Organised gangs in China shipping legal highs to UK

Legal highs Image copyright Getty Images

Organised gangs in China are undermining UK government attempts to control the multi-million pound trade in so-called legal highs, a BBC investigation has revealed.

The BBC team found chemical labs in China routinely send legal highs to the UK using courier services.

One laboratory said it sends drugs in packages described as "birthday gifts".

Legal highs are chemicals designed to mimic the effects of illegal drugs such as cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy.

Also known as new psychoactive substances (NPS), they do not contain any illegal compounds and therefore do not fall under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Some chemicals such as ethylphenidate and clephedrone, which were legal highs, are considered to be so dangerous they have been placed under temporary banning orders by the government.

A blanket ban of all such substances is due to come into force in April.

A laboratory in China sent undercover journalists a package containing ethylphenidate, clephedrone and the legal high methiopropamine, similar chemically to crystal meth, the drug featured in the TV programme Breaking Bad.

It arrived in the post after four days, labelled as "printing ink filler". The BBC verified the samples with drug testing company LGC.

Image copyright AFP/Getty

The lab's female representative called "Mina" also put the BBC in touch with another of its customers in Scotland, called "Craig", who told undercover investigators: "You will have no problems at all. She has had a lot of money from me, sometimes over $15,000, and she always sends what she promises."

Mina refused to comment when the BBC approached her for a statement.

The criminal connection is uncovered as part of BBC Scotland Investigates: The Deadly World of Legal Highs, which will be shown tonight on BBC One Scotland at 21:00.

The UK government's plan for a blanket ban has come under heavy criticism with experts saying it will push the industry underground and further into the hands of the online sellers, such as the labs in China.

Image caption Home Office minister Mike Penning argues that a blanket ban is the only effective way of tackling the problem

But Home Office minister Mike Penning said: "We are going to take away that safety net for people who are destroying people's lives.

"Perhaps politicians should have sorted this out years ago, but they have tried to do it the other way. It's the first time we have ever had this type of legislation, they have tried to actually say to the scientists, 'you help us, tell us the products we should ban and we'll ban them.'

"But frankly we are behind the curve. As soon as we ban it, it's back, as soon as we ban it, it's back.

"A blanket will mean all these substances are illegal. We don't have to pick on particular substances, all NPS will be illegal. They can tweak the formula as much as they like, they can spend as much money as they like on these scientists doing this, but they will be illegal.

"I will be damned if I am going to sit back and let so many people's lives be destroyed when we know we are behind the curve."

The investigation team also secretly filmed in shops across Scotland which sell legal highs, labelled as "incense" and "research chemicals". They are legal to sell, but not if the shop knows that the buyer will consume them.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionOne of the members of staff at a shop visited by the BBC

One shop in Perth, called This N That, sold all varieties of legal highs, including the controversial brand Spice. It is a synthetic cannabinoid and can be up to 100 times as potent as cannabis, the drug it mimics.

The brand is known to have caused seizures, psychosis, kidney failure and strokes and has been linked to numerous deaths around the world.

During the secret filming, This N That owner Paul Brocklehurst said: "Spice is 1.5 grams for a tenner, which is excellent value for money.

"It's is a damn good product. We just got it in today. Come and give us your feedback."

The BBC journalist made it clear he intended to consume the chemical. At this point Brocklehurst should have stopped the sale. Instead, his colleague Chris Gettler winked three times and said: "It's not for human consumption, buddy."

Image caption Paul Brocklehurst sold a substance called Spice to an undercover reporter

He then turned and said to Brocklehurst: "It's all right. He's seen my three winks."

Under trading standards legislation, Paul Brocklehurst and Chris Gettler cannot knowingly sell any legal high if they believe a customer will consume it. They could also face police charges of culpable and reckless conduct.

Mr Brocklehurst did not respond to the BBC's allegations.

The documentary revealed that across Scotland retailers were routinely illegally selling the substances.

The production team visited 10 shops in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and each time they made it clear the substances were being bought with the intention of consuming them. In all cases, the chemicals were sold to them.

Det Insp Michael Miller, national drug co-ordinator for Police Scotland, admitted there were shortfalls within the current legislation.

Image caption Det Insp Miller said no current legislation completely covers all types of drugs and legal highs

"It's a challenge. The problem for the police is, with the Misuse of Drugs Act, that's the legislation from the police perspective that covers drugs. You have Trading Standards legislation that deals with the selling of items in shops," he said.

"Now if you were to take all these bits of legislation and put them against NPS or legal highs, they all almost overlap, but nothing covers them completely. We've tried everything that we've got in place just now to to fill these gaps and there are shortfalls."

The Deadly World of Legal Highs will be broadcast on BBC One Scotland on Monday 5 October, at 21:00, and afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

Related Topics

More on this story