Source: Guardian
Date: 13 December 2005

Clubbers snap up new legal high

Drugs from same class as Viagra marketed as alternative to ecstasy

David McCandless

A new breed of stimulant drugs from the same class as Viagra but with similar effects to ecstasy are being sold through British shops and websites. The drugs, known as piperazines and marketed as p.e.p pills, are fuelling a boom in the "legal highs" trade as people search for safer, cleaner alternatives to illicit drugs that do not carry the risk of conviction.

Vendors of legal highs are always on the lookout for substances to boost sales, especially since the sale of fresh magic mushrooms was outlawed this year. Piperazines appear to be filling this void. The pills contain a blend of the stimulant benzylpiperazine (BZP) and other less potent chemicals from the piperazine family. They are becoming increasingly popular as a legal alternative to ecstasy's active ingredient, MDMA, mainly because users say they appear to work.

"I was quite surprised that a legal high could be so potent. Most usually just give you a bit of a hot flush," said Peter, 32, who has tried the pills several times. "It was a good party buzz with an ecstasy-like rush. I was up all night, feeling good, jabbering away."

"We're selling quite a lot of them," said Kieran Wilson, the manager of Spiritual High, the Middlesbrough-based company which packages and distributes the stimulant and which claims to have sold hundreds of thousands of pills. "We sell to around 150 headshops around the country, and website retailers on top of that. So we do have quite a big base for it."

The company markets a range of p.e.p pills at £5 for two or £180 for a tray of 72. Each offers a different blend of piperazines and different effect. "Stoned" is described as mild, mellow and giggly, while "Twisted" gives a "loved-up feeling with a trippy edge".

Synthesised from the pepper plant, BZP was originally used as a worming treatment for internal parasites in cattle. Taken on its own, it acts as a mild stimulant, about 10% the strength of normal "speed" or amphetamine. It causes wakefulness, euphoria and increased vigilance. But when it is mixed with other piperazines, the effects become more euphoric, even psychedelic, lasting up to eight hours. Unlike Viagra, however, BZP does not appear to have an effect on sexual performance.

Grey market

Piperazines are the latest in a stream of new or previously unknown drugs appearing on the grey market. Backroom chemists synthesise substances to exploit holes in drug laws, and the internet has made the discovery, manufacture, and sale of such chemicals too rapid for legislators to keep up with.

Alexander Shulgin, the US biochemist who rediscovered the recipe for MDMA and the inventor of more than 100 psychoactive compounds, said advances in biochemistry and pharmacological technology were making the synthesis of mind-altering drugs unstoppable: "Today there are around 200 psychoactive chemicals. By 2050 there will likely be 2,000."

Not everyone who has tried p.e.p. pills is convinced. "I didn't rate it that much. It's like they've faked some E and speed and half done the job," said Lucas, 28. "They were a bit edgy and didn't seem to mix well with alcohol, either."

Side-effects include dry mouth, restlessness and an alcohol-like hangover and headache the next day. Other users report a few amphetamine-style side-effects such as insomnia and anxiety.

In the US BZP is scheduled under class one, alongside cannabis, LSD and crack cocaine, but in the UK it remains legal. This is despite a 2002 amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act which made Britain's laws controlling emerging drugs the strictest in the world.

But while the substance is legal across most of Europe, it is one of four piperazines banned in Denmark last week after they were detected as adulterants in batches of seized ecstasy pills. The Danish health agency declared young users were at risk of psychosis and poisoning from the drugs.

In New Zealand, however, where an estimated 5m BZP-based pills have been sold legally since 1999, a governmental select committee concluded that the drugs were low risk. It decided that regulated, lab-produced chemicals such as BZP did much less harm than black market drugs and actually diverted people from using potentially dangerous substances such as methamphetamine.

In a unique move, the New Zealand government added a new class D category to its drug laws for "non-traditional designer substances". Licensed companies are now allowed to make and sell piperazine-based highs.

Question marks

The bulk of Britain's supply is imported from New Zealand where they are packaged as a "drug harm minimisation solution". They contain vitamins and antioxidants to reduce side-effects and ease hangovers. Users are told to take no more than three at a time.

In the 80s the drug showed promise as an antidepressant, but it was subsequently shelved. Clinical evidence seems to suggest no ill effects from use. Owing to a lack of recent research, however, question marks remain over interaction with antidepressants such as Prozac and over-the-counter medicines. Those who are allergic to pepper are advised to avoid the drugs.

Worldwide there has been a single reported death associated with BZP. In Zurich in 2001 a 23-year-old took two BZP tablets alongside ecstasy and drank more than 10 litres of water in a 15-hour period. She later died from hyponatremia or water poisoning, a common cause of ecstasy-related deaths. The role of BZP was unclear.
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