A "research chemicals" label is often used as a way for legal high providers to promote their wares, under the legal pretence that they are all purchased by researchers for scientific experiments. Sadly, recent tragedies like the death of 18-year old Adam Hunt underline the potential human cost as people experiment with risky and untested substances.
Policymakers have been debating how to deal with the dangers. Banning substances such as mephedrone have proved controversial, with figures showing a rise in popularity since prohibition.
HuffPostUK tracked down a legal highs insider to find out more. We caught up with someone who goes by the name 'Midas', founder of the legal highs website "Chems 'R' Us".
So Midas, how quickly has the legal highs industry grown in Britain?
The legal highs market during the 90's was mostly populated by a select group of psychonauts who used novel chemicals to find out about their benefits or explore their effects on the mind. This went on to the early years of the next century when the chemical substance Mephedrone (4-mmc) was “rediscovered” and synthesized by an Israeli chemist.
The UK caught on quick and later that decade online webshops started selling it because of its attractive mark-up. It became a hit in the UK club scene and the sales of cocaine plummeted with over 70%. After a lot of media attention in local and national UK tabloids, the sales of these chemicals rocketed and by April 2010 a ban on the substance in the UK was in place, leading to an increase in use of the chemical.
Having had a taste of the profit margin involved with research chemicals, companies began contracting mostly Chinese chemists to “invent” or “re-invent” more substances that had similar desirable effects while maintaining a legal status.
The government's aggressive attitude to banning these new substances caused a snowball effect where more and more “new” chemicals were made and being put on the market, some with no safety profile whatsoever as oppose to those who already were banned and thus tried and tested to a certain extend. As lawmakers can't keep up with this phenomenon, more entrepreneurs open shops because of the attraction of little overhead combined with a massive profit margin.
The ever-increasing media attention it is gaining in the past years has helped this industry grow to massive proportions with more and more “new” chemicals hitting the market.
How much are legal high vendors making? Thousands of pounds? Millions?
It all depends on their marketing tactics and reputation and also the fact whether they engage in wholesale of chemicals or merely aim to cater for the “researcher".
Should the government come down tougher on the legal highs market?
The worst thing about banning a legal high is that it will cause more harm to young people, since it will not stop them using a chemical at a party or a social event. Neither will it stop laboratories in China producing more legal novel companies and companies in the West selling them.
With new chemicals of which nothing is known about coming onto the market as a result of recent bans and the formerly legal chemicals ending up on the black market at festivals, the government couldn't have been more wrong and this year's festival season will prove if this is the case.
How does a ban affect legal high vendors and the industry?
Businesses are forced to put massive discounts on the stock they hold of the soon to be banned chemical. Meanwhile, consumers will stock up on the chemicals by ordering large amounts and some will do so in order to resell them on the black market.
UK vendors send their leftovers of soon to be banned stock abroad to other companies where they are not banned and firms work together with chemists in labs in China to produce something else that isn't covered by the ban and would have similar effects. Often NOTHING is known about the chemical's effect and the dosage adds extra danger.
What should the government be doing to reduce harm reduction?
They should force companies selling chemicals to include the chemical name of the product they are selling and not allow vendors to give it a fancy name like "Jolly Green Granules", or "Brain Blast Powder" which consumers cannot use to get any information.
How many 'research chemical' providers are really just fronts for legal highs?
Most Research Chemical webshops you will encounter sell their products for just that because by law they are forced to. Whether these chemicals are actually used for the (legal) purpose they are sold the case is doubtful.
There are however some Research Chemical shops that provide them just for that purpose, like Abcam Biochemicals, Cayman Chemical, and Sigma-Aldrich.