Police Race to Keep Up with Drug-Dealers as New Crop of 'Legal Highs' Hits the Streets; 'EVEN THOUGH THEY MIGHT BE LEGAL, THEY CAN STILL KILL'

Article excerpt

Byline: SION MORGAN sion.morgan@walesonline.co.uk

THE number of "legal highs" being sold in Wales is rapidly expanding as criminals make tiny alterations to banned substances to stay "one step ahead of the law".

There are concerns that police forces may struggle to identify and cope with the growing number of "synthetic drugs" being seized.

There are suggestions that dozens of new substances - which may be adapted from recently-banned substances like mephedrone - are already available.

Detective Superintendent Rhiannon Kirk, of the all-Wales serious and organised crime unit Tarian, said the British legal system is struggling to analyse and classify the abundance of new chemical drugs being produced.

Until they are identified, classified and subsequently outlawed if deemed necessary, they can be sold legally.

Det Supt Kirk said: "We seize, test and discover a lot of these new drugs.

"We find substances sold as mephedrone which do not contain any mephedrone and we find substances sold as other things that do contain mephedrone.

"We come across substances that are substituted with heroin and cocaine, some that are sold as plant seed online.

"Some criminals are altering the chemical makeup of newly banned drugs very slightly to stay one step ahead of the law.

"Therefore, from my point of view, the main focus for the police is to warn the public against taking these substances rather than waiting for the law to catch up.

"The fact of the matter is, even though they might be legal, that doesn't mean they can't kill you. They can."

Two legal highs set to be made illegal Class B drugs are party drug mexxy and black mamba, a form of "synthetic cannabis", which the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs found posed dangerous risks to health.

Mexxy, or methoxetamine, has been linked to two deaths and police warned of the "life-threatening effects" of black mamba.

But Det Supt Kirk says many more similar drugs are yet to be classified by Government advisers.

One of the most common "legal highs" currently on the market is NRG-2, an evolved version of the substance NRG-1, which was recommended for classification as a Class B drug in 2010.

NRG-1, itself adapted from mephedrone, an amphetamine-like drug, carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison for possession and 14 years in prison for supply.

Yet countless websites are openly advertising the sale of NRG-2 as it is yet to be classified or banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

One web-based seller in South Wales openly states online that the substance is "dubbed the mephedrone replacement".

Selling the product for PS15 a gram, the company even offers same-day delivery to Newport, Cardiff, Torfaen, Blaenau Gwent and Caerphilly.

Det Supt Kirk said she was aware of NRG-2. "A list of these widely available substances is produced for the crime unit on a regular basis and, yes, I believe that is one on the list," she said.

"I think that list is probably more beneficial to the scientists working with substances than us, though.

"From a policing point of view, we normally deal with white powder. That is what we find.

"So when we find white powder, we seize it and destroy it and any equipment used to make it.

"It's only after we seize it that we analyse what it is.

"When you look at it like that, we are at least removing and destroying these substances when we find them, even if they are still classed as being legal."

In November, a nationwide report revealed that more than 40 deaths across the UK in 2010 were linked to a group of now-banned legal highs, eight times as many as the previous year.

The biggest increase related to the now-banned mephedrone, more commonly known as "meow meow", which was linked to five deaths in 2009 and 29 the following year, the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths report showed. …