'In you come’. A huge man beckons me to a large door under the pink and purple neon light. I climb up the black-carpeted stairs and enter an equally black room – could be huge or tiny, I don’t quite know yet. But yes, I do know: it’s huge and I’ve been coming here for years. Music is thumping and strobe lights dazzle my eyes.
You could always spot the 'number heads' (ecstasy users); they would be talking emphatically, kissing, dancing in an outrageous fashion, and always chewing their lips or grinding their teeth in maniacal grins. The 'toilet poppers’ would constantly disappear to the loos to line up their powder on the enamel surface with their bank cards, snort it with a £10 note (or £20 if they were flush) or indeed 'bomb’ it and wrap their powder in a Rizla cigarette paper and swallow it – they got their buzz no matter what the method. No trouble and fuss...It was all terribly civilised.
These were 'illegal highs’ – ecstasy, speed, cocaine. You had to know a local dealer, have a friend who would 'do you a favour’, or have a friend of a friend who would do the deal. In the past 15 years this black market has been shaken up with the introduction of hundreds of alternative substances – those referred to as ‘legal highs’.
Black Mamba, Pandora’s Box Unleashed, Silver Bullet, Cherry Bomb, Pink Panther, Mary Jane, Clockwork Orange, China White, Mephedrone, Burst, Banshee Dust...the list is endless. Their alternative names are plant food, bath salts, incense, research chemicals, and, as long as they have 'Not for human consumption’ on their neat packaging, they are a guilt-free purchase from your local, and no doubt friendly, head shop. Their purpose is to offer a synthetic alternative to cocaine, cannabis, speed, LSD and ecstasy, without the hassle of possible prosecution or imprisonment. Head shops are usually found on the high street, each a business with carefully constructed annual accounts and duly completed annual returns lodged with Companies House.
The names of legal highs give you a notion of their intent...to make your life dangerous but fun. They aren’t made by the wee guy down the road with a science kit, they are made by clever pharmacologists and chemists – people with access to extreme science. Some substances are thought to be manifoldly stronger than their illegal counterparts and A&E departments across the UK have been swamped with more cases involving legal highs. One Welsh hospital alone has experienced a 1460% increase in emergency admissions in three years. Judging from the huge range of potential chemicals taken, and whether they are mixed with others or with alcohol, it’s difficult to imagine how the NHS can assist the debilitated and cope when they have no idea what they are working with.
After several deaths from legal highs including Meow Meow or Mephedrone, the individual substance itself has been banned – yet an alternative would be made by tweaking the molecular structure of the original and a replacement would be on the shelves of head shops within a few weeks.
One particular legal high caught my attention. Nitrous oxide – laughing gas or hippie crack. Nitrous oxide, or N2O to the chemists out there, is a compound and weak anaesthetic which was used in dentistry to effectively numb a patient while work was taking place. It can give a person a feeling of euphoria and increased imagination. The way people took this drug dumbfounded me. You must fill up a balloon from a cannister (often used in whipped cream for the restaurant trade) and then take breaths from it.
According to the website ‘Frank’, nitrous oxide carries a risk to mortality because, when sucked out of a balloon or otherwise, the brain can be starved of oxygen and basically shut down. Usage can lead to nausea, folic acid imbalances, mood swings, possible addiction and even frost bite.
This popular method of ingestion worries me. It must occur in households and during parties in a back room – certainly not in the dark night club of yesteryear. Intriguingly, there are many websites which offer clear instructions of how to take it and advice to potential users:
'I always breathe in and out, in and out, but it is essential that you take breaths of air – I tend to take two breaths of nitrous oxide then one of air.’ Another: 'Still nice sober, but not mindblowing like it can be. Double balloon on acid was one of the most epic experiences of my life’. There were even some more practical suggestions: 'Oh – and if you have a lot of it, or have it regularly, it can deplete your B vitamins, so you should take a supplement'.
But all of this has changed. From 28 May the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 came into force across the UK making it an offence to 'produce, supply or offer to supply any psychoactive substance if the substance is likely to be used for its psychoactive effects, regardless of its potential harm’. There are a few exceptions to the new act, including nicotine, alcohol, caffeine and alkyl nitrates, which are all controlled by the previous Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The new act means that powers are given to enable stop and search of person, vehicles, etc, with the maximum custodial service of seven years possible for outright dealing.
Proprietors of head shops can no longer sell, supply or distribute certain products sold in their shops. But what did that mean in the weeks leading up to 28 May? Huge discount sales with punters stocking up on their gear! Three for one – everything must go.
Will the new act make a difference or simply move these substances into a black market? Will the former illegal drug dealer – once a crew hand on a shifty, leaky boat – now become a captain of a colossal cruise-liner of drugs? Only time will tell... As a nation we seem to like a 'buzz’, whether it’s from strong coffee, alcohol, nicotine or the caffeine and taurine-leaden energy drinks which are available anywhere. Is it merely our coping technique and nature or will we ever stop chasing the next fix?