Legal Highs: Are they coming or are they going?

Spice, drug, legal high, Sheldon Ridley, Kettle Mag
Written by Sheldon Ridley

Over the past few years, every so often, the British media will abuse a synthetic substance overdose by becoming the number one scaremonger to the world, resulting in people taking moral high ground against anyone who has ever taken any form of drug, as well as a handful of councils calling for a national crack down.

This puts pressure on the government. Consequentially, we get a neatly filed report from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) who have found a rare gem of a substance hardly anybody has heard of (and even less people have taken), and advise the home office for the drug to come under their control.

In the light of them banning one or two formulas the government look successful, as if they have got everything in order, especially in the run up to elections. However, in reality it has altered very few lives. People move on to other drugs, legal or illegal, the ban giving no real education or health benefit to the public, not to mention the innovation it causes to create new substances that undermine previous bans as the formula has slightly changed.

Drugs such as Mephedrone, or m-khat, which was criminalised in 2010, is still largely available on the streets but has followed a pattern – drugs become more dangerous and impure after they become illicit.


So, the screams and shouts from tabloids and authorities for these substances to come under criminal legislation only fuels a society that wants to punish people for making different lifestyle decisions.

After speaking with Drug Science, an independent, science-led drugs charity that is chaired by ex-government drug advisor Professor David Nut, Josh Hulbert said: “It is entirely illiberal, not to mention unscientific, to criminalise substances on the basis of their psychoactivity, without evidence that their risks cannot be managed without criminalisation. It is right to restrict access to very dangerous substances, but this can be done by banning or tightly regulating sales, punishing users helps no-one but causes harm to people’s lives and prospects.”

Norman Baker filed a report last month which led him to resign from the government as they refused to accept his evidence that undermines their conservative traditions. This doesn’t only highlight the lack of democracy we live in, where a minister cannot criticise the way the country is run without being made to resign, but it also shows how the criminalisation of low level drug possession, shows no evidence of actually decreasing drug use.

In the report Baker states that he hopes “head shops” get a blanket ban on selling new psychoactive drugs but would not include a ban for being in possession.

To decriminalise or not decriminalise?

Legal high has become a useless bit of terminology that ignites fear in to any tabloid reader’s mind; whilst they sit with a glass of rosé in one hand and Mayfair Superking in the other. The UK classification of a drug; Class A, B, C or totally legal does not correspond with its safety. In the UK, over a 100,000 people a year die from smoking and in 2012, over 8,000 people died from alcohol-related deaths, yet the law and media barely even flinch at those figures. In regards to legal highs, there is no definitive term to describe what they are so there is no accurate figure. However, the widely reported 68 deaths in 2012 show the hypocrisy of government’s mentality.

They do have one thing right, most people taking them don’t have any idea what is inside that shiny foil packet which admittedly looks exciting, like popping candy. Many legal high products aim to mimic illegal drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy or LSD, which most of the time leads them to be more dangerous. Synthetic cannabinoids, for example are thought to be much more toxic than cannabis and has caused more deaths seen as it would take around 20,000 – 40,000 cannabis joints for someone to overdose.

Decriminalising drugs does not mean you are placing a badge of encouragement on a little see through baggie or inviting children in for a line. It means you are not treating people like criminals for taking a substance that alters their mental state for x period of time. In 2012/13, around 1 in 12 (8.2%) adults aged 16 – 59 had taken an illicit drug in the last year (around 2.7 million people) and of 16 to 59 year olds, 35.6% had reported ever using drugs.

That is a mighty big number of people to put in prison. If there was a regulated market for the legal use of drugs such as cannabis, MDMA and a couple of psychedelics, the demand for unpredictable, ill researched and severely more dangerous legal imitations would be slashed. In recent years, there has been some extremely dangerous new drugs which have appeared on the market, such as NBOMe (now illegal) which is capable of killing with just a tiny dose, whilst some drugs with potentially manageable risks under regulation can be found in Class A.

A cultural debate

British culture is still riddled with druggies. People of all ages and for lots of different reasons are going to take drugs, if they are legal or not. The government needs to accept this and reassess how they are going to deal with it, without branding people as criminals and spending excessive amounts of money trying to lock them all up.

There needs to be open, honest discussions and if they were rational, the best thing for them to do, to have a prosperous and functional drug taking country (instead of a secretive, unsafe, illegal and legal drug taking one) is to fund research in to making drugs safer and regulate the distribution sensibly on the purest and least harmful drugs.

After the rejection of Norman Baker’s hard evidence, it seems the government are going to stay behind the curtains pretending we have a world full of raging maniacs out there, with the only way to have a “safe” society is to put them all behind bars, forgetting we want drug users to be safe too.

What do you think? Have your say in the comments section below.