legal highs

Rejecting the EU plan to regulate legal highs is yet another lost battle in the UK’s war on drugs

This article was first published by the Independent.

Earlier this week, the Home Office minister – Norman Baker – announced that the government would be opting out of the regulation and directive targeting ‘legal high’ drugs proposed by the European Commission (EC). Anti-EU sentiment is undoubtedly on the rise in Parliament, so it is no surprise that the government opposes a change that may reduce its authority over national drug laws. However, the implementation of this legislation could have reduced the income of illegal dealers, while simultaneously decreasing the health risks posed to consumers.

Legal highs – synthetic narcotics that are so new that legislation hasn’t banned them yet – would be treated significantly differently if the EC’s proposals had been endorsed. The advised method would allow a multi-tiered system for new drugs – where the most dangerous substances would be banned outright, substances posing a ‘moderate’ risk would be restricted for medical research, and those of a ‘low’ risk could avoid a ban altogether. If this legislation were implemented, it would encourage manufacturers to produce safer drugs to avoid the ban. It would also allow the product to be taxed, and more importantly, appropriately regulated outside the criminal market. Conversely, the government’s current method results in the eventual criminalisation of all legal highs, regardless of the danger posed. This process has played into the hands of manufacturers – who slightly alter the chemical composition and re-release it as a new substance, with little concern for the safety of consumers.

Between 2011 and 2013, around 120 new and legal substances were created – ranging from synthetic cannabis to strong psychedelics – and the government began to systematically criminalise them. During this time period, legal high use in the UK grew, and the number of British deaths resulting from such substances rose by 80 per cent. The drugs weren’t all bad though; following scientific research, the EU declared that around 20 per cent of known legal highs have a “legitimate use”. Norman Baker, however, claims to “strongly dispute” this evidence, and supports the continuation of the government’s failed approach that has made the UK home to the EU’s biggest legal high market.

The European Commission is not the first legislative body to propose a progressive stance toward legal highs. Last year, New Zealand’s parliament passed the Psychoactive Substances Act, which permits the legal sale and recreational use of certain drugs. Essentially, following scientific research into the safety of a new drug, the government is able to approve it for sale and consumption, while maintaining strict regulation. The country’s Ministry of Health put out a statement declaring that previous legislation – almost identical to the UK’s current laws – had proven “ineffective”, as new drugs “can be synthesised to be one step ahead of existing controls”.

Since drug prohibition began, the creation and distribution of illegal substances has been a highly lucrative industry – one that shows no signs of deceleration. Manufacturers are creating new drugs faster than the government can ban them; suppliers are brazenly and legally undercutting elected politicians, and financially benefitting from doing so. The increased threat to the livelihoods of users, and the humiliation of our legislative process, could be reduced if the EC’s scheme was implemented. The European Commission’s proposal was an opportunity to reduce the harm of both drug use and drug dealing. The rejection of the proposal was yet another lost battle in the government’s unremitting war on drugs.


5 Things We Can Learn From New Zealand’s Innovative Law to Regulate New Drugs

This piece was originally published on the Huffington Post and the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.

New Zealand has seen the enactment of revolutionary policy changes to the norm of drug prohibition that no other country has experienced.

While the U.S., Uruguay, and certain European states have taken recent strides in reforming marijuana policy, New Zealand focused on newer, less-known substances. In July, the parliament passed the Psychoactive Substances Bill which allows for the strictly regulated, but legal, sale of a number of synthetic narcotics commonly known as ‘legal highs’ or ‘party pills.’

So, what can New Zealand’s new approach teach the rest of the world about reforming drug policy?

1. Drugs are safer to consume if they are legal

One of the biggest risks with consuming any illegal substance is the question of purity Cocaine, MDMA, ketamine, and many of the substances colloquially referred to as ‘bath salts’ all come in the form of an indistinct white powder. The Psychoactive Substance Bill ensures that newly-legalized drugs are rigorously tested, have their contents clearly detailed on packaging, and that purity is guaranteed.

2. Regulation protects children and educates users

The Psychoactive Substance Bill restricts sale of drugs to individuals 18 or older. Unlike licensed stores, illegal drug dealers don’t ask for ID, and are unlikely to forewarn their customers of the safest methods and doses of consumption. The new system of regulation reduces the accessibility of these drugs to minors, while educating users about the risks of use, including how to avoid overdose. The belief that legalization encourages drug use among young people is largely unfounded; marijuana use among teens is higher in the U.S. than it is in the Netherlands– where it is legally available but restricted to adults.

3. Sale of a legal drug does not fund criminal enterprise

The new legislation will allow the entire supply chain – production, transport, and sale – of many synthetic narcotics to be taxed and regulated. Unlike with the sale of illegal substances, the profits earned from selling these legal drugs will be directed to legitimate businesses, as well as to government initiatives via tax. This will lead to a reduction in the violent crime that stems from the drug trade, as the profits from synthetic drug sales won’t be empowering violent gangs.

4. Criminalizing synthetic drugs is a futile battle

Synthetic drugs are man-made. Therefore, under traditional prohibition, when the government outlaws a synthetic drug, manufacturers simply have to make a slight alteration to the product’s chemical composition to avoid the law. The profitability of the trade motivates producers to continue creating new and different substances faster than the law can catch up. New Zealand’s reform has allowed the parliament to avoid the need for constant legislation, and allows consumers to properly understand the range of narcotics that are available.

5. Effective drugs laws give people faith in the system

“Nothing is more destructive of respect for the government,” said Albert Einstein, “than passing laws which cannot be enforced”. How can the government expect to be trusted by the people if it openly, and expensively, fails at protecting them? 82 percent of Americans believe that their country is losing the drug war, and they’re right – prohibition has not reduced drug use or trafficking. New Zealand’s strategy indicates a new frontier in the international fight against criminality, and creates hope for a fairer future for drug policy.