a good physical and mental health and to avoid taking the product while pregnant. The terms and conditions read, “You must clearly understand First Light Party Pills makes no claims whatsoever as to the medicinal, psychological or physiological properties or effects of these products.”

With little ability to accurately define the balance of chemical properties within these types of drugs, their usage has lead to an increased number of deaths. A European Commission report released in September said between April and August 2012, 24 people in EU countries died after consuming 5-IT, a stimulant openly sold as a ‘research chemical.’ This summer, the European Commission called on member states to control the drug, but measures have not yet been introduced in all states.

The Internet as a gateway

The European Commission has identified the Internet as the key to swift diffusion of the designer drugs. In order to gain insight on the spread and popularity of these drugs, research such as the EU-funded Web Mapping Region Project has been collecting information found on YouTube, blogs, vendors’ sites, and in chat rooms. The project has been able to piece together information on smuggling methods, distribution, and effects of drugs such as Mephedrone, MDPV, Salvia Divinorum, Spice and Bromo-Dragonfly.

Mephedrone, a former popular party drug in the UK that gives off effects similar to MDMA and Cocaine, was banned two years ago in Europe after it was linked to a number of deaths. A risk assessment report on the drug stated that prior to controls on the substance, 40 percent of UK clubbers had consumed it as a party supplement.

According to an article printed in The Telegraph in August, other research to discover the potential risks is done through the online purchase and testing of the ‘legal highs.’ A team from University of Hertfordshire has tested 12 substances in the last few months and found 60 percent of the substances to contain high levels of impurities. “The real risk is that there is no way of knowing what these drugs really are or what they might contain,” said Ornella Corazza, leader of the project. In fact many of the chemicals have still yet to be completely identified.

Are bans an effective measure for protecting consumers?

UK police chiefs said that banning the drugs wouldn’t stop young people from using them, reported The Times in 2012. The publication also confirmed information from a submission to the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, by the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which said they the police association would continue to focus their energy on “serious criminality” and have less of a concern with matters relating to personal possession. Instead, the police association urges the government to use consumer protection laws to make shops selling legal highs liable to their consequences. “A key question for the Government to determine is the extent to which legislation can realistically be used to address active choices being made by (predominantly young) people and to tackle the undoubted harms caused by the misuse of substances taken essentially for pleasure,” wrote the Association of Chief Police Officers in their submitted document.

A survey of young EU citizens reported by the European Commission, stated that the majority public opinion pushes for bans against all legal highs, or specific ones that pose a risk to health. Results of the survey show the majority of citizens also believe in tighter measures against drug dealers as opposed to consumers.

Because the chemical components in many designer drugs can be slightly altered to produce very similar effects to hard drugs such as Cocaine and Ecstasy, head shops will continue to dodge governmental regulations by varying their products. While these drugs will continue to pose a deadly threat, more extensive research on the phenomena may be able to identify risks.