Tue, Jan 10, 2006 - Page 6 News List

UK shops sell `legal highs'

BOOMING BUSINESS In towns and cities across the UK inconsistent legislation has led to a profusion of retailers offering a mind-boggling array of drug paraphernalia

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Pocket bongs, digital scales, herb grinders and exotic shamanic plants. The shelves of King Bong in Bournemouth, southern England, are packed with all the discerning drug user could possibly want.

There are brightly packaged pills such as "Yellow Veg-E's", "vegetarian blissed-out dance capsules", and the citrus-flavored Lime-Fantazias which promise "euphoric sensations" all night. And all of it entirely legal.

King Bong is one of some 200 "headshops" in the UK. Most major towns and cities now have a resident drug emporium, selling raver toys, cannabis accessories, and a selection of legal, mind- altering drugs. Along with several large-scale Web sites, they form a lucrative "legal highs" industry which markets exotic mind-changing plants and chemicals to a growing audience of drug users looking for alternatives to illegal substances.

"Business is on the up," says King Bong's owner, Tony Rotherham, who has run headshops for 12 years.

"We're getting all sorts in here. Hippies, clubbers, students, housewives, even slimmers looking for appetite suppressants," he says.

It was a boom in sales of magic mushrooms that kickstarted the industry as a legal loophole led to a growth in vendors. The mushrooms' reliable and mostly benevolent psychedelic effects changed public perception of legal highs.

"Mushrooms opened people's mind to the possibility you could go into a shop and get a legal high that had an effect," Rotherham says.

When the loophole closed in July, vendors filled the void.

A hotchpotch of shamanic plants, synthetic stimulants, and psychedelic cacti, most imported from the Netherlands, New Zealand and India, are repackaged and sold across the UK.

Magic mushroom sellers have switched to selling another mushroom, not yet outlawed: the red-and-white spotted Fly Agaric toadstool, which contains the psychoactive chemicals which can trigger delirious, dream-like states.

Thanks to the effectiveness of these legal highs and the large customer base created by the mushroom boom, the trade is booming in shops and on the Web, with shoppers exploiting secure credit card orders and 24-hour websites.

"Loads of people are getting into it," says Mark Evans, owner of EveryOneDoesIt.com, the UK's biggest online headshop.

"At the click of a button you can have whatever you want next day, at your home or in your office," he says.

His site boasts more than 5,000 products and customers can give star ratings and post Amazon-style reviews. The Web ensures word of mouth spreads quickly. Highs that don't work or have negative side-effects quickly disappear from sale.

Retailers are careful not to encourage any illegal activity or directly promote products as drugs. Cannabis seeds are often sold as "souvenirs". Bottles of inhalant amyl nitrite or "poppers" are advertised as "room odourisers". Bongs (a water pipe used for smoking cannabis) are labelled for "legal smoking mixes only". However, some of the plant-based highs have a quasi-legal status as they contain naturally occurring illegal drugs. The San Pedro cactus contains the outlawed psychedelic substance mescaline. Magic mushrooms, too, contain a class A drug, psilocybin, and were banned.

But the authorities seem to be unconcerned.

"We've only had the police in here once in 12 years," Rotherham says.

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