Legal highs in Cardiff

December 11, 2009

The perception that the prefix ‘legal’ gives drugs can be a deadly one. One by one, more and more ‘legal highs’ are becoming illegal – two, GBL and spice, are set to become illegal this month – but the market is far from regulated.

‘Legal highs’ is an umbrella term for anything that gives the rush or feeling of an illegal drug but is not against the law. This gives users a relaxed perception of them, believing anything legal could not be of harm.

The ease with which they can be obtained ranges from high street shops to internet couriers. Why risk being thrown in jail when you can get the same buzz easily and legally?

This is what is happening in Cardiff. The users are mostly aged between 18 and 30, however, I did come across several users under 18. The most popular are salvia, a herbal product which is smoked to induce a similar effect to cannabis; similarly, the aforementioned spice, also smoked to the same effect; and mephedrone, a white powder, snorted to induce the effect of ecstasy.

Blue Banana, a shop on Queen Street in the centre of Cardiff, sells legal highs. Alex Ibsule, the manager, said: “Salvia is the most popular. We get pretty good business from them as kids who buy them tend to come back in and buy again.” She hastens to add that they are strict about identification and under 18s are refused service.

Blue Banana, Queen Street

She explains that ‘kids’ is a subconsciously condescending term for the people who would spend £15 on four ‘party pills’ that are, essentially, caffeine. Salvia, on the other hand, is a fairly well established ‘high’ and  not so much a legal alternative for cannabis but more a different effect.

Miss Ibsule said: “The stuff we sell in here is fairly harmless. Research chemicals and drugs not intended for any kind of human use are the real worries. People come in asking for mephedrone but we don’t want to sell it.”

Salvia x5 strength

In Blue Banana, salvia ranges from £9.75 for a gram of x5 strength to £25.75 for a gram of x20. 3g of ‘Hash’ smoking mix is £35 and four Diablo ‘strong as hell’ tablets are £14.95. A legal high lifestyle is by no means cheap, yet many live it.

Rebel Rebel, a shop that sells salvia and other spice mixes in Wyndham Arcade, refused to make any comment. Citing the trouble they got from police the last time they spoke to the media, they would not talk to me. This seems to be in contrast with the friendly nature of Blue Banana, however, it displays the legal ambiguities involved in some of these drugs.

'Party pills' on sale in Blue Banana

Though there are health risks with such herbal highs, the problems arise when man-made chemicals blur the line between research and recreational drugs.

Mephedrone, known as M-Cat, Meow, or by its chemical name, 4-Methylmethcathinone, is sold on the internet for as little as £11 a gram, or a kilogram can be purchased for an arranged price (500g is around £2000). Sold as ‘plant food’ not for human consumption, the drug is as easy to get hold of on the streets as it is on the internet.

Jon Scott, a bio-medial PhD student talks about the science of analogue drugs:

In the smoking area of a Cardiff nightclub I was able to speak to people who had experiences with the drug – many had taken it that night. Groups of friends huddled together for warmth, cigarettes in mouths, discuss how their ‘come-ups’ have been and their ‘come-downs’ might be.

Jack Wakins, 23, on using mephedrone:

One user, who did not want to be named, said: “Mephedrone is brilliant. I can have a great time on it. It’s much cheaper than a night out on alcohol.” When asked whether she thought there was a scene for it in  Cardiff she said it was really easy to get hold of it and knew personally several people who dealt.

Wide-eyed and chatty, her jaw tensed, she said: “It’s much more subtle than pills so the come-down is not as harsh. You cannot just walk into the club with it. It is still seen as a drug in clubs because it’s people snorting a white powder. It’s worth it though.”

The drug has a high profile in the Cardiff clubbing scene and much reaction is positive. It is a designer drug in more than one sense; the kids all want it, while the scientists can make it to fit around the law.

Sharon Griffin, 49, tells of her worries about chemical abuse:

There have been several deaths linked, but not attributed, to the drug – the most recent being only last week a girl died after taking it in a house party in Brighton. The problem with a drug that was born in 2007 is its effects are by no means documented.

There is no saying what the future of these drugs is. Logically, there is no reason most herbal highs should be classified, however, the worrying use of research chemicals in Cardiff clubs must be regulated. As long as the users and scientists stay ahead of the curve, drugs that represent an unknown quantity will not cease to be abused – education, however, is more important than regulation for those putting their lives at risk.



  1. Hi Hugh,

    Nice article. I’m doing a report about mephedrone for ITV Wales. Just wondering which club you went to and found users?


  2. Hi Paul,

    Have you got an email address I can send information to you?


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