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Governments have cried wolf about drugs in the past, but warnings about new synthetic drugs are justified.

Words: Simon Oxenham
Illustration: Yeyo Riancho

After decades of hysteria from governments and the media about recreational drug use, it’s easy for people to disregard warnings about dangerous drugs. “Just ONE joint can cause schizophrenia,” the Daily Mail infamously screeched, ignoring the fact that rates of schizophrenia declined during the same time period that cannabis was popularised. Meanwhile, millions of ecstasy pills are popped every year with relatively low numbers of fatalities, in spite of hysterical warnings that the pills would result in masses of early graves.

Millions of ecstasy pills are popped every year with relatively low numbers of fatalities.

But today we have a paradox: less people are taking drugs but more are dying from taking them than ever before. It’s a trend that’s heavily driven by opiates which include powerful pharmaceutical painkillers and heroin. Benzodiazepines– powerful anxiety medications that are often taken recreationally- and cocaine follow closely behind in the rankings of the most deadly drugs in the UK. Together with alcohol and tobacco, these drugs are responsible for the vast majority of drug deaths in the UK today, though these fatalities rarely make the headlines.

Rates of deaths resulting from synthetic opiates have recently exploded in the US, where decades of over-prescription and aggressive and misleading marketing of opiate painkillers have resulted in an estimated 2.1 million people addicted. In recent years, new and stronger synthetic opiates have come onto the market, including Fentanyl which is 50 times as powerful as heroin, and Carfentanil which is 100 times stronger than Fentanyl. In the US, these drugs are sometimes pressed into pills that are made to appear like traditional prescription medications and have also made their way into heroin supplies.

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According to Emma Wells from Bristol Drugs Project, which has been conducting a study testing for Fentanyl and Carfentanil in the urine of volunteer heroin users from Bristol, no positive results for these drugs have been found among the thirty-five opiate users who have been tested so far, though the tests are not an exact science. It may only be a matter of time before these chemicals make their way across the Atlantic.

But Bristol isn’t free from the harm caused by some synthetic versions of popular street drugs. Like in many cities in the UK, synthetic cannabinoids, often known simply as “spice”, have become popular with Bristol’s homeless population, due largely to their low cost and high accessibility. Spice is often described as being over 80 times stronger than cannabis, but this comparison is misleading. It is true that synthetic cannabinoids can have an 80-fold ability to bind to THC receptors in the brain, but THC is just one chemical that causes the effects of cannabis. Natural cannabis also includes hundreds of other chemicals that have a wide variety of effects including anti-psychotic qualities, according to some researchers. Synthetic cannabinoids aren’t simply a stronger versions of cannabis; they are different drugs entirely and can commonly cause far more unpleasant and extreme side effects including seizures and other adverse reactions very rarely seen in herbal cannabis users.

The history of prohibition shows us that pushing dangerous drugs underground does little to reduce availability while significantly increasing harm.

All of this could lead one to conclude that the ban of synthetic cannabinoids and the Psychoactive Substances Act which last year banned all non-excluded psychoactive chemicals, were good things. Although they may have been responsible for reported falls in the drug’s popularity over the course of the past year, there is evidence that these laws could have unintended side effects. The history of prohibition shows us that pushing dangerous drugs underground often does little to reduce availability while significantly increasing harm, as users are less likely to know what they are taking, an issue of critical importance when dealing with substances as powerful as these.

The bans will also make it harder for scientists to come up with safer alternatives to illegal drugs; there is evidence for example that mephedrone, a popular formerly legal alternative to cocaine, may have been responsible for a sharp fall in cocaine deaths that occurred during the short time it was legal. Furthermore, scientists have been up in arms about the bans which will make several promising compounds for scientific research illegal despite the fact that they are already included in several medicines. These existing medicines are exempted from the legislation, but the new laws are making it harder for scientists to develop new lifesaving medicines.

If you need support or advice regarding drug use contact Bristol Drugs Project on 0117 987 6000 or head to

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