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Death By Acronym

Common sense dictates that drinking an industrial solvent found in wheel cleaner is a stupid thing. Yet clubbers across the UK are ignoring the “Toxic: Do Not Drink” warnings and are necking back litres of the stuff for shits and giggles.

After a couple of hours I think I’m straight enough to communicate with the outside world. I’m not. I babble incoherent nonsense on the phone, post worse on Twitter. Having ingested a dose of the latest nightclub drug sensation GBL, I’ve lost nearly three hours of my life, my loins are turning over in stimulus and my head feels like a tar pit. I can’t breathe and have probably relied on my asthma inhaler more than I ought to. And I’ve lost my glasses. Hester Stewart, a 21-year-old molecular medicine student and cheerleader at Sussex University, lost more than that.
Hester died after taking GBL at a party in Brighton in April 2009.
“She was attending an awards ball then was meant to meet her brother for a drink,” recalls Hester’s mother Maryon. “All we know is that she went off with another group, ended up at someone’s house, probably went to sleep and never woke up. Two policemen turned up at my door when I was making brunch.”
Maryon, a nutritionist, insists her daughter wasn’t part of a drugs scene and that reports of a bottle of GBL found near her body were untrue.
“In France and Germany they have posters in clubs that read GBL + Alcohol = Death. Hester had a blood alcohol level 1.5 times over the driving limit, but none of her friends nor I knew what GBL was until she died.”

GBL, or gamma-butyrolactone, is an agent used in industrial cleaners and solvents. Think nail varnish remover, bike chain degreaser, enamel stripper. You can buy quantities of it off the Internet for £50 per litre. In a club, it comes in a glass vial, which you shake up and drink. It looks like water and tastes like flat fizzy water with a penny in it. You go giddy, you sometimes hallucinate. When mixed with alcohol, whatever drowsiness you experience is enhanced.  It can also lead to shortness of breath, a constriction of the chest, unconsciousness, coma, death.
Increased use of GBL came after the Home Office amended the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to classify its cousin GHB, gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid, as a Class C substance. Some clever clog worked out that GBL converts to GHB when it hits the bloodstream. Similar effects without the jail time.
Typical clubber arguments for taking GBL echo “It’s like ketamine, you should only take it according to your body weight”. Therefore assuming the bigger you are the more you can take.
Prominent toxicologist Professor Alexander Forrest insists that there is no “safe dose. GBL is used to remove nail varnish and super glue. It has no physical benefit to the human body. If you are naïve and take it in large quantities or with alcohol or other depressants, the effects are potentiated. It kills.”
So if there is no safe dose, why take it? “I love it,” says clubber Woody. “I get really horny and the feeling’s fabulous. It’s kind of being in it and out of it at the same time.”

The Home Office has opened a public consultation over GBL, BZP (1-benzylpiperazine), and 24 anabolic steroids which closes on 13 August 2009. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has said that she is “determined to respond to the dangers of these drugs and that is why I have committed to controlling them…this is the next step in tackling the unregulated market of so called legal highs.” She vows to continue adapting the UK drug policy according to the  “changing environment of substance misuse.”
In this case, the use of GHB broke its medical remit as treatment for narcolepsy. Bodybuilders took it in the hopes of bulking up and it joined ecstasy and ketamine on tapestry of euphorics available on the nightclub scene. The UK government restricted it as a Class C drug, carrying with it a two-year jail term for possession following a successful conviction. GBL, its precursor, suddenly emerged as the legal alternative.
“We’re working to have the government ban GBL for personal use,” says Maryon Stewart. “We also want the Home Office to start a legal highs awareness programme in universities, schools, bars, everywhere. People should know that legal doesn’t mean safe.”
Online merchants who sell GBL for industrial purposes say they “cannot be held responsible if the product is misused in any way”. My batch came from a conventional drug dealer as a 250ml bottle with handy pipette.
“One of those should equal a dose,” my dealer advised. “But there is no real way of measuring. Just don’t go overboard.”
My dealer has been in his trade for nearly 20 years. He’s also spent time running a “head shop” – a store that sells drug paraphernalia, legal highs, joss sticks and awful hippie clothing. According to him, restricting further substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act could lead users to seek out other legal, potentially more dangerous, ones to take.
“Restricting isn’t going to help anything. In fact, it tends to make people curious and want to try them,” my dealer continues. “People are going to find other things to use whether the Home Secretary likes it or not. I have noticed a spike of interest in these legal highs but I’ve found they’re more of a novelty. Customers try them for a time but always go back to cocaine, ecstasy, dope. It’s what they know and trust.”
“Has anyone died on you?”
“Not yet. I don’t think so. I warn people off speedballs (cocktails where users mix different drugs to take at once) but what they do with what they get is up to them.”

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is the consulting body in charge of keeping the Home Secretary up to date with the latest drug trends. It’s made up of 31 doctors, professors, consultants who compile reports, draft proposals and nag government ministers about what the kids have been taking when their parents are away.
Under their microscope this year are ‘legal highs’ – a catch-all phrase that takes in everything that hasn’t yet been classified and restricted under the Misuse of Drugs Act. GBL is part of this. BZP is part of this. Herbal preparations with added synthetic cannabinoids known as “Spice” are part of this. In a letter to the Home Secretary dated 31 March 2009, the ACMD said they were forming a working group to look into Spice.
However, users are always ahead of the game.
“We’ve not had any Spice in stock for a while now. You’ll find most of the major UK wholesalers have stopped selling it,” says Rolly at my local head shop.
A popular alternative goes under the name of “Magic Silver”, an “exceptionally strong incense” with a vanilla and honey flavour. At around £25 pounds a go, the cost is comparable to the going rate for its illegal cousin skunk weed. Other products such as “Dream” or “D-Raw” offer similar numbing, giggly effects – but you’ll be smoking damiana, blue lotus, or something more chemical that’s usually not added to the list of ingredients.
You can also import the Spice component, JWH-018, from fine chemical producers in China. Online. Just Google it.

A good number of legal highs are imported from New Zealand. One of the bigger manufacturers is London Underground. Speaking to an importer of their products under the condition of anonymity, I asked if trading in legal highs serves to encourage users to take unnecessary risks.
“Quite the opposite. The feedback we get from users is that our products keep them away from harder drugs.”
Professor Forrest is less forgiving. “It’s not an issue of hard or soft. The only difference between something like BZP and MDMA is legislation. One is legal and the other isn’t. They’re both very potent and they’re both potentially dangerous.”
I took BZP in the form of a legal high sold as “Smileys”. It’s 160mg of benzylpiperazine mixed with 200mg of piperazine blend called TFMPP. Your pupils dilate, your jaw clenches, and you dance like a lunatic. Erroneously called “Natural Ecstacy”, BZP is appearing on the public radar thanks to the death of a 22-year-old mortgage broker from Sheffield called Daniel Backhouse. He was found dead in May 2008 after taking a cocktail of BZP and Ecstasy.
A study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal finds the combination of BZP with TFMPP promotes “the release of neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin…thereby simulating the known effects of MDMA”. Not only does it promote seizures in rats, but humans. Taken with MDMA, it forces the heart to beat erratically and forces contractions. Not bad work for something you can pick up as soil fertiliser.
One substance that’s yet to entertain government scrutiny is mephedrone. A pale powder with similar effects to amphetamines, cocaine and MDMA.
After snorting around 1000mg of it, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. My fingers went slightly blue and my lips lost their colour. It keeps you pepped up and makes you chat shit. Knowing what I know about the casual drugs scene, it seems the only thing stopping mephedrone from becoming the new ketamine is its availability. At £15 per gram, it’s certainly cheap enough.
Somebody once joked that with a recession on, people can’t afford cocaine or pure MDMA anymore. Legal highs and pharmaceuticals are being sold as “the poor man’s this and that”. And because there are so many variants and compounds, regulation will always be a step behind and education never up to scratch. Prosecution is like “a nasty suck by a toothless poodle”.
Professor Forrest is keen to point out that regulating legal highs will have a very small impact on overall substance abuse.
“GBL, BZP or any other substance that the government is looking at to control aren’t the biggest issues. Though controlling them would be a step in the right direction, the biggest issues are substances that have widespread use and kill people. Alcohol and tobacco. The government will never crack down on booze and fags. The lobbies are too strong, there’s too much money in them, and they’re very sexy.”

Having started this article with the idea of trying a few things I’ve never taken before to boost my street cred, I’ve finished it feeling like I’ve put my organs through torture last seen in Nazi death camps. Placing further restriction on legal substances used as recreational drugs may force users to seek out the bleach under the kitchen sink in a terminal effort to get off their tits. If you apply Darwin’s theory of evolution, here’s hoping.


This article was first published in Who’s Jack Magazine, July 2009. All rights reserved.



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Smoke For Free, Die For Nothing

Publicity surrounding the link to cancer has left US tobacco firms so desperate to recruit new customers they have started giving their products away.

I was “hit up” by one of Chicago’s “cigarette fairies” – a promotional vendor who has routes throughout urban bars and clubs.

“So what brand do you smoke?” she asked. “You seen the British Camel Lights? They call them Blues because some legislation said it was deceptive to call cigarettes ‘light’.”

She scanned my passport and asks me a few vitals – name, number, address and so on.

“Why do you need my phone number?” I asked.

“Something like 2% of the people we hit up get a phone call in the year and they have a chance of winning like a carton or something,” she replied.

Her job is to collect details about smokers (what they smoke, how much and so on) and then give out two packets of Camel-branded cigarettes. For free. Cancer on the cheap.

Their performance rating is gauged on how many cigarettes they manage to hand out… and how many they convert to the cause of administering lung disease to the American population.

“We’re all over the place… all over America. It’s a sweet job,” she told me.

“I’ve got this brand called Crush – there’s a little pellet in the filter you break so you can have a menthol smoke if you want one.

“I’ve also got chewing tobacco that’s been pasteurized so you don’t have to spit it out. You can just swallow what you chew.”

Gross. “Don’t you feel a bit guilty about handing out what is essentially an addictive and unhealthy habit to people?”

“They always have a choice. And usually the choice is to take it up.”

Ever since Chicago’s smoking ban kicked in at the start of the year, cigarette companies like RJ Reynolds have had to play a devious game in order to lure in more nicotine addicts.

From handing out free cigarettes in bars and parties – usually to the hip and trendy types who dictate style – to edible chewing tobacco (“there are different strengths and flavours depending on your taste”) Camel and other cigarette brands are frantically and aggressively marketing their wares in increasingly innovative and arguably reckless ways.

There are “gift packs” that include your two packets of cigarettes, a lighter, a mint-flavoured sweet, a condom, and a moist towelette.

Having been previously exposed to chocolate-flavoured cigarettes and ones with designer packs that indicate my level of “cool”, I’ve known the dark arts of cigarette marketing.

They got me hooked at the age of 14. I’m one of those smokers who say they should quit because it’s socially acceptable to do so but never follow through because that inner teenager fears being shunned by my peers (the umbilical cord of carcinogenic chemicals notwithstanding).

RJ Reynolds, the company that oversees the Camel brand, advertise for “highly motivated and principled university graduates with strong communication skills who can build win-win relationships”.

The ideal candidate will become a “passionate tobacco expert” and a “valuable business consultant”. Essential skills include “a willingness to take responsibility, honesty, integrity (and) trustworthiness”.

RJ Reynolds offer a “comprehensive” health and welfare benefits package, a “generous” annual bonus, and a company car.

As ever, the “free choice” card is played. But the temptation can’t be negated. For the sales rep, a low-effort decently paid job with fringe benefits.

For the punter, two free packs of smokes – a saving of just over £9 – and the glee of getting something for nothing (apart from handing over your personal details).

You save a bit of money and you may get a phone call somewhere down the line.

In exchange, you hand over your personal details to a major corporation with the power to lobby governments.

So stick that in your pipe and smoke it.


This article was originally published on Sky News Online on 14 October 2008. All rights reserved.

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Mexican Hitmen Offer Services Online

Police in Mexico City are investigating online classified ads posted by people selling their services as assassins for as little as £3,000.

Between listings offering gas fitters and modelling agencies, a post reads: “Gun for Hire – $6,000. Professional. International. Discretion guaranteed”.

Another reads: “former soldier with 10 years experience in the private sector, very professional and discreet”.

A hitman called Jorge leads with: “Problems with someone? Would you like a solution? Write to me. 100% professional – we do not charge an advance”.

As drug cartels and organised crime gangs step up their tit-for-tat murders by leaving bodies and severed heads in Mexico City streets, police are taking these ads seriously.

At least 1,700 people have been killed this year in the battle between warring cartels and the raids by soldiers and federal police sent out to stop them.

Paid assassins are often used by gangs due to their relative anonymity and high-calibre weaponry.

Demand for such services has stretched further into Central and South America.

A Mexican cartel aired radio ads in Guatemala this year looking for former soldiers to work as smugglers.

Another hung banners in towns near the American border advertising “lucrative opportunities”.

Fryingpanfire contacted a man based in Chile who offered a professional hitman by assignment, promising to “work in arranging scenarios” or to “fix it like a robbery, accident, etc”.

An ineffective justice system means very few killers get caught.

Police spokesman Miguel Amelio Gomez said the problem of hitmen was real and was one they were “facing all over the country – people offer their services to kill someone for a price”.

He has not ruled out the idea that the ads were faked, but is “investigating all possibilities”.

Mexican police are not immune from threats – in May this year Edgar Millan, the acting director of Mexico’s Federal Preventive Police, was killed by an assassin’s bullet.

It is believed that the so-called Sinaloa Cartel with interests in transporting cocaine and other illicit drugs to the United States was behind the attack.


This article was originally published on Sky News Online on 14 July 2008. All rights reserved.

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