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Gone in a sniff


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In April last year, the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson announced that mephedrone, along with other similar products was to become a controlled substance under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. The decision came in the wake of several deaths which were given a high profile by the media and were linked to the use of the drug, albeit with dubious evidence to support such a claim. Almost as soon as it was announced that mephedrone and related substances were to be banned came other announcements that replacement chemicals, ones that would not be covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act were being readied in preparation to fill the ensuing void.

The possibility of similar replacement chemicals being manufactured originates due to the fact that the Misuse of Drugs Act outlawed a batch of chemicals known as synthetic cathinones. Cathinone is the active chemical in mephedrone and many of the other substances banned. However it was argued that minor molecular tweaks to these already existing chemicals would spawn new chemicals. These new chemicals would have similar effects and would have the dual added bonus of legality and therefore also availability.

One of the earliest chemicals marketed as a replacement was a chemical known as naphyrone which was commonly known as NRG-1, and which has since been outlawed. Similar to a substance known as MDPV which was banned at the same time as mephedrone, naphyrone acts as a stimulant upon of the central nervous system of the user. The potency of naphyrone contributes to the danger this drug possessed and helps explain the lack of popularity among users. In particular, reports of prolonged anxiety and panic attacks were common in online forums.

While mephedrone and other cathinone derivatives are active from around 20mg the family of chemicals known as pyrovalerones, of which naphyrone is a part, are active from 1mg making it twenty times more potent than mephedrone. A single milligram equates to 0.1% of a gram. In order to judge this amount correctly scales are required that display weights to the nearest hundredth of a gram, however if judging by eyesight it could be dangerously simple to overdose especially in the setting of a nightclub.

Another potential substitute was MDAI. Developed as an anti-depressant in the 1990’s this drug primarily stimulated the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin which can lead to increased empathy and the ‘loved up’ sensation. However unlike mephedrone, MDAI had little stimulant effect and there are reports of MDAI causing drowsiness, again indicating a reason for the drugs lack of popularity within the club scene.

5iai is a chemical related to MDAI as they both belong to a group of chemicals known as aminoindanes. This particular chemical was marketed online towards the end of summer as one that would succeed where the previous two chemicals mentioned among others had failed. It was claimed to completely mimic the effects of ecstasy on tests on rats. However the sale of this chemical was accompanied by reports that the product sold was not 5iai at all but was in fact either mephedrone or other banned substances. This was not an entirely new phenomenon, it had also been reported that sale of NRG-1 contained chemicals other than simply naphyrone. This should hardly be surprising given the sheer quantities of chemicals that were available to buy over the internet. Some websites could guarantee a 25kg drum, yes 25 kilograms, of mephedrone at your front door within a week, with a sum of £22000 going in the opposite direction of course.

While it is unsurprising that test batches of 5iai were being found to contain banned substances this creates a new problem for users. The lack of regulation in the market of legal highs can now manifest a situation in which a person intends to purchase a legitimate substance but will end up in possession of one that is very much illegal. This creates a scenario in which it must be accepted that the potential illegality of ‘legal highs’ presents the user with a paradox in which they may always be the victim.

Here only three other chemicals have been mentioned, but the internet provides a endless host of others. Many are similar in chemical structure to mephedrone however none have had the popularity or attention that mephedrone did. Although only tiny tweaks have occurred, the effects have been altered enough to put people off. The after effects of NRG-1 led to increased anxiety in the user, MDAI would have the serotonergic qualities often found in recreational drugs but lacked the stimulation and 5iai has often been found to be either inert or simply illegal substances marketed as a legal one. For these reasons the market for legal highs has diminished and goes a long way to explain the lack of success that so called mephedrone replacements have had in the wake the drugs move to a classified substance.

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