How legal highs could be brought down to Earth

Published by The Guardian (26th April, 2014)

Just down the road from my house are shops that demonstrate the absurdity of our drug laws. The shelves are filled with paraphernalia such as pipes and bongs used for smoking cannabis, alongside the scales and “stench-proof” plastic bags popular with dealers. Behind the counter are sachets offering luridly packaged packets of Amsterdam Gold, Herbal Bush and Mayan Dream.

These are among 70-odd synthetic versions of cannabis to have cropped up in recent years. They are significantly more dangerous than natural cannabis, stronger and with far higher rates of hospitalisation; they have even been linked to the deaths of young users. Aficionados find them less enjoyable, according to research. Yet they typify how the market for legal highs is booming, accelerated by the absurdity of prohibition in a globalised world.

Politicians have learned nothing from the futility of their fight against conventional drugs – an abject failure that pours gold into the pockets of the globe’s most vicious gangsters. So MEPs have just backed new rules cutting from two years to 10 months the time taken to assess and ban new psychoactive products. Britain, which has outlawed scores of new substances, believes Brussels is too weak; it wants to wriggle out of the European regulatory regime while a working party examines tougher controls.

But these new substances – which include stimulants and psychedelics also – are made on an industrial scale in Asia, and are often sold online: so much easier for enthusiasts than chasing after dealers on street corners. They are found also at convenience stores and petrol stations. As soon as one is banned, chemists simply tweak the recipe and sell a slightly different product. The United Nations estimates that there are more than 250 legal highs on sale; experts in Europe say new substances arrive on the market at the rate of more than one each week.

These products must be marked as “not for human consumption” – but surveys suggest that one in 10 young Britons try them each year. The fact that they are on sale in shops implies they are safe. Yet when sold as “plant food” or “research chemicals”, they come with no information on dosages or harm reduction, let alone any adequate controls over contents or buyers. Sometimes they contain prohibited substances.

The result is a rising number of fatalities alongside rising usage, seemingly filling the gap as the popularity of conventional drugs such as cocaine and heroin wanes. There were 29 reported deaths linked to legal highs in 2011, but nearly twice that number the following year. In Scotland alone, they were discovered during toxicology reports into 36 deaths. Meanwhile, doctors report rising levels of related health issues including heart attacks, kidney failure, seizures and mental health problems.

These are the victims of a new front in the deluded war on drugs. Once again, while myopic politicians preach tired sermons pioneered by President Richard Nixon about defeating the scourge of narcotics, there is a safer and more sensible alternative if only they displayed a little courage.

Look at New Zealand, a country whose isolation from the main drug supply routes led to high prices for heroin, cocaine and ecstasy. So when legal highs arrived on the scene, a thriving market quickly emerged for everything from crystal meth to synthetic cannabinoids and cocaine. Eventually progressive politicians decided to regulate the market rather than rely on criminals to control this new trade; only one MP ended up opposing the move.

Under a law passed last summer, synthetic recreational drugs can be sold after tests to determine safety – funded by manufacturers, and then only at licensed shops to adults. No advertising or promotion is permitted. Peter Dunne, the health minister and unlikely architect of the measure, has just revealed the number of outlets selling legal highs has fallen from 4,000 to little more than 150, while the number of products available has plunged, from 300 to 41. The risks, of course, have been reduced just as dramatically.

The legal highs debate shows how utterly wrong opponents of drug reform are once again. As Dunne says, this is about protecting citizens, not approving drugs. The issue is merely one of implementing policies that are realistic and responsible. That is surely one dream worth chasing.

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