Putting an end to 'legal highs'

SINGAPORE - Designer drugs - known in drug circles as "bath salts" - have made their way here and are among substances the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) is hoping to control under proposed changes to anti-drug laws.

These mind-altering substances have popped up in countries such as the United States and Britain in the past few years and have been linked to violent crimes.

In Singapore, these have been seized by the CNB during drug operations, a spokesman told The Straits Times. The substances have been mixed into drugs like Ecstasy tablets, instead of being sold on their own.

Designed to mimic the effect of cocaine and methamphetamine, these bath salts contain cathinone, a chemical that is not yet illegal here. In drug parlance, they are known as legal highs.

They are among psychoactive substances the CNB hopes to control through amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act that will allow it to list the substances in a temporary schedule.

Under the proposed changes to be debated in Parliament today, CNB officers will be given the power to seize the substances from those abusing and supplying them, even before these are permanently outlawed.

"This will restrict circulation of such substances quickly while relevant scientific analysis and industry consultation are conducted," said the CNB spokesman.

Abusers and sellers will get into trouble only after the substances are listed in the permanent schedule.

Such substances provide an avenue for addicts to get high without the legal consequences of abusing banned drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine, or Ice.

Containing man-made chemicals, they can be tweaked easily, so a variant can be created as quickly as another is banned.

In Britain and some states in the US, bath salts or the chemicals used to make them are already illegal.

The stimulants were implicated in a spate of violent attacks this year in the US, including a case where a 43-year-old man bit off part of his neighbour's face.

Besides causing violence or psychosis when snorted, smoked or swallowed, these drugs can also cause heart palpitations, seizures and, in some cases, death.

The CNB spokesman said: "As far as we know, these bath salts are not known to have legitimate medical or industrial uses."

Drug counsellors interviewed said they have not encountered cases of abusers here using such bath salts. Still, they said the change to the laws can pre-empt their proliferation.

Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association executive director Lim Poh Quee warned that a high number of drug addicts here have already turned to synthetic drugs, with Ice being the most popular. Many are younger addicts who mistakenly believe these are less addictive.

Last year, Ice was the second most abused drug here - after heroin - and the top choice among new abusers. Among the 1,128 new abusers arrested, some 62 per cent had taken it.

The amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS) alters the brain chemistry and the bath salts are considered a newer variant of it.

"You have drug abusers who run around naked; these are people who are probably abusing synthetic drugs," Mr Lim said.

"People who abuse these drugs become more violent, the lives of CNB officers will become more dangerous as more people turn to such drugs here."

In recent years, demand for ATS has grown in Asia, said Mr Gary Lewis, regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Bangkok. Since 2009, ATS has been ranked among the top three illicit substances found in the region.

Due to its popularity, some countries in East Asia and the Pacific have become big producers, with significant quantities continuing to be illicitly made in China, Myanmar and the Philippines.

Mr Lewis said emerging producers include Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia, all of which were mainly transit countries before.

Most of the chemicals used are diverted from pharmaceutical use and come mainly from India and China, he added.

In 2010, Singapore banned three drugs used as legal alternatives to Ecstasy - BZP (1-benzylpiperazine), TFMPP (1-(3-trifluoromethylphenyl) piperazine) and mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone). The trafficking and use of these drugs is an offence punishable by a jail term and caning.

yuenc@sph.com.sg


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