The Illegal Trade in Previously Legal Highs in Romania

February 4, 2015

Since laws were passed in Romania in 2010 and 2011, prohibiting the trade in previously legal highs and any other commercial products with psychoactive effects, the sale and use of these substances has gone down significantly. Nevertheless, amphetamine-like stimulants and other previously legal highs are still readily available, via a number of different routes, to users who are in the know.

A few days ago, an old friend of mine contacted me on Facebook. He didn’t spend much time asking me for what he wanted – which was to find out if I knew where he could buy “some”. I didn’t have to ask what he wanted, not naming it was enough – he wanted “legals” as they are called here, the amphetamine-like stimulants that used to be sold legally in “ethnobotanical” shops a few years back, alongside smokable synthetic cannabinoids. The shops were closed down two years ago, while some of the new substances with psychoactive properties (NSPP) were included on the list of illegal substances, and a new law was passed prohibiting all commercial “operations” concerning any substance, plant or “preparation” which has psychoactive effects, under pain of a prison sentence. Since then, the sale and use of NSPPs has definitely gone down. Some users switched back to using heroin or just to smoking weed, while others, especially young people who had only bought the legal highs because they were so easily accessible, quit altogether. The National Report of the Anti-Drug Agency reports that the number of people seeking treatment for addiction to NSPPs has been dropping for the past three years, to 18% of the total number of addicts seeking help in 2013 (down from 41.1% in 2011 and 33.2% in 2012), while medical emergency cases caused by NSPP use were 60% down in 2013 compared to 2012 (but still representing 45.5% of all drug-related emergency cases).

The last time I talked to this particular friend of mine, he had become a monk in a Bucharest monastery, where he stayed for a couple of years. Before that, in our early 20s we started using drugs - mostly combinations of ketamine - and while he went on to become addicted to heroin, I returned mainly to the veterinary anesthetic, before discovering the new legal highs and developing an obsession with them, which was rather common in Bucharest at that time. We met again after he had undergone a very expensive treatment for heroin addiction, with a famous Israeli doctor, and could no longer obtain the desired effects if he used it.  The next day, he called me to get him legal highs, which I did, although at that time I was trying hard to quit and to move on with my life. I regretted it afterwards, since he got into heavy use of legal highs and became a total mess, as I have been myself, and he wouldn’t stop until a former teacher got him into the monastery. When I met him again, by chance, he was wearing long black monk's robes, and beating the wooden board with a wooden hammer around the monastery, as monks do here. I was quite shocked, but, as much as I don’t like religion and the church, I was glad that he had finally found a way to stop using, and besides, he seemed to be doing fine. Meanwhile, I got into rehabilitation treatment myself, and got back to a normal life, apart from the occasional relapse and consequent drug binge.

When he contacted me on Facebook, I was better prepared and I told him I didn’t have any contacts any more and I didn’t know where he could buy some. But I was lying. About three months ago, after some particularly vivid dreams of using drugs, I had my own relapse, a two-day binge at the end of which I was suffering from paranoia at the police station, without my beloved phone, with no money, and having been beaten up.

Based on my personal experience and the research I did regarding the present state of the previously legal highs in Bucharest, these are the main routes by which amphetamine-like stimulants can still be purchased illegally in the capital of Romania:

1. From small-time street dealers at the main train station in Bucharest, Gara de Nord.

The main train station in Bucharest is the only place, as far as I know, where someone can buy the previously legal highs directly on the street, without being introduced first by a person known to the dealer. This place is teeming with destitute drug users, many of them former heroin addicts who switched to NSPPs, who live in the sewer system beneath the streets in front of the train station, an ecosystem which has been the subject of countless national and a few foreign articles and documentaries, such as this one and this one. It is definitely not a safe place, as the users  here are particularly desperate and unpredictable. The boss of them all is a well-known man called Brusli who lives in the sewer system alongside the others, although he carries big rolls of cash. They seem to obey him both voluntarily and because they have no alternative. He has set up a few rooms in the tunnels beneath the streets, with electricity and a few amenities, but most homeless youths there sleep on top of two big water pipes in a tunnel. Brusli sells small 0.25g bags of the white powder most commonly branded as Pure by Magic – we don’t know what substances it actually contains, aside from the fact that the effects are somewhat similar to those of mephedrone and the other amphetamine-like stimulants which used to be sold legally in stores. The train station is also perhaps the most expensive place to buy Pure by Magic, which otherwise sells now for about 25 euro per gram. At the station, for some reason, they ask the same price for a quarter of a gram, which makes the drug almost as expensive as cocaine. Brusli also sells the drug to the homeless young men and women who live there by the tracks, at only about 2.5 euro for 50 to 100 mg. The word on the street is that the powder is cut with a substance used for preserving corpses, but this is difficult to confirm.

This is also the first place that I went to the last couple of times when I relapsed into NSPP use, because it’s always there and easily accessible. In the past, Brusli and his guys treated me decently, although one time a woman rubbed up against me and left with my mobile phone. This time I went to a group of them and asked someone to sell some to me, which went fine the first time around, but later that night I went back for more and I was already in an altered state of mind, so I didn’t notice when one of them must have taken my money out of my pocket. When I was supposed to pay, I had no money left to pay with. But I refused to let go of the little bag of powder. Next thing I know, 4 or 5 of them were on top of me, they grabbed my backpack out of my hands and started to hit me until I was on the ground, then left me alone. With a bloody nose and my face pretty beaten up, I left and I went on to use the bag that was still in my hands, which was all that mattered to me at that time.

2. Online order and delivery in the mail or through a courier service.

Before going to the train station, I tried to find the drug online. A few years ago, when the new psychoactive substances were still in a legal limbo, there used to be plenty of websites which sold it cheaply and reliably. You would call the number provided on the website and in about an hour it would arrive, anywhere in the city, usually brought by some dude in a car. Since then, the online stores have been taken down, together with the physical ones, and online trafficking is closely monitored, so finding the drugs online is not that easy any more. However, after a few searches with key words such as “selling legal drugs” and “Pure by Magic” one can discover a number of advertisements placed on major Romanian advertising websites. Most of them are bulk sellers, but a few also offer to sell it by the gram or even less, at the very affordable price of about 25 euro per gram. They also sell other brands of powders, almost always amphetamine-like stimulants, such as Diamond White or Special Gold, and smokable stuff sprinkled with synthetic cannabinoids and perhaps also stimulants, brands such as Boom, Diesel, Maraciuca, Chillout, M1, B52 etc. The catch is that the phone numbers provided by the ads are never real. I tried a few dozen of them and none worked. But the ads also provide yahoo messenger IDs, such as ‘spicedeliverynet’, ‘spiceshop_online’ or ‘powder_herbal’ (I slightly altered the IDs for this article) and when I added a few of them I didn’t have to wait long to be talking to somebody.

Photo: Radu CiorniciucThe second catch is that none of these dealers are willing to meet in person or to deliver the drugs, no matter how hard I tried to persuade them, offering to hide the money in some secret spot and then take the drugs from some other place, of their choosing. The only form of delivery they accept is through private courier services or through the state postal service, which usually takes one or two days, with payment being made when one gets the package or in advance, by making a deposit in some bank account. Obviously, compulsive drug users, even when relapsing, are generally not willing to wait, so I turned down the offers and went directly to the train station. Over the following days, I kept receiving ads to buy various amounts of NSPPs cheaply from these IDs, one of which even offered to provide a free test sample for a new brand of the drugs. As I was recovering from the nightmarish adventures following my relapse, I deleted the IDs, which is not to say I didn’t regret having to turn down such tempting proposals.

There are even a few Facebook pages with profile names such as “PurebyMagic” which advertise themselves as spice shops, and quite likely they are good for their promises.

3. Specialized dealers who sell to networks of trusted users.

The safest way to purchase the previously legal drugs is the old fashion method of buying them from people who sell very privately, only to trusted users. Obviously, this works only when you know someone who knows someone and he or she is willing to introduce you to the dealer or to buy it for you, sometimes in return for a favour, money or drugs. If you don’t know who you are in business with, you may give him or her the money and never see the drugs. These dealers, who presumably still manage to order the substances in bulk from sources in the UK or China, are more elusive. They rarely sell other drugs, with the exception of heroin – some heroin dealers are also NSPP dealers. This method is more common in Cluj Napoca City. Radu, an 18yo high school student and former legal high addict whom I met at a rehab center, told me that this is the main way people still get the drugs in Cluj – there are a few phone numbers that users pass to each other and the bags are delivered within the hour by car. The most common powders in Cluj are Diamond, Special Platinum and Pure by Magic, while the smokables are called names like Crank, Ice Porto or Crash. Another common way to score the drugs in Cluj, Radu told me, is to go directly to someone who seems to be under the influence, and try to get a source out of him or her.

4. Online purchases on the darknet stores.

Finally, more affluent Romanian users have turned to ordering drugs, including some of the former legal highs, online, on the darknet websites. Using the Tor browser, one can find adverts for mephedrone or even Pure by Magic and pay for it online using Bitcoin, and then wait for the package to arrive by mail. Although I've heard that this system is also used in Romania, I haven’t actually tried it.

With respect to the penalties for buying or using the previously legal highs, two situations apply: For substances which have been placed on the list of illegal drugs (such as mephedrone), possession for personal use carries a penalty of 3 months to 2 years in jail, or a fine, as penalties have been relaxed recently in Romania. Higher penalties are set for selling such a substance. A different law prohibits all “operations” (e.g. producing, selling, delivering, procuring etc.) concerning any substances, plants or preparations which have psychoactive effects, and sets the penalty for such operations at between 6 months and 3 years, in jail or a fine (between 3 months and 2 years if knowledge about the psychoactive effects cannot be established and between 1 and 5 years if the person selling the product pretends it is legally authorised). However, buying or possessing such substances for personal use is not penalised per se.

Ștefan Iancu

Photos: Radu Ciorniciuc