Funk pills: Getting on a 'legal high'No longer all that ecstatic over ecstasy, Britons are
showing a growing interest in alternatives to hard drugs
By Terry Kirby
They have exotic names like Amsterdam Gold, Funk Pills and Ayahuasca Sacrament, and promise a spectrum of effects that range from the mildly euphoric to "ecstasy-style" energy rushes and the full-on hallucinogenic experience.
But these are not drugs where Britons have to break the law to sell, buy or consume them - they are all completely legal.
Dozens of both new and ancient types of "legal highs" derived from herbs, plants and cacti from South America and Asia, and synthetic stimulants from New Zealand, are now available at often low prices from Internet-based companies and an increasing number of "head" shops around Britain.
Ironically, the trade has been stimulated by the British government's decision last year to ban so-called "magic mushrooms," containing the hallucinogenic psilocin, which had been sold openly through the Internet and places like Camden Market in north London.
The ban left a gap in the market, with both consumers and vendors looking for new products.
Mark Evans, of everyonedoesit.com, one of the leading Internet-based mail order operations, said the increase in trade since last year had been "massive."
He added: "There is a huge gap in the market. These consumers are not going to disappear, they are just looking for alternatives.''
Evans, whose company also sells cannabis seeds for growing, said there had been a change in the culture of people who consumed recreational drugs.
"We do a lot of festivals and speak to people who say they are fed up with dealers and taking drugs - like ecstasy - where they cannot always be confident that they know what is in the pill. People want something, which will not poison them and they know what they are buying."
Although many of the organic-based legal highs are, it is claimed, ones used by primitive communities for millennia, the biggest seller, Funk Pills with names like Flying Angel and Silver Bullet, have been in existence only for a few years; and sales have rocketed in the past six months.
The Funk Pills, which sell for between $11 Cdn and $15, come from New Zealand. They are made by companies licensed by the government there, after it decided that they were a less harmful substitute for illegal drugs, such as methamphetamine.
It created a new category in its drug laws to cover "non-traditional designer substances."
Also known as P.E.P pills, they contain the stimulant benzylpiperazine (BZP), which is banned in the United States, Denmark and Australia, together with other chemicals from the piperazine family, which are also used to create Viagra, although they have no effect on sexual performance.
According to DrugScope, the independent advice body, while some users are keen on the pills, attributing genuine ecstasy style effects, others are more skeptical.
The pills do come with warnings about dosage levels, driving or using machinery. Side effects can include those normally found with ecstasy or amphetamine use, such as dehydration, anxiety and insomnia.
Other big sellers are Spice Smoking Blends, a new version of the herbal mixes, which have been around for many years, as legal alternatives to cannabis.
"Herbal substitutes were always a bit of a joke, but many people say these are the closest thing to marijuana yet," Evans said.
At the other end of the scale from Funk Pills are the $25 peyote cacti. They contain the hallucinogenic mescaline and have a similar effect to LSD. It was the drug used by writer Aldous Huxley before he wrote The Doors of Perception, which influenced the growth in use of mind-altering drugs in the 1960s.
Native American tribes have used it for centuries, as a shamanic plant that can create visions of an alternate world.
"It is selling very well at the moment, a lot more in demand since the mushroom ban," said Chris Bovey, who runs a mail business firm in the south of England.
As well as the traditional herbal mixes, both companies sell products like Salvia, a relative of sage, which provides a short, sharp "hit" of only a few minutes; and Kratom, a leaf from south-east Asia used as an opium substitute.
More esoteric substances are Hawaiian Baby Woodrose Seeds, said to be more powerful than LSD. And there's the powdered Banisteriopsis caapi vine, the main ingredient in Ayahuasca or Yage. It's a sacred and ancient South American medicine said to have visionary qualities and "bought directly from Natives in the Amazon jungle under fair trade policies." It costs about $20 for 50 grams.
Bovey said consumers are broadly divided into two groups - older "hippie" types, used to smoking cannabis who were comfortable with smoking or ingesting exotic plants; and younger buyers seeking to replicate the "E" experience.
He said there were some things he would never sell, such as Datura, or Thorn-Apple, both a poison and hallucinogenic, linked with several deaths in the United States, where it is a common plant.
Despite all the exotic experiences attributed to the various substances, instances of addiction, abuse or harmful affects are almost non-existent.
Britain's Home Office said yesterday that there was no present reason for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to examine the legal status of any of the substances on the market.
Nevertheless, DrugScope issued advice to students in London earlier this year cautioning that any drug that has a psychological effect can prove difficult to stop if used regularly.
It added: "In general, very little is known about these substances. Proper controlled research is sparse, and therefore side effects and possible dangers when taken with other drugs, and even foods, is not known."
Harry Shapiro, a spokesman for DrugScope, added: "The only real warning we would give is the same as that we offer to consumers of illegal drugs ... that people with mental health problems should not take them. That if you are anxious, worried or depressed, they may only make your condition worse, and that if you are going to experiment, do so in a safe and secure environment."
Dr Alexander Shulgin
BZP scheduled in the USA
Benzylpiperazine (BZP): mechanisms
UK March 2007: sale of benzylpiperazine (BZP) banned