West Yorkshire Police’s drugs tsar has warned it’s only a matter of time before a batch of legal highs which could kill hits the streets of Leeds.
The force’s drugs co-ordinator, Bryan Dent, says the flood of synthetic substances, often imported from the far east, poses a “real challenge” to the criminal justice system.
The message comes as figures reveal that one in 10 UK youngsters has tried a legal high, most of which are available online and on many high streets.
It also comes as increasing numbers of people suffer the unpredictable and often severe side effects of taking the cheap hits.
Rod McPhee looks at the potentially deadly substances for sale in Leeds.
It’s 3pm on a weekday in the heart of Leeds and there’s a long stream of people going in and out of Dr Herman’s Pipe Shop on Vicar Lane.
After taking £30 out of the nearby cash machine we enter the store and ask for some Black Mamba, a synthesised version of cannabis, and one of a growing group of legal highs currently causing the criminal justice system serious concern.
“It’s not for human consumption,” says the woman behind the counter, “and it hasn’t been researched or tested.”
After noting this warning we hand over £10 for a one gramme sachet of the green-coloured, leafy substance. If we’d have purchased it in larger amounts we could have paid as little as £8.30 for a gramme.
The shop isn’t breaking the law by selling it, and we aren’t breaking any laws buying it. That’s because saying it isn’t for human consumption, and because it hasn’t yet been classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act, means possession is entirely lawful.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that, around the country, including here in Leeds, scores of young people have been hospitalised as a result of smoking Black Mamba. The substance has caused so much alarm that, three weeks ago, government ministers announced they intend to classify the drug as a Class B substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
Such a classification would make possession punishable by an unlimited fine or a prison sentence of up to five years and dealing punishable by an unlimited fine or up to 14 years in prison.
But Black Mamba is just one of more than 40 legal highs, mostly made in laboratories in China and India, which are flooding into Britain at a staggering rate. Across Europe it is believed a different legal high is discovered every week, just by tweaking the chemical structure of the substance. But those leading the fight against drugs are fearful that may go a deadly tweak too far.
“We have youngsters going out in Leeds this weekend who will be taking substances and they don’t have a clue what they are,” says Bryan Dent, West Yorkshire Police’s drugs co-ordinator. “They certainly don’t know what the short-term and long- term health effects will be.
“Our fear is that the people who are manufacturing these substances, primarily in China or India, aren’t bothered about health issues. And they certainly aren’t bothered about how they tinker with the substances, so they’ll keep going until they make a fatal cocktail that somebody in West Yorkshire will take.”
The fears over the health effects are real. One of the most recent arrivals on the drugs scene is ketamine, which has, in the long term, led to a condition known as Ketamine Bladder Syndrome. This means the bladder is damaged to such an extent that sufferers are forced to go to the toilet many times a day. In some cases they have even had to have their bladders removed.
In the past more conventional drugs, like cocaine or heroin, have emerged slowly, which allowed the authorities, and users, to gain a greater understanding of their side effects.
The new wave of legal highs are now one step ahead of the legislation. When one substance is made illegal the drug makers simply change the formula sufficiently to make a it a different substance in the eyes of the law.
“The police have to work within legislation that’s passed by the government of the day,” says Mr Dent.
“All we can say is that the main drugs act was passed in 1971 and since then there’s been massive changes in the drugs market by way of internet sales and legal highs entering at a rate of 40 to 50 a year.
“Things have massively changed and it is a real challenge for the criminal justice system to keep pace with the chemistry and sales.”
Others are more blunt about the challenge facing the criminal justice system and the dangers for users.
Darren Hill is a former drugs worker and now a lecturer in social work and substance abuse at Leeds Metropolitan University.
“The quality and quantity of the legal highs coming through, it’s just impossible to stop. It’s insane,” he says. “The free market has eaten the state. You have governments who create free markets and the drugs market has just mirrored that.
“Part of the problem is that when you take them they are as strong as taking amphetamines or cocaine. They have long-lasting effects. And young people today are savvy in that they don’t want to get criminal records.
“Also, legal highs used to be more like your ‘mock cannabis’ drugs that just used to give you a headache. But these are comparatively high grade.
“And the speed at which they are coming in is incredible. The Misuse of Drugs Act is fairly fluid but it can’t keep up with the changes – I don’t think anything can.”
Mr Hill says levels of more conventional drug use now appear to have levelled off, certainly in the UK where cannabis use, which used to be comparatively high, has fallen in line with usage levels across the rest of Europe. This either suggests that fewer people are abusing substances or that a greater number are turning to legal highs. So with a deluge of new substances coming into the UK, what is the answer?
“Drugs can be really harmful,” says Mr Hill. “But a lot of the harm is (also) the law. I’ve worked in drugs fields for a long time. I think prohibition is a useful tool but I also think harm reduction and certain aspects of legalisation are really pragmatic.”