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N is for New Psychoactive Substances (NPS)

Neil Wilson
Neil Wilson

N is for New Psychoactive Substances (NPS)

In his ground-breaking book of 1932 Brave New World Aldous Huxley talks about a substance called ‘soma’. Within his chillingly sinister vision of a supposedly utopian world soma is used in an attempt to remove all forms of ‘mental pain.’ Huxley put it this way: “Two thousand pharmacologists and bio-chemists were subsidized. Six years later it was being produced commercially. The perfect drug, euphoric, narcotic, and pleasantly hallucinant. All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol, with none of their defects. Take a holiday from reality whenever you like and come back without so much as a headache.” The book was banned in Ireland.

Whilst the drug was said to be better than promiscuous sex it couldn’t really claim to offer anything life-enriching, or open up new levels of consciousness or spiritual understanding. Huxley saw Soma as an empty promise, the product of “unnatural” hedonic engineering.

In the Brave New World soma is distributed free by the government. In the real world drugs need to be paid for in cold hard cash. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) are currently monitoring at least 800 such substances.

One of the most important figures in this field is the Israeli-born chemist and entrepreneur Dr.Zee. He has produced a range of NPS including Mephedrone (or miaow-maiow as it was dubbed by the press). Dr.Zee also appears to aspire to producing a soma-like substance. He is also often given to making this and other outlandish claims about his work: “My drive comes from the will to create something new, better, legal and safe. The underlying belief of this activity is cognitive liberty.” That casts him the mould of ‘psychonauts’ such as Tim Leary a leading figure in the counter-culture of 1960’s America. Such self-styled psychonauts believed could expand human consciousness and knowledge, at least as much as NASA’s astronauts of the same era. It’s more likely that the motivation of figures such as Dr.Zee is the ability to print money; if they actually ever come close to producing ‘the perfect drug.’

New psychoactive substances (NPS) first came to the more general notice of the public in Ireland with a series of calls made to ‘Liveline’ on RTE1 Radio 1. The host Joe Duffy spearheaded a campaign to close down the hundred-plus headshops that had sprung up around Ireland in the previous few years. In those days NPS were commonly called ‘party pills’ or ‘legal highs’ among other terms. The vast majority of the products they sold were legal due to the fact that the process to assess and amend appropriate drug misuse laws could take many months. If one was made illegal using a statutory Instrument (SI) it’s structure could be tweaked and put on sale again in a matter of days. The pressure exerted by the Irish media and community based groups supporting physical protests outside headshops led to the Irish Government bringing in the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act in 2010. This piece of legislation differed from other drug misuse acts by adopting a ‘blanket’ policy. Rather than naming individual drugs it made the promotion and sale of all psychoactive substances illegal. With appropriate exceptions made for alcohol, tobacco and certain foodstuffs such as coffee or black pepper, the act swiftly and effectively closed down the vast majority of the headshops. A limited number remain in business to this day as they focused their trade on selling drug paraphernalia such as cannabis smoking bongs and growing equipment. Such products have a dual-use as they can also be used with perfectly legal substances. For that reason it was decided they were beyond the scope of the legislation.

We are now more than a decade on from the introduction of act, but there is an argument to be had about its effectiveness. In the short-term the high-street headshop disappeared and there was a significant drop in the amount of NPS being consumed in Ireland. It also appeased those who felt that headshops should have no place in the Irish retail environment. Cynics pointed out that Irish city centers have been full of places selling drugs for yearsthey are called pubs.

In the longer term it’s a complex question as to whether drug use dropped due to the implementation of the act. Some people would have switched to (or switched back to) using illegal drugs such as cannabis or ecstasy. In addition many drug dealers saw a gap in the market and supplied the now illegal NPS drugs, obtaining their supplies from abroad. The main difference was however the continued rapid expansion of online shopping. Hundreds of websites popped up promising discreet deliveries to many countries, including Ireland. Some even went as far as to offer a ‘dog-proof guarantee’, meaning that if their packaging failed to beat the customs dogs as the packages entered Ireland then the purchaser would receive a full refund. As we are unsure as to quite how much product the headshops were shifting and how they would have developed if the new laws had not been brought in, it is difficult to come to any conclusions. The European Drug Report (2020) pointed out that the rate of new substances appearing has now stabilised at around 50 per year, but the use of NPS has become a persistent feature of the European drug market.

The vast range of NPS that have appeared tend to mimic those drugs a have been around for many years. There are stimulants, depressants, hallucinogenic and opiate-like substances. NPS may be sold by psychoactive substances by themselves or may be added to more mainstream drugs. Others are produced specifically to be sold as a ‘fake’ drug, increasing substantially the profits of drug-dealers. Some, such as Mephedrone, have become well established and are also now covered by amendments to Misuse of Drugs acts. In that sense they could now be considered neither new nor novel.

Many people have an image of new NPS being dreamed-up by ‘mad scientists’, perhaps in some Bond-like villain’s hideaway. In reality most new NPS are the result of many hours trawling the internet to try and identify often long-forgotten pharmaceutical products that often never made it to market. A recent example is Isotonitazene, part of a formerly obscure family of opioids that were first synthesized in the 1950’s. Papers from that time show its strength to be slightly more than Fentanyl or about sixty times the strength of morphine. No further mention of the opioid can been found until it began to turn up in six European countries in 2019. Unusually it has also become available as a ready-to-use nasal spray as well. A number of fatalities have already occurred, including over 20 in North America. Whilst it does not seem to have yet appeared in Ireland it shows the value of the EMCDDA’s early warning system (EWS) in preparing services ahead of time.

If scientists ever deliver that elusive ‘magic pill’ then it begets immense social, political and economic questions that the world community will need to deal with. Conspiracy theories already abound concerning the supposed actions of certain governments to permanently ‘mood-alter’ their populations.

Could such a situation ever come to exist? It’s almost impossible to say, but the very fact that you have read to the end of this blogpost rather proves Huxley’s point made in Brave New World Revisited (1958) that such conditions could exist if we “fail to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”


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