UK ‘Legal High’ Blanket Ban Progresses Despite Experts Warnings Over 'Serious Unintended Consequences'

The Psychoactive Substances Bill banning so-called ‘legal highs’ has today entered its second reading in the House of Commons despite clear evidence similar legislation in Ireland and Poland has increased ‘legal high’ use and their related harms. 

In an attempt to definitively end the spread of ‘legal highs’ in the country the British government is attempting to ban any substance which “affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state”, with exceptions for traditional psychoactive substances like alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine.

This decision marks a shift in the British approach to tackling NPS. Previously, the system of control was driven by evidence of actual harm. Now, the precautionary principle is stretched to its most extreme form, with the assumption that all mind-altering substances, unless specifically exempted, deserve to be prohibited.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) warns the bill risks "serious unintended consequences". In particular, the ACMD point out the difficulty of legally proving the “psychoactivity” of a substance and the likely inclusion of substances that may actually have health benefits.

It is true that the lack of data on NPS makes it particularly challenging to assess their harms. However banning all psychoactive substances, even ones that have not yet been invented, will hinder vital medical research as well as constituting a serious challenge the basic principle that the law only prohibits things harmful to individuals or the public.

The risks of many NPS have not even been assessed yet and according to experts, most of the NPS that appear on the market disappear after several months.

Not to mention that alcohol and tobacco, the drugs that cause the greatest harms to public health, are both exempted from the bill.

In the last few years new psychoactive substances (NPS), often referred to as ‘legal highs’, have multiplied exponentially in number; worrying politicians, health officials, and the public. Very little is known about most substances’ pharmacology and potential harms.

The number of people being hospitalised as a direct consequence of NPS use remains relatively low in the UK but when incidents do occur, they tend to receive considerable media attention.

Multiple stories about the danger of NPS appear per week in the British press, whilst the continuing public health threat of heroin and its metabolite morphine are barely mentioned except in the context of individualised stories of personal ruin and child neglect.

Yet NPS are responsible for 16 deaths in 2014 as recorded by the ONS compared to the 952 deaths in the same period attributable to heroin and its metabolite morphine.

Governments around the world, eager to been seen to be addressing these media scare stories, have adopted a range of ‘innovative’ legal responses.

The traditional solution is to add the chemical definition of a new substance to national schedules after a pharmacological assessment of potential health harms.

Some countries have preferred to extend the coverage of existing drug laws by listing defined groups of substances, rather than individual drugs. Under this “analogue” system, a chemically similar substance that has a comparable effect on the central nervous system as an illegal drug is automatically controlled.
For example pharmacologically similar substances to cannabis that reproduce its effects would be subject to the same penalties for distribution and use.

The British government however seems resolute in following Ireland’s lead, where the Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act was adopted in 2010 prohibiting the sale or supply of substances with psychoactive effects. Five years later, the number of young people reporting NPS use has increased from 16 percent in 2011 to 22 percent in 2014.

Similarly in Poland, after banning the manufacture, sale, and advertising of NPS in 2010, the number of NPS-induced poisonings rose dramatically from 562 cases in 2010 to 1,600 cases in the first ten months of 2014 according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

Furthermore, banning a substance does not necessarily mean people won’t use it. Getting rid of the head shops selling legal highs is a superficial solution. The efforts made to tackle NPS in other countries have merely led to displacement onto other potentially more harmful substances, an increase in online sales, and the growing interest of organized criminal groups in the NPS market.

Moreover the mere £180,556 was spent on NPS education and prevention campaigns between 2013 and 2015 recorded by the Home Office prove definitively that as usual the government’s first serious response to this new drugs issue has been criminalisation and punishment.

In fact, despite government legislative efforts Ireland remains the European country with the biggest proportion of young people consuming NPS. But it seems unlikely that the British government will allow any of this evidence to cloud its determination to pursue the repressive, moralising drug policy to which it is thus far committed.