Legal Highs Demonstrate Antiquated Drug Policy Legislation

A new study has called for 'outdated' UK drug laws to be re-examined. The co-publication between the UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) and Demos demonstrates that the continued rise in the use and ease of availability of 'legal-highs' underlines the fact that the 1971 UK Misuse of Drugs Act is no longer 'fit for purpose.'

The timing is right for a re-examination of what many view as inadequate and ineffective legislation, specifically the Misuse of Drugs Act. The Misuse of Drugs Act was created in 1971 at a time when new drugs appeared every couple of years. This is compared to the current situation in which new drugs become available over the internet almost every week. In the words of Professor David Nutt, former head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), "Banning without evidence of harm is misconceived and may cause more problems than it solves. What we need is a complete review of all drug and alcohol legislation, not tinkering at the edges."

Data shows that young people continue to have a desire to experiment with psychoactive substance. Having reached a high-level of public infamy in 2009, the case of mephedrone* (or 'meow meow' as it is additionally known) has demonstrated the completely new challenge that faces modern drug control agencies. Some have even felt that the vast amount of media coverage of the drug encouraged a greater number of inquisitive partiers to experiment with it. The speed of the marketing and manufacture of new legal highs vastly outstrips the rate at which the legislation, designed to deal with drugs, can accommodate them. With many of these legal-highs relatively easy to purchase over the internet it is becoming increasingly harder to clamp down on them. To deal with and reduce the harms associated with this new era in drug-use a more intelligent and modernized response is needed. As times change, so must legislation.

The Demos and the UKDPC report shows that there are now 600 controlled substances that are covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act. Last year there were 40 new legal highs produced (mainly in the far east). The report proposes that in future sellers will have to provide evidence that their product is safe; instead of the current situation in which it is the government's responsibility to prove that a substance is unsafe,a process that can take years.

One journalist has even gone as far as to compare the manner in which British politicians have attempted to deal with the rising wave of legal-highs to "Amish farmers blinking up at jet planes tearing across the sky... willfully living 'out of time' but certain of the virtue of their archaic methods."

However, the government has dismissed the report saying that "we believe the Misuse of Drugs Act works and continues to protect the public from the serious harms caused by illicit drug use."

The Beckley Foundation seminars continually highlight the haphazard and inflexible nature of the current classification system for illegal drugs, which often bears little relationship to the real harms of the different substances. In an attempt to address these issues, in 2007 the Beckley Foundation, working with Professors Colin Blakemore and David Nutt, produced a Rational Scale to Assess the Harm of Drugs of Potential Misuse. The scale rates each substance based on aspects of harm -- physical harm, dependence and social harm -- which were independently assessed by two groups of experts from the fields of chemistry, pharmacology, forensic science, psychiatry and other medical specialties. This scale gives the general public transparent/scientifically validated data about the actual/relative harms associated with any substance whether they are legal or illegal.

Based on the government's inability to consider new approaches to drug policy, there are several less radical approaches that they could pursue to help reduce the harms associated with new legal highs.

The first is the addition of a new class of drugs to the current Misuse of Drugs Act -- the class D model, which has successfully been adopted in New Zealand. Class D substances act as a holding category for new drugs before they are fully understood: sales are limited to over-18s; the product is quality-controlled so users know what they are getting, at doses limited as far as possible to safe levels; and it comes with health education messages. This gives scientists and the government the chance to limit sales and collect data on use, while also investigating the harms associated with a new substance. Manufacturers and shops that disobey these regulations are punished, and users are protected, but not criminalized.

Last summer the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, when under the chairmanship of Prof. David Nutt, suggested this approach in response to the growing use of spice and the amphetamine substance Benzylpiperazine (BZP). It was rejected, they were both made class C, and possibly as a consequence young people began to turn to mephedrone.

The second is education: as Professor David Nutt notes, drugs are rarely intrinsically harmful if used in a safe way. Many young people use the most popular legal high -- alcohol -- in a highly dangerous fashion. Recent deaths from legal highs occur in the context of drinking. Alcohol dissolves judgement of harms and encourages risky behaviors including drug taking. Some drugs interact with alcohol to form more dangerous substances -- for example, cocaine is converted to cocaethylene, which is more toxic to the heart.

It is hard to think of a legal initiative that deals with any other aspect of social life that has failed so thoroughly without political or public repercussions, or at the very least, trying a different approach. The 40-year regime introduced by the Misuse of Drugs Act has been characterized by a non-stop escalation in the misuse of drugs. Surely it is time re-examine it.

*The Beckley Foundation is collaborating with Professor Valerie Curran and Dr. Celia Morgan at the Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit, University College London in conducting the first ever study investigation of the acute effects of mephedrone, whose results will be published shortly.