Nathalie Rothschild asks why a drug that has no proven serious side-effects - except for making its users feel hung over - has attracted the ire of the anti-drug lobby.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Nathalie Rothschild asks why a drug that has no proven serious side-effects – except for making its users feel hung over – has attracted the ire of the anti-drug lobby.

Have you ever gotten really wasted during a night of partying? Did you have a great night, followed by a terrible recovery? We’ve all been there. We know we’ll feel crap in the morning, but somehow the revelry is still worth it – even though the consequences may include vomiting, headache, palpitations, poor appetite, stomach pains/nausea, anxiety, insomnia, strange thoughts, mood swings, confusion, irritability or tremors.

These are also the effects that users of the substance benzylpiperazine (BZP) have reported, according to a joint report from Europol and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) (1). Despite the serious-sounding scientific term for what partygoers call ‘legal XTC’, ‘Jax’, ‘Pep Twisted’ or ‘Pep Love’, the adverse reactions, mostly felt in the ‘come-down’ period, only really describe the average not-so-comfortable day after a night of partying. Indeed, most of these effects are also experienced during a normal alcohol-induced hangover. With the claims that BZP induces ‘euphoria, wonder, amazement and elation’, which is more than can be said for a pint of stout, it is little surprise that some clubbers think it’s worth experimenting with the tablet (which is currently legal) despite the bad feelings that might follow the next day (2).

It seems no one knows very much about BZP, which is legal to use in Europe. Yet this new report recommends making BZP a controlled substance. Even the party-pooper authors of the report admit they don’t have much of a case – but they suggest, in fairly typical scaremongering fashion, that for some people BZP might become a gateway to heavier drug-taking. They paint a picture of those who pop BZP-filled pills – which by all accounts are a kind of new-age herbal remedy rather than a life-threatening substance – as being on a slippery slope to heroin addiction. Roumen Sedefov, the report’s project manager, said there was not much data available, but the team had ‘worked on a precautionary principle’. David MacKintosh, a policy adviser at the London Drugs Policy Forum, supported the report findings, and said of BZP: ‘It’s a substance that not much is known about but that is being sold in the thousands. It’s not regulated at all.’ (3) If we took the precautionary approach to everything we ingest – whether it’s alcohol, drugs or some new exotic foreign dish – then we’d never try anything for fear that it might have some unpredicted side effect.

The reason why ‘legal highs’ such as BZP are reportedly becoming more popular is precisely because of drug regulation. When drugs such as ecstacy are illicit, and those found in possession of it can face conviction, it is little wonder that people turn to apparently dodgy pills prescribed by their doctor instead. If drug use was decriminalised, substances could be clinically tested and people could be better informed of how to avoid dangerous concoctions. The fact that there is now a trade in legal highs means that substance vendors are on the lookout for alternatives to illegal drugs that they can market as safer and cleaner.

Spiritual High, for example, is a UK wholesaler and distributor of ‘drug harm minimisation solutions, club pills and legal highs’. Even these hippy drug producers are obsessed with health and safety and take a precautionary approach to drug use and partying, rather than arguing that what substances we take and how we party is a question of personal choice and individual freedom. The Spiritual High website announces that its ‘Pep Pills’, which contain BZP, are currently under suspension due to a Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) investigation into their legality under the Medicines Act (1968) (4).

Spiritual High admits that the pills it sells can have side effects, much like the ones described above, and recommends responsible ways of taking them – like drinking enough water, not mixing them with alcohol, or not taking them while pregnant. Despite its assertion that ’20 million pills similar to our products have been legally consumed over the last five years in New Zealand without fatalities’, Spiritual High does not, in fact, have adequate proof that its pills are indeed ‘safe’ (5).

In a response to a MixMag article on Pep Pills, which pointed out that ‘the pills currently on the market have not been through rigorous clinical and animal trials’, Spiritual High said it ‘does not believe that an absence of clinical evidence is equivalent to evidence that these substances are not safe’ (6). Well, neither is it equivalent to evidence that they are safe. Marketing its pills as ‘spiritual drug harm minimisation solutions’ – which essentially means trying to replace other drugs with Pep Pills – may make the enterprise sound all New Agey and down to earth, but essentially their pills are just mixes of substances that people take to have a good time. Spiritual High, with its long list of recommendations and warnings, only reinforces the party-with-precaution attitude espoused by Europol, EMCDDA and the rest.

Debating the relative safety or harm of LSD, ecstacy, marijuana, Pep Pills and so on misses the mark on what is really at stake with both drug criminalisation and drug cultures today and in the past. What substances we put into our bodies, and how we let off steam, should be up to us. Drug use is a question of personal liberty, and that is the primary reason it should be decriminalised. Other positive consequences may indeed include the creation of ‘safer drugs’ through clinical trials, but it is our liberty to spend our free time as we see fit that should be the overriding concern.

What is worrying about the trend for party pills and the desire for consciousness-alteration is that some people seem to see drugs as an antidote to life. Life itself appears dull, colourless, devoid of thrills compared to the hallucinogenic dreamscape that pill-popping offers.

For most people, drug taking is a form of teenage rebellion or a temporary release. True, it’s silly to romanticise drug use – but whether or not we engage in it is not for lawmakers to decide. Drug use should not be a criminal activity, but an individual choice. In short, we should, as the reggae legend Peter Tosh said of marijuana, ‘legalise it’ – though Tosh was wrong to say we shouldn’t criticise it. Then again, he was probably stoned when he wrote that song.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked

Read on:

Who’s afraid of?

(1) Legal dance drug faces ban amid fears over side-effects by Alexandra Topping, Guardian, 18 June 2007

(2) See wikipedia entry for Benzylpiperazine

(3) Legal dance drug faces ban amid fears over side-effects by Alexandra Topping, Guardian, 18 June 2007

(4) See the Products section of the Spiritual High website

(5) See FAQs on the Spiritual High website

(6) See Spiritual High Response to MixMag Article

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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