Sunday 30th July 2006

By Larissa Nolan

They are being sold to young clubbers as the "safe" alternative to cocaine and ecstasy - a pill that provides the hit without the dangers.

But one of the country's leading experts on drugs has called for the pills, known as "legal highs", to be banned in Ireland before someone dies.

Pep pills - which contain the active ingredient piperazine - are growing rapidly in popularity and are available in shops across the country.

They are marketed as a natural and safe product and are particularly attractive as they are legal in this country, even though they are banned in America, Australia and many parts of Europe.

But pharmacologist Dr Thomas Connor said that pep pills contain synthetic chemical stimulants.

"These are mind-altering substances, which makes them dangerous. The fact that more and more people are taking them is potentially a major problem.

"These pep pills are banned all across the US and Australia and they should be made illegal here too, or at least regulated," he said.

He said the ingredients benzylpiperazine (BZP) and trifluoromethylphenylpiperazine (TFMPP) induce the same buzz as they have the same effect on the brain as MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy (E).

"They seem to work in the same manner as amphetamines, like E or speed, by releasing serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which causes the high.

"The pills mimic the actions of these drugs and cause the same feelings. It is wrong to put forward the idea that these pills are totally safe - they are not."

He said they could be particularly dangerous if they interact with other pills, for example anti-depressants, which also work by increasing the levels of the feel-good chemical serotonin.

Pep pills can be bought in a number of "head shops" - which stock drug-related paraphernalia - around the country and come at a cost of around €30 for five tablets.

A sales assistant in the Hemp Store on Dublin's Capel Street explained that certain pills give a euphoric, ecstasy-like high, while others can keep you awake for hours, just like cocaine.

One brand of pep pill, Efx Energy Pills, has a label that boasts "the joy ride that never ends", and warns that it functions as a stimulant of the central nervous system. Another, Jax, which is marketed as an alternative to cocaine, reads: "May cause mood elevation, elevated heart rate and short-term insomnia."

Fianna Fail councillor for Dublin's Dun Laoghaire, Cormac Devlin, said pep pills should be banned along with magic mushrooms, which were made illegal earlier this year.

"They seem to have sprung up in replacement for magic mushrooms," he said. "They are available by a technicality, a loophole in the law."

He said magic mushrooms were only banned after a young man in his constituency, Colm Hodkinson, died after taking them when he had a bad reaction and jumped over the balcony of his apartment.

"We should do something now about these pills. We need proactive politics, not reactive," said Cllr Devlin.

Grainne Kenny of Eurad (Europe Against Drugs) went a step further and said all "head shops" should be closed down.

"These shops are selling everything you need to take drugs, but not the drugs themselves. Ireland should lead the way and be the first in Europe to close them down."

However, a spokesman for the Hemp Store in Dublin insisted that the pills were a safer alternative. He said: "The critics do not want anyone to try anything at all, ever. It is not realistic.

"These are safer than going out and taking drugs with who knows what in them. It is a better alternative." He added that the pills are only sold to over-18s. The Department of Health said that pep pills are not a scheduled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act, but that the list of such substances is kept under review on an ongoing basis.

It said in a statement: "In particular the Department reviews any evidence that substances are being abused and are causing significant harm to public health."

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Cllr. Cormac Devlin, "Saint Michaels", Glenageary Avenue, Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin
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