New laws to introduce a blanket ban on the sale, production, distribution and supply of legal highs have now come into force across the UK. The Psychoactive Substances Act attempts to close a loophole that has allowed legal high manufacturers to flourish by banning all psychoactive substances. All previously legal highs, including laughing gas, are now considered illegal, except for those with “specific exemptions” such as food, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and medical products.
The effects of legal highs are often similar to prohibited stimulant drugs such as ecstasy and amphetamines. This explains why they belong to a group of drugs known more technically as psychoactive substances. Coffee, cigarettes, beer and sleeping pills all contain psychoactive substances, as do cannabis, ecstasy and LSD.
The reason for some substances with psychoactive properties being legal and some illegal pretty much comes down to a hark back to the good old days. History set a precedent with alcohol and tobacco, firmly established in society before any thought of legal prohibition emerged. And it would be just about impossible to try and make them illegal now – just look at the failure of alcohol prohibition in the US in the 1930s.
Before now it was not possible to effectively prohibit “legal highs” in the UK because the law required that a substance first be defined by its chemical structure before a ban could be imposed. This provided a loophole for “black market chemists” who responded by making small but significant changes to the chemical structure of a substance to create a “new” drug which was not prohibited. When mephedrone became illegal in 2010, for example, it gave rise to the “now familiar cycle of new (legal) products appearing almost immediately after one was banned.”
It is never easy to predict the likely consequences of a new law like this and there has been ample criticism already, with suggestions it could push people to use harder drugs and that this change could even see more deaths by drugs as people move onto harder substances in the wake of the ban. There had also been calls for regulation rather than an outright ban, with many believing it will be hard to enforce, and could end up being another “war on drugs” disaster.
Reports show that similar legislation in Ireland has resulted in the closure of some shops selling legal highs – which are often known as “head shops” – but that’s not the end of the story. It is thought many former “head shop” customers are now using black market dealers, or the dark web to buy their drug of choice.
And the growth in legal highs is showing “no signs of a slowdown”, according to a recent report, Ireland has the highest number of legal high users in Europe with over 20% of 15-24 year olds surveyed saying that they had used legal highs at some point.
The progress of prosecutions for dealing and possessing “legal highs” in Ireland has also been limited by difficulties in determining and demonstrating that a substance actually is “psychoactive”. The term “psychoactive” is essentially vague, which makes it difficult to prove under law that a specific effect comes directly from a specific new substance.
Drug of choice
Another factor to consider is that many legal high users are already taking “harder” substances and often consume illegal and so-called legal drugs together. A recent study of legal high users in New York showed people often use both ecstasy and cannabis at the same time as legal highs, and within the same drug taking session. So the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act is unlikely to do anything to stop this. Instead, the change in law will just mean that users will now get all their drugs from illegal sources.
However, the new law may not fail entirely in its aim of encouraging abstinence from legal highs. Research from New Zealand – where a number of legal highs were banned in 2014 – shows that the legal status of drugs is taken by some users to indicate the “relative safety” and “social acceptability” of the drug. For legal high users in the UK who think this way, there is some possibility then that the new law may actually work.
Ironically however, accounts from some New Zealand drug users also indicated that the perceptions of greater safety and social acceptability of legal highs led to them not using, or using less of, illegal drugs such as ecstasy. And with so many legal high users already using illegal drugs to begin with, it follows that an unintended consequence of the new law may see higher consumption of already illegal drugs with known dangers.
It’s clear then that while the introduction of the new laws banning legal highs are seen as a step in the right direction for anti-drug campaigners there is still a long way to go when it comes to implementing these new laws and regulating drug use across the UK. Looking to other countries as an example, we know that if people want to get high, they are going to get high whether policy likes it or not – and only time will tell how this change in law will truly impact drug use across the UK.