Government efforts to clamp down on the sale of dangerous substances – known as legal highs – are failing, a think-tank has warned.
The Centre for Social Justice – set up by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith – says the UK is a leading hub for selling the drugs online.
Last year, 52 people in England and Wales died after taking legal highs, up from 28 the previous year.
Ministers said they were banning whole groups of drugs to tackle the problem.
The report, No Quick Fix, says legal highs, also known as club drugs including Salvia and Green Rolex, have similar effects to banned drugs, but they can be sold legally as long as they are clearly marked “not for human consumption”.
They are often marketed as bath salts or research chemicals.
The drugs can cause permanent bladder damage, blood poisoning and death.
According to the Centre for Social Justice, there are now more than 130 UK-registered websites selling the products cheaply by mail order.
The report also says there are 250 types of these psychoactive substances in circulation – so many that they now outnumber controlled drugs.
The think-tank said one in 12 young people in the UK said they had taken legal highs – the highest figure in Europe.
In England, 6,486 people were treated in 2011-12 for abusing these types of drugs, an increase of 39% since 2005-06, it said.
CSJ’s policy director, Alex Burghart, said: “Last year, one death every week was related to legal highs – that’s a substantial rise on the year before so we know this is a serious problem.”
‘Faster on its feet’
Crime Prevention Minister, Jeremy Browne, said the government took the threat of legal highs seriously, describing them as “highs which should not be assumed to be either safe or legal”.
“Our Forensic Early Warning System enables us to closely monitor their availability, so we can target activity to reduce demand and supply.
“We are banning whole groups of substances rather than individual drugs and have introduced temporary drug orders which allow us to place harmful substances under control – protecting the public while giving time to our independent experts to prepare more detailed advice.”
But Mr Burghurt said: “We know the government cares about it and is trying to make a difference, but the system they have for banning new substances is slow.
“They managed to ban 15 new substances since 2010, but in the same time 150 have come onto the market so we really need a system that is much faster on its feet.”