Spice Hospitalizations Make Case for UK Drug Regulation, Not Blanket Ban of Psychoactive Substances

Hospitalizations in the UK from taking synthetic cannabinoids could be avoided through implementing a strict regulatory model for drugs. Instead, the government is pushing ahead with a blanket ban of these and similar substances that will only increase their dangers.

On May 20, five students at Lancaster University were hospitalized after reportedly taking Spice, a new psychoactive substance (NPS) that is sometimes unhelpfully referred to as being a "legal high." This despite the drug being banned in 2009 and made a Class B drug.

The week immediately following these cases, the newly-elected Conservative government announced that it will push forward with a bill to "ban the new generation of psychoactive drugs," under the woefully misguided belief that by outlawing NPS they will suddenly disappear and people will be made safer.

Hospital admissions resulting from NPS use are not uncommon in the UK, nor elsewhere in the world for that matter; in the US, for example, there were over 1,500 reports to poison control centers around the country in April of adverse affects suffered from taking synthetic cannabinoids. Most always, however, questions over why people are taking these substances are flatly ignored, with focus instead being on availability of the drugs in question. 

The market for NPS was, of course, born partly out of producers recognizing they can circumvent laws with uncontrolled substances. But, this production is not taking place for the sake of production; it is there to feed a demand for drugs, one that a system of prohibition has completely failed to eliminate. Quite how the UK government believes that outlawing "psychoactive drugs" will change anything in this regard is beyond belief.

An alternative approach, and one that would significantly mitigate the harms associated with these substances, would be to explore a system of strict regulation of well established narcotics. For example, if a regulated cannabis market existed, one with strict controls over access (age restrictions), where safer using advice was disseminated, and which gave information on exactly what was contained in the drugs people were buying, the incidence of Spice use in this country would fall rapidly. Of course, people will still experiment with the unknown, but most would have little interest in these NPS if they knew they could use in a safer way.

Expanding beyond cannabis and its synthetic formations, a similarly regulated market for MDMA would make an enormous dent in the NPS market. 

The reality the UK government needs to wake up to is that people take drugs. This fact is not going away and therefore needs to be addressed sensibly, not by following the common path of implementing illegality. Decades of prohibition should have taught governments as much that outlawing drugs will not lead to their sudden vanishing.

In the newly announced bill, it's stated that a ban will "protect hard-working citizens from the risks posed by untested, unknown and potential harmful drugs." Quite the opposite will happen, in fact, with the potential harms on course to increase if this bill succeeds. The government is setting itself up to engage in an endless game of cat and mouse as manufacturers create new substances to circumvent the new legislation, putting users at greater risk as they will have little knowledge of what's contained in what they are taking.

If it really wanted to learn anything, the Conservative party should have simply looked at the case of hospitalizations from Spice the week prior to announcing the bill. As mentioned above, this was banned in 2009. And yet, here we are; people are still experimenting with the drug.

Through its regressive approach to drug policy, the UK government is set to begin one more unfortunate chapter in the failure of prohibitive laws being used to try and curb drug use. Harm will increase, prevalence rates will fluctuate with cultural shifts, and we'll probably be here again down the line as the government grapples with a whole new set of NPS that emerge. Unless, it can get over its bout of short-sightedness.