Home Business NewsBusiness Drugs and dotcoms: How the legal highs industry exploded online

Drugs and dotcoms: How the legal highs industry exploded online

23rd Aug 12 9:24 am

Public outrage over “research chemicals” is at a peak. We meet the people behind the websites selling them

Follow me on Twitter @sophiehobson and @londonlovesbiz

The drugs scene used to be so much more straightforward. You had your E’s and whizz, your weed, coke and LSD, and, for the more hardcore aficionados, crack and heroin. Whether you were a dabbler, an addict or an ardent anti-drugs campaigner, at least you knew what was out there.

Today, police, pill-poppers and professors are facing a cornucopia of drug types so diverse it makes Procter & Gamble look like a local sweet shop. New “legal high” chemical compounds, often branded as “research chemicals” to dodge various laws (more on which later), are at the heart of the trend. They’re cheap, incredibly easy to buy, and, of course, legal.

You’ve no doubt read about mephedrone – otherwise known as M-CAT or miaow miaow – the ecstasy-like party drug that whipped the Daily Mail and co into an absolute frenzy and was subsequently banned in 2010. Newer scandalised legal highs include Benzo Fury (implicated in the death of a young man at a festival), Black Mamba and Ivory Wave (now Class B). But there’s also MDAI, aMT, 5-APB, Ethylphenidate and Methiopropamine, to name but a few.

The trend: coming up

These new legal highs are flooding the UK recreational scene at such a rate that neither the government, the academics, the authorities, nor in fact the users really have much idea of what many of them do. The number of new chemical compounds used for recreational pleasure discovered in Europe has increased threefold since 2008. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) identified 49 new substances in 2011. Almost 30 have been found so far this year, as of July.

The UK is leading the trend. Four times more new legal highs were found here than in any other European country in 2010. According to the EMCDDA’s latest figures, from 2008, we have the highest number of drug-related deaths per year, at 2,481. Earlier this year, Swindon reported a record number of hospital admissions due to legal highs, while Glasgow has seen a 35% increase in legal high admissions over the last year.

Music festivals across the UK are responding to the trend. Legal highs have either been banned or experienced a serious crackdown at T in the Park, RockNess, Bestival and Global Gathering, to name a handful.

Four times more new legal highs were found in the UK than in any other European country in 2010

That’s not to say legal highs have suddenly become more damaging to users’ health (although health concerns will be explored in more depth later in this feature). It merely gives an indication of how much more popular they have become on the recreational drug scene.

A survey of more than 300 people across South London gay and gay-friendly nightclubs last summer found two in three clubbers had tried legal highs. The 2012 Mixmag/Guardian survey of 15,500 respondents (who are regular clubbers rather than representative of the general UK population) revealed one in five respondents had taken a legal high in the last year. What’s interesting is where they bought those legal highs from: 45% bought them online, 42% from a shop, 35% from friend, and 22.5% from a dealer.

The trend for buying online is critical to understanding the rise of legal highs. The number of websites selling them has increased fourfold since 2010, according to an article in The Independent from last month.

“Buy research chemicals” is searched for 3,600 times on Google in the UK each month, according to Google’s Keywords Tool. “Buy legal highs” gets around the same volume of UK searches. (To give you an idea of that search volume in context, “buy magazines” gets 4,400 monthly UK searches, and “buy photo frames” gets 1,900.)

And the legal highs shoppers are spoilt for choice. Typing “buy legal highs” into Google throws up 2.74 million results, while “buy research chemicals” gives you a whopping 6.91 million options.

The people behind legal highs websites

It’s a competitive game, selling these drugs online. And, in many cases, it’s quite a different type of person running the website than you might expect from your “typical” drug dealer.

As the Home Office’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) notes in its in-depth report from October 2011: “The growth in the NPS [novel psychoactive substances, i.e. legal highs] market has brought a different type of ‘drug dealer’ with entrepreneurs seeing the business opportunity whilst the substance remains ‘legal’. […] Many people importing these new substances appear to have had no previous involvement in the illicit drug trade and are just in it to make a ‘quick buck’.” The ACMD notes that these dealers tend to be “outside of the normal Organised Crime network” but “they are, nevertheless, making substantial profits”.

It’s hard to quantify exactly how high those profits might be for any given legal highs website – most are canny enough to register with Companies House under less conspicuous names than anything featuring “legal highs” or “research chemicals”. But a man in his 20s who used to deal mephedrone before it was made illegal (he never dealt illegal drugs) gives me a run-down of how that drug used to perform.

A man in his 20s who used to sell mephedrone when it was legal tells me he earned £4,000 to £5,000 a month – “but that was small potatoes”

He would buy a kilogram of mephedrone from China for £1,100, then sell it for 10 to 20 times that, “so a street value for a gram was around £15”. That equated to earnings of around £4,000 to £5,000 a month. But that was comparatively “small potatoes”. “I heard the next dealers up [the supply chain] are shifting around £70,000 a month”.

So what’s it like running a legal highs website today? Tom*, along with two friends, runs a South-East-based “research chemicals” website which ranks on the first page of Google – an intensely difficult position to protect in a market this competitive, as anyone who knows anything about SEO can tell you. Tom’s pretty blasé about SEO though – “I just read up about it”.

Tom’s background is online retail. He previously ran a business selling refurbished goods on eBay and Amazon. He’s moved into this industry because “eBay is not a very good marketplace”. Tom obviously earns more running his research chemicals website than he did running his previous business, but he’s understandably reluctant to share figures. All three of them running the business work on it full-time, and it provides each with a better salary than a “normal” full-time job.

It’s no surprise, given his experience, that Tom’s website is slick. It all looks as professional as any other retail website you might browse – it takes eight different payment cards, there’s an 0800 number for customer service, there’s an online “help centre” and a live chat function for customers. The business has achieved an
ISO9001 accreditation (for quality management systems) and guarantees delivery within one to two working days.

It’s not unusual to see this level of professionalism among the research chemical and legal high websites that rank highest in Google results. Many are multi-lingual, image-heavy and information-rich, as easy to browse as ASOS or JohnLewis.com (though it must be said a lot of them are not particularly good at answering their helplines).

But why wouldn’t they look like proper retailers? They are, after all, entirely legal businesses. Well, provided they remember to slap “not for human consumption” alongside all the products, and label them as “research chemicals”, “plant food” or “bath salts” to avoid infringing the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act or the 1968 Medicines Act.

Tom’s website takes eight different payment cards, has an 0800 number for customer service, an online “help centre” and a live chat function. The business has achieved an ISO9001 accreditation

(This throws up entertainingly thin allusions to drug-taking, such as this description on am-hi-co.com for “Bliss bath salts”: “Due to the concentrated nature of this product, we advise purchasing the 200mg package if you have not enjoyed Bliss before. Use sparingly. One application of our bath salts will last for several hours.”)

Tom’s business is steadily growing – they recently acquired a rival website – but the proliferation of new websites in the space means competition is increasing too. Tom isn’t yet struggling to win customers, who will find his website via Google. But repeat custom is important, and loyal customers get discounts and special offers.

“It’s about providing a good service,” he says. He stays ahead of rivals by “just offering the best service and the best quality product. “A lot of the websites don’t have telephone numbers or email addresses, or they don’t answer emails, which is just a basic thing.”

Quality of product is critical. Tom sends the drugs he sells to labs, then publishes the purity reports on the website. But he only uses two suppliers, both UK-based – “they’re the only ones I trust”. It’s easy to find suppliers, he says – you just look online. “It’s obvious which ones you can trust.”

But Tom says he’s missing out on the really big margins because he doesn’t import his drugs from China, which is where the vast majority of the UK’s research chemicals come from (as is unanimously agreed by website owners, academics in the field and the authorities). “We considered going to China but it’s not worth it,” Tom explains. “The risks are [that Chinese suppliers] will either not sell us the chemicals it’s meant to be, or [the drugs they send] could be illegal, or impure, or not good quality.”

Softly-spoken Katie* has decided that importing direct from China is worth it. She bought her “research chemicals” business as an existing company, having previously run a string of businesses – most recently a virtual assistant business. The man she bought it off “is an entrepreneur with a good nose for business” who met his business partner for the website at a trade show.

Katie runs the business with two others, and all of them work around three-quarters of normal hours. She’s working on other businesses alongside this one. She won’t disclose profits, but she says they are “really high” and she is “definitely” earning a decent salary. Katie’s day-to-day is similar to Tom’s – “processing orders, dealing with any queries, that’s it really”.

Logistically, though, her operation is more sophisticated. She ships internationally, though never to the US (too fraught with legal risks), and imports from China. Typically she’ll use the same suppliers, though she is approached by opportunistic suppliers fairly regularly. Although her drug shipments do sometimes get stopped at customs, once they’ve been tested they get through.

Other than that, she doesn’t get any interference from the authorities “because it’s all legal”. Katie concedes, though, that “it’s one of those businesses sailing very close to the wind”, and asks to remain anonymous in this feature.

Legal precariousness

Other websites I contact won’t even talk anonymously, even though there seems to be little risk of them being prosecuted as the law stands. Providing these websites sell their drugs as “not for human consumption”, then even when they blatantly are, they are not infringing the law.

Take a website like Legalhighz.co.uk, for example, on which you can buy anything from one gram of 5-IAI (£15) to one kilogram of MDAI (currently reduced from £5,000 to £4,500). Even though the website has this top banner on every page….


… it still has a lengthy Terms & Conditions saying “our products are sold for research purposes only and are strictly not for human consumption”. What seems like a paradox to the newbie is commonplace across these website, deftly tight-roping the legal line.

The Misuse of Drugs Act now covers over 600 substances, but it is 40 years out of date and struggles to keep pace with the sheer amount of new chemical compounds hitting the UK recreational drug scene each year. Legislating against them is a timely and complex process (hence the furore over mephedrone taking “too long” to ban).

So in November 2011, the government brought in Temporary Class Drug Orders (TCDO), which permitted an instant ban on new drugs until they could be further investigated. So far, only methoxetamine (also known as MXE and mexxy) has been made instantly illegal by a TCDO – it was banned on Thursday 5 April 2012.

But Katie and website owners like her know that any of their products could be outlawed at any point, by a TCDO or under the Misuse of Drugs Act, or other laws in other countries. “Everything’s becoming banned all the time,” she says. “You could see the research chemical industry winding up.” She keeps in regular contact with a group of other research chemical website owners who keep each other up to date on what’s legal in what countries.

Her website is, though, a properly registered business, and she says, “we’re really careful to make sure we don’t do anything we shouldn’t, and we keep everything above board.” Tom runs his business in an entirely legal manner too, paying his taxes and so on. He supposes the government would “rather earn VAT and tax than push it underground and push it to organised crime”.

The complications of legislating legal highs

Simply criminalising the market, though, is not necessarily a sensible plan. To understand why, it’s important to first understand the complexity of assessing health and other risks associated with legal highs.

Obviously there are potential health risks involved in taking legal highs, at least for the very newest compounds, because no one can yet tell what their longer-term effects could be – or even their short-term effects, depending on who’s taking them and what other substances they are taken in combination with.

Health risks are fiendishly difficult to analyse. As Dr John Ramsey, a leading academic in the field and toxicologist at St George’s Hospital, explains: “The only information we get is by observing people who choose to take them, and that’s not even that good [for research purposes]. If someone takes a drug in a club and ends up in A&E, they don’t know for sure what they bought, the website [they bought from] doesn’t know for sure what it’s selling, and the A&E doctors don’t test urine samples. And people don’t just take one drug, they take a whole var
iety, making it terribly difficult to work out what risk there is with any one [drug].”

Further complicating things, Ramsey says, is his observation that legal highs sold under the same brand name can, over the course of a few months, change their ingredients significantly. “There are certainly some bizarre mixtures”, he says, and varying degrees of “deception”. (Some mixes are “actually just caffeine”.)

Ramsey says there is a distinct lack of public funding available to research these new recreational drugs. “And it takes time, and a lot of money, to risk-assess a new compound. The pharmaceutical industry spends years and millions on it. We could never do that. The whole model of drug control fails in this sort of environment.”

The ban on mephedrone didn’t reduce usage – a survey of 15,500 clubbers found 42% had tried it before the ban, rising to 61% after it. But it did mean perceived purity of the drug was dramatically reduced and users went to dealers rather than buying online

For customs to intervene at the point of import is simply not doable: “It is impossible to examine or scan all freight and parcels”, as the ACMD’s 2011 report notes. It adds: “There have been police operations against large-scale importers. However, such operations are hugely resource intensive, and have far from certain outcomes. […] The financial cost of submitting forensic samples to identify those that are controlled is very discouraging when considering future operations against NPS suppliers.”

No one I talk to can even give an estimate of the size of the market, so little is known about it.

So why not just outlaw all new substances being used for recreational purposes, using the temporary bans? After all, part of the reason they have become so popular among young people is the perception that because they’re “legal”, they must be safer than illegal counterparts. Banning would stop the legitimate websites supplying them, and make them generally harder to come by for users.

When it comes to bans, “you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” Ramsey says. The sophistication and agility of the chemists creating these new compounds will always outmanoeuvre legislation. “As soon as the law changes, something new comes out,” he adds.

Ramsey also points to the example of mephedrone to illustrate the risks of making a substance illegal. “It was used by thousands, then it was banned. Now it’s gone underground and it’s now sold by the same type of people selling coke and heroin. By banning it, you’ve not removed it from the market, you’ve just changed the route people get it.”

The aforementioned Mixmag/Guardian survey shows in hard stats the impact of the mephedrone ban. Before the ban, 33% of users bought their mephedrone from websites, 24% from dealers. After the ban, a whopping 58% bought from dealers, and only 1% purchased from a website. More worryingly, the illegalisation had a dramatic effect on the quality of the drug. Pre-ban, only 30% of users thought their product had been cut (i.e. mixed with other drugs or filler products). After the ban, 80% suspected it had been cut. And the ban didn’t even reduce usage: 42% of those surveyed had tried mephedrone before the ban, rising to 61% after it.

In theory, allowing legal highs to remain legal would give the authorities more time and scope to monitor the effects of drugs, rather than constantly battling this endless new stream of substances designed to dodge new laws.

But, again, it’s not that simple. Sure, it might turn out that many of the legal highs on the market today are completely or predominantly harmless. Websites like legalhighsforum.com and the government’s Talk to Frank website help inform users.

Yet it would be incredibly optimistic and, in fact, immensely dangerous to suggest that all legal highs are inherently risk-free. Because we simply have no way of knowing, when a chemical compound is literally brand new and has never been tried by a human before. The shadow of MPTP, the legal high that hit popularity in the late 70’s and caused irreversible Parkinson’s-like symptoms in all users, hangs over the industry. As Ramsey says, we haven’t seen anything that damaging hit the market yet, “but if we had one like that again, it could cause chaos”.

So what’s Ramsey’s answer? “I don’t think controlling supply is ever going to work. What we have to do is persuade people that taking them is just too risky.”

Yet for thousands of young Brits, a £15/gram night of fun is still a risk to their health they are willing to take. And as long as they’re buying, the websites will keep on selling.

*Names have been changed

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