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Drug experts warn of rapid changes in internet marketplace for illicit drugs and “legal” highs

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Date Published:
28 Aug 2012
Contact person:
Marion Downey
02 9385 1080

Embargo: not for release before 12:00am 28 August 2012

An escalation in the availability of synthetic drugs and the emergence of the internet as a major retailer of illicit drugs and “legal highs” is creating a paradigm shift in drug use globally and domestically, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre’s Annual Symposium will hear tomorrow (August 28).

Dr Lucy Burns, head of the Centre’s drug monitoring systems, says that whereas previously there existed a set number of established drugs on the market globally, we are now witnessing a vast new array of substances. 

These include synthetic or analogue drugs – substances that have a similar effect to banned substances but that have been changed structurally so they stay one step ahead of the law.  

“What is concerning about analogue drugs is there is great variability in the content of these substances, and often, very little is known about what they actually contain,” says Dr Burns.

“This poses unknown risks for consumers. In addition, these substances are sold under many different names and are often marketed as legal substances.”

The internet is a significant factor behind this new market, providing a vehicle for both sellers and buyers.

NDARC has embarked on a new method of monitoring patterns of drug use that encompasses the internet. 

A snapshot of online drug retailers undertaken by the NDARC in July found close to 100 retailers selling to users in Australia. Around half of these were selling generic herbal highs, whose ingredients were unclear.

The remaining 48 retailers were selling largely controlled substances including mephedrone (also known as Miaow, Miaow) and other phenethylamines; stimulants such as synthacaine; synthetic cannabinoids; tryptamines such as DMT and dissociatives such as Salvia Divinorum.

The survey did not include Silk Road, the rapidly growing online anonymous market specialising in black market goods including illicit drugs. Nor did it include eBay, Gumtree or social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Thus the size of the problem is likely to be significant, Dr Burns says.

As well, nearly half of regular ecstasy users surveyed for the Centre’s Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System (EDRS) annual drug trends survey in 2011 had bought “legal highs” in the previous six months.

“Use of these substances is concerning largely because the market is totally untested, with little known about the associated harms. Internationally, there have been severe harms reported and we will need to remain alert,” Dr Burns says.

“Fortunately at this stage Australia does not seem to be following the UK trend where use of synthetic drugs is commonplace, but we are seeing increasing use of these substances and the emergence of the internet as a major retailer is making it difficult for us to estimate the size of the problem and give appropriate public health advice.”

NDARC’s director Professor Michael Farrell said the internet market for drugs seem to be in its infancy in Australia, but we should not underestimate the potential for rapid changes.

“This is clearly an area we need to keep monitoring,” Professor Farrell said.

“The development of a whole range of new drugs presents a potentially significant risk to the health and well being of new users.”

Media contacts

Marion Downey, Communications Manager:
m.downey@unsw.edu.au/ 02 9385 0333 / 0401 713 850

Erin O’Loughlin, Communications Officer:
erin.oloughlin@unsw.edu.au/ 02 9385 0333/ 0402 870 996

Lucy Burns is available for interview at the Symposium Venue on 28 August at 11.00am.

WHAT: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre Annual Symposium

WHEN:  Tuesday 28 August, 2012

WHERE:  John Niland Scientia Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney