Sunday, 30 August 2009

Legal Highs – a misplaced fuss

Last night as I sat up late with a good after a night of mild revelry, a program about legal highs came on, presented by George Lamb. I must applaud him for tackling the topic in a much more comprehensive way than much of the media has recently over products such as Spice which simply denounces them as an evil legal loophole that must be closed. However, I must also berate him for presenting his work in such a biased fashion, which at times verged on condescension. Nonetheless, it was at least sufficient to hold my interest, did at least examine both sides of the argument (to some degree) and prompted a good discussion at the time. Mr Lamb even closed by trying one himself before the credits rolled so that he might add his own comment; mainly a shock at the legality of an effective product.

So, a quick bit of background: legal highs (are supposed to) do what they say on the tin. They mimic the effects of many illicit drugs but are legal. Often, they avoid scrutiny by labelling themselves as ‘not fit for human consumption’ and avoid more rigorous testing regimes that would otherwise be required. Dubious perhaps, but nonetheless effective. They fall roughly into two categories; natural and chemical. Fairly obviously, one is drawn from natural ingredients, whilst the other is lab manufactured. The latter in particular is ‘clever’; substances such as MDMA can be easily altered (as Mr Lamb pointed out) by changing only a small part of the chemical structure and is thus nearly identical in effect but no longer classed as MDMA. Herbal products either use already effective products (and perhaps distil their extracts) or combine a series of individually non-effective products to create one.

This last approach is the way with the current product of misplaced political focus – Spice. For you interest, a detailed chemical report can be found replicated in excruciating detail here (unable to re-find link, it will come!). I perused this with some interest; in essence each produce used is ineffective in isolation. What was interesting is that the ‘sample’ was found with synthetic cannabinoids sprayed onto the mix – in other words a synthetic product added that mimics the effects of THC. This sparked some controversy; the synthetic addition was not found at either the factories or in purchased product but was from a raid. Make of this what you will, I pass no comment here.

The upshot is that the produce has been found to replicate the illicit drug, cannabis by producing a similar high but whilst being readily available at high street vendors. It has not come to the attention of the media, politicians and public, and therefore the government have declared it is to be banned.

To my few cents:

Why is this product being made illegal? I must question the government in doing this. I present here just two arguments, and welcome discussion.

Criminalisation of an act implies an inherent moral wrong. I dispute that drugs are an inherent moral wrong as they fail to impact sufficiently on the rights of others to compose one. A drug can be purchased, consumed and does not impact upon the fundamental rights of others. If anyone wishes to discuss the moral stance from which I state this, feel free to contact me. I will not go into great detail here, except to say that is fails to impact upon the fundamental rights of others to pursue their own purposive action. As such, it cannot be said to be “morally wrong” by an objective standard. So why criminalise this particular drug? Why criminalise any? What is the moral harm of drug taking (and I stress moral)? Personal physical harm is often cited as a rebuttal; in that case I can name half a dozen legal substances not the subject of contention that should be outlawed. I talk here of inherent moral harm. Further, drug taking culture has become normalised (again for a further discussion, email me and I will provide you with plenty of sources to peruse at your leisure). Criminalisation therefore fails to be morally contentious or even socially unacceptable.

So the drugs (and in particular cannabinoids with relation to the final part) fail wholesale to fit the criteria for being criminalised.

So to my next point:

The reason that this substance is being criminalised is being cited as the fact that it is more potent than THC, and the long-term effects are unknown. It is a largely unregulated market. Well, let us consider why it is unregulated. Plain and simple; it intends to recreate illicit substances through loopholes, and as such exploits the path of least resistance to avoid scrutiny and tight control. The market is therefore full or a range of unpredictable products, over which individuals only gain experience by learning drug culture from others; drug taking culture is a learned sub-culture. The same is true of illicit drugs because they are subject to similar non-regulation, but at the hands of dealers rather than legitimate business enterprise. What this means is that legal drugs can be as problematic for users as illicit drugs; the strength, products, and effects can vary from purchase to purchase. This can pose a risk to users as they cannot accurately gauge intake. With legal highs this is compounded as once a product become the subject of media attention it may be banned, and is quickly replaced by a similar but not identical product. One could claim, with a reputable/frequently used dealer of illicit substances, they may at least sell you the same purity each time to maintain reputation. A shop vendor has no such interest.

So the effects of making it illicit? It will be replaced. Another new legal high will take its place, and cause more experimentation to find its effects. Check out any legal high forum to see that this has become an integral part of the process. I actually find it heartening that people are willing to post their own experiences of a product publically whether good or bad.

So let us finally consider the physical/mental harm of the drug, or rather the lack of proper studies into it. Drugs are not controlled. This is their ‘danger’, although frankly if people want to take them, then I feel that should be their right. Alcohol by comparison is very tightly controlled – I am probably not drinking a mixture of tyres and dogs. Surely the answer then is decriminalisation (note, not necessarily legalisation), as tried with great effect in Amsterdam with many substances. This allows for much tighter control of the product – you know what you get. We would then have a regulated market. You could purchase a packet of product Y and know what is in it, its effects, strength, and importantly that it would be of a minimum standard. The result; lesser harm. Surely this is more justifiable.

If the government want to control these legal highs, the answer is simple. Regulate the market. Criminalisation is ineffective, counter-intuitive and draconian. There is no inherent moral harm. Physical effects can be mediated by better regulation, not criminalisation. Look for instance to Portugal.

There is too much fuss being made in the wrong quarter. And frankly, I am appalled.


  1. Good program.

    Until you mentioned these 'legal highs', I never even heard of them. And now I'm shocked! How can they get away with selling this stuff in the shops legally?!!! But like you said... If we ban these substances, they'll be something else. I just wish there was more research/regulation on these things, including age restrictions etc.

  2. Glad you found the program interesting Andro; I was much more impressed by that than I have been by much of the current media attention, and it was filmed before the current fuss took place it seems. I am always stunned by the haphazard approach to regulation of drugs, not merely in this country.

    I am also impressed how they have remained relatively under the radar in here for so long, despite legality and public selling. There is for instance a legal high shop on the main street in my Uni town, yet asking my peers I was suprised how few knew of it, except those already involved in drug sub-cultures.

  3. My Dear Oddy,

    An interesting, and thought provoking post; I confess not to have heard/watched 'legal highs' and so cannot really offer any concrete anlaysis of what was said, but can only offer my two penneth worth as a healthcare professional.

    I dont for one moment dispute that the present govenment has adopted something of a knee jerk daily mail type response to spice - as it seems to do with most things, these days. I personally dread the possibility of an increasing prevelance in the use of crystal meth, which can be cooked at home using stuff purchased from supermarkets and DIY establishments, a drug which not only wrecks lives , but socieites.

    I know that this is a bit of a disproportionate leap away from the issue of spice - an issue which flew beneath my own radar, to be absolutely honest ( I had no idea the stuff even existed until it was made illegal!)- but as a healthcare professional I TIRED of dealing with the fall out from the use of ALL recreational drugs, whether it was alcohol, glue/tippex/ petrol/felt tip pen sniffing or any other of the more 'traditional' offenders such as coke crack and smack; consequently, any sympathy I might extend to people using in excess was worn out a long time ago. I tired of the mess, the violence,the disease, the expense and the general waste of time and effort ( not turning up for rehab, or follow up appointments, playing rehab centres off against one another to get extra methadone, etc, etc)
    To my mind, and in consequence of the above, the concept of a legal high is an oxymoron, and one that shouldnt exist, no matter how insiginificant the drug giving that high may appear to be on its face.
    The health service has enough to deal with, thanks very much.

  4. I also found the program interesting, but it did suffer terribly from BBC 3 syndrome. It's hard to put your finger on it, but there's something about documentaries on BBC3 that gives them impression they're trying to appeal to the younger generation. Ok, to their credit, they are, but they could achieve it in a less condescending way, like you say.

    And did he /really/ need to get in a dressing gown to try out this drug? It all felt like a contrived effort to give the impression that he was being more scientific and safe.

    Overall an interesting insight, but I can't help but feel it's major effect will be to raise awareness amongst youngsters of the availability of such highs. The most prominent effect will be 'shit, this is cool, lets go try some'...