Prohibition has driven synthetic drugs

Prohibition of drugs, especially the relatively low-harm natural cannabis, has driven the creation of a huge number of ‘legal highs’ or ‘novel psychoactive substances’ (NPS) – the European Drug Monitoring Center has identified more than 602 different NPS, with 101 new NPS emerging during 2014.

Transform: Prohibiting drugs has ironically only created more drugs: the world against the NPS problem

The ‘legal’ NPS market has largely emerged in response to demand for the effect the drugs provide in the context of historic prohibitions on such products. When legal products arrive that compare favourably to their illegal counterparts in terms of effect, risk, quality and price—it is unsurprising that they become popular, and can, to some extent, displace some illegal drugs.

This phenomenon, and the specific challenges created by the rapid emergence of multiple NPS with unknown risk profiles occurs largely because of the lack of legal availability of more familiar and well understood drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy/MDMA and even cocaine.

Drug prohibition has pushed the creation of legal alternatives, which are a safer way to make money but generally a less safe way to use drugs.

There would have been, for example, no demand in Western markets for the synthetic NPS cannabis mimics if their(much safer and less potent) natural cousin had been legally available.

If the last 50 years teach us anything it is that whilst demand remains for a particular drug (or drug effect), the profit opportunity created means that the market will always find a way to meet it—whether legal or illegal.

Most countries have been slow to recognise this and deal with it more effectively.

Just as the emergence of NPS is an unintended consequence of historic prohibitions, so prohibiting a particular NPS can then have significant unintended consequences. Especially when demand for a given substance has been established, a ban is likely to have one or more of the following impacts;

  • Creating a void in the legal NPS market into which one or more new substance will move (the net health impacts of which are impossible to predict);
  • Diverting users back to the illegal substances the NPS are likely to have been a substitute for (exposing users to the risk of the illegal market and criminalisation over and above the risks of the drug use);
  • or leading to the emergence of criminal market for the formerly legal NPS—in which it is likely that the quality (in terms of purity and reliability) of the product decreases and the cost increases.

All of these phenomena have been witnessed with attempts to ban successive waves of NPS in Western markets.

Attempts to ban new variants as they appeared was tried unsuccessfully in New Zealand.

The NPS phenomenon therefore presents a huge challenge for policy makers. The unregulated legal markets for NPS are clearly not acceptable, but at the same time it seems clear that prohibitions will, as so often before, only make things worse.

There is, therefore, an urgent need to explore regulated market options that occupy the middle ground between total prohibition and unregulated free markets.

We tried to do this in New Zealand with a new approach that was observed with interest by other countries.

This is the road taken by New Zealand which in 2013 passed the ‘Psychoactive Substances Act’, which allows certain “lower- risk” NPS to be legally produced and sold within a strict regulatory framework.

The new law puts the onus on producers to establish the risks of the products they wish to sell, as well as mandating a minimum purchase age of 18; a ban on advertising, except at point of sale; restrictions on which outlets can sell NPS products; and labelling and packaging requirements.

But after passing legislation the Government buckled under public and media pressure.

The New Zealand government stated: “We are doing this because the current situation is untenable. Current legislation is ineffective in dealing with the rapid growth in synthetic psychoactive substances which can be tweaked to be one step ahead of controls. Products are being sold without any controls over their ingredients, without testing requirements, or controls over where they can be sold”.

The new law remains in place, but has run into a number of technical challenges – crucially, how to establish ‘“low-risk” harm thresholds without using animal testing – as well as political opposition. As yet no NPS are regulated under the system – but it has at least demonstrated that another way is possible.

After the legislation came into effect, leaving some NPS legally available media publicity about the perceptions created by concentrating availability in much fewer outlets led to political pressure and the Government wimped out.

But this only came about because successive governments and just about every political party (with the exception of the Cannabis Party (ALCP) have kept wimping out over addressing the bigger problem – that continuing prohibition on far less risky drugs, especially cannabis is driving the use of NPS.

And prohibition of cannabis is likely to be a factor in the increased use of harder and far more addictive drugs like methamphetamine.

Methamphetamine is an extremely addictive, powerful stimulant. It produces wakefulness, hyperactivity and a euphoric effect. Methamphetamine is also known as speed, pure, P, burn, goey, crank, meth, crystal, ice and yaba.

Importers, producers and distributors of illegal drugs are taking a risk, so it figures that they will try to make as much money as they can to make the risk worth it.

And drug users are also taking a risk. With cannabis being illegal it will make it easier to push susceptible people onto harder drugs like P – profit margins are far higher, with the bonus of it being easy to addict customers to the products, so casual users become regular self abusers.

Hard drug addicts often resort to crime to finance their habits. Pushers don’t care about this, just as they don’t care about ruining people’s lives so they can make money.

Even cannabis is a problem when illegal, because in an uncontrolled illegal market suppliers push for maximum use for maximum profit.

If relatively safe drugs like cannabis were not illegal and could be obtained in a controlled market, or self produced, then more people attracted to psychoactive substances could use them with far lower risks.

It wouldn’t be a simple solution, because those accustomed to making money off other people’s misery would try to expand their hard drug markets if their soft drug markets were stripped away. But it would provide a less bad (and legal) option for those who want to use drugs other than alcohol.

It’s not just cannabis that is a safer alternative.

More dangerous addictive drugs have become prevalent after earlier safer hallucinogens were replaced.

Remember LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide). It had adverse side effects, but compared to other drugs it was relatively benign – it isn’t addictive, and:

Of the 20 drugs ranked according to individual and societal harm by David Nutt, LSD was third to last, approximately 10 times less harmful than alcohol. The most significant adverse effect was impairment of mental functioning while intoxicated.

We have ended up with LSD and cannabis illegal, a scourge of far more dangerous and addictive drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine being pushed for profit, and huge societal and health problems with the promotion and overuse of our one legal recreational drug, alcohol.

But this situation looks unlikely to change markedly. On drugs our governments, our politicians and our political parties are wimps.

Leave a comment


  1. You’ve covered the topic admirably Pete, IMHO …

    With each year that passes and no progress made on cannabis law reform, our decision to legalize synthetics (NPS) in favour of the natural herb looks worse and worse and worse …

    We should create a legal classification – crimes against community – and Peter Dunne should be charged with it …

    • Griff

       /  23rd April 2017

      I have always thought Peter D should be tried and convicted for his admitted inhalation .
      If he experienced the result of a conviction for cannabis it may help him understand one of the largest downsides of the prohibition .

      Cannabis does create losers….. excluding cannabis users from jobs and education guarantees it.

      As an untaxed unregulated black market there is no prospect of society recovering some of the cost of cannabis use or of restricting its sale to appropriate places and ages.

      The level of restriction we have for a drug should be proportional to its harms and costs. Policy should be informed by the best knowledge we have of the effect’s of a substance.

      After decades of the war on drug approach and increasing usage rates is it not time we tried something different?

      • Kevin

         /  23rd April 2017

        “The level of restriction we have for a drug should be proportional to its harms and costs. Policy should be informed by the best knowledge we have of the effect’s of a substance.”

        Under the Misuse of Drugs Act the EACD (expert committee on drugs) is mandated to give advice on drugs according to the following:

        (a) the likelihood or evidence of drug abuse, including such matters as the prevalence of the drug, levels of consumption, drug seizure trends, and the potential appeal to vulnerable populations; and
        the specific effects of the drug, including pharmacological, psychoactive, and toxicological effects; and
        the risks, if any, to public health; and
        the therapeutic value of the drug, if any; and
        the potential for use of the drug to cause death; and
        the ability of the drug to create physical or psychological dependence; and
        the international classification and experience of the drug in other jurisdictions; and
        any other matters that the Minister considers relevant.

        Drugs are classified under the act “based on the risk of harm the drug poses to individuals, or to society, by its misuse; and accordingly—
        drugs that pose a very high risk of harm are classified as Class A drugs; and
        drugs that pose a high risk of harm are classified as Class B drugs; and
        drugs that pose a moderate risk of harm are classified as Class C drugs.”

        Note the words “by its misuse”. So you can have for example a hypothetical drug that poses a very high risk of harm to users and others but it’s classified Class C because there’s a low risk of anyone misusing it. Or you could have a hypothetical drug that poses a moderate risk of harm to users if misused but is classified Class B because it’s thought that a lot of people will misuse it.

        Personally I don’t put much faith in the EACD, especially since when asked to consider allowing a THC threshold for cannabis products they decided to fob it off “till later”.

        • Kitty Catkin

           /  23rd April 2017

          I would think that any government would be the old man and the donkey on this one.

          They make the synthetics legal and are abused for it-people don’t want them in their area (I probably wouldn’t, if I am honest) and they are bombarded with negativity about these drugs and the undesirability thereof.. Get rid of them, and the problem will be solved (yeah, right,, that’ll happen)They make them illegal and are abused for causing a black market.They can’t win.

          • Kevin

             /  23rd April 2017

            The problem is that Dunne in his infinite wisdom in order to keep people off meth decided instead of legalising cannabis to make synthetic cannabis legal. There’s at least a couple of things wrong with this. First, even legalising cannabis wouldn’t have kept people off meth. And secondly synthetic cannabis is far more dangerous than cannabis.

            If the goal was keeping people off meth Dunne would have been better off legalising pure MDMA.

            • Kitty Catkin

               /  23rd April 2017

              That’s being wise after the event, I fear. I am glad not to have been making that decision.

  2. Kevin

     /  23rd April 2017

    Speaking of LSD one interesting fact is that acid can’t kill you but analogues like NBOMe can.

  3. Kevin

     /  23rd April 2017

    Here is the graph that got Peter Nutt sacked.

    With regards to decriminalisation you look at the blue bars as these never change. No matter how many people are using a particular drug the harm to the user stays the same. Decriminalisation does not increase usage.

    With regards to legalisation you look at the green bars as these change according to use and legalisation does increase usage. The more people that use a particular drug the more harm it does to others.

    So on the basis of the chart alone I would legalise everything from Butane down including Mushrooms, LSD and Ecstasy. I would decriminalise everything from Cannabis down including GHB, Ketamine and Methadone. The rest I would keep illegal.

    • I’m not convinced that legalising will increase use for all drugs. There was a point when nearly everyone smoked. It is still legal, yet use has decreased. If we adopt smarter policies to go with the legalisation, instead of advertising drugs like cigarettes were and alcohol still is. Legalise and regulate them all – not from a harm perspective but from a philosophical perspective, I don’t think it is governments role to protect people from themselves. The harm to others in this graph is not only direct harm to others, it is a broader harm estimation to society, which should not be substantial enough to warrant keeping them illegal – otherwise alcohol should be illegal. You can’t have a pre-restriction on freedom because someone ‘might’ cause harm to others, there are already offences in place that prevent people from harming others directly.

  4. Zedd

     /  23rd April 2017

    So why is cannabis still effectively ZERO-tolerance in Aotearoa/NZ ?

    because there are powerful lobby groups who would stand to loose huge profits & employment IF they stopped strong arming the politicians & media, into supporting their prohibitionist stance. Anyone who has smoked a joint, knows that most of the ‘evidence to maintain it’ is just misinfo. & B-S or perhaps they took a small portion of negative issues & blew them totally out of proportion & said ‘Prohibition is the only acceptable, nanny state solution’ BUT people obviously have NOT learned anything from the ‘roaring 20s’ in USA; Al Capone & gangsters are nothing new !
    It was repealed in 1933 as a FAILURE.

    Lets be blunt; prohibition is causing more harm to the society than allowwing regulated adults only use; BUT they stick with: arrest prosecute & punish.. rather than; educate, regulate & provide treatment to people who do have problems.. ZERO-tolerance rulez NOT OK in Aotearoa. 😦

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  23rd April 2017

      A friend smokes it and has never been caught. He says that the police don’t go out of their way to find users like him who are discreet.

      Would legalising weed stop people using other drugs ? It didn’t in the past. It’s been a long time since I smoked it, but it didn’t have the effect that drugs like P seem to have, and I certainly never ended up like the 3 zombies that we saw on the news a week or so ago.

      In one place, not NZ, one might have thought that one was on a zombies film set. with people seemingly unconscious in all directions. Nothing would induce me to take that risk, even if I wanted to end up comatose, which I never would.

      I am in favour of legalising dope-but not, of course, hard drugs. But I don’t think that it was stop the fools who use hard drugs.

      • Kitty Catkin

         /  23rd April 2017

        Heroin, cocaine and morphine were once sold openly and legally. When they were made illegal, it didn’t stop people using them.

        I had an autobiography of a woman who qualified as a doctor almost 100 years ago-1920. Her first position included work with drug addicts. They would be off the drugs-clean-never wanted to be on them again and were determined that this would not happen, I forget how many were estimated to be back on them almost at once and be back in the hospital, These were people born in the Victorian era, but their stories could have been written yesterday.

      • I agree kitty.. legalising ‘weed’ cannabis will not magically stop people using meth/p or other drugs.. BUT it will likely stop these synthetics, which regardless of Dunne’s inane rhetoric is not ‘low risk’ or even less harmful than natural buds (as he often implied)

        I think the majority of kiwis are now agreeing that the war on cannabis has failed, BUT there are still many who would prefer to see the status quo (the devil they know) even IF its more harmful (gangs, black-market, corruption etc.) to society than regulated/legalisation of this plant ?

        btw; it keeps a whole industry employed.. maintaining the incessant; arrest, prosecute & punish prohibition regime !
        who wants to lose that ? 😦

      • Kevin

         /  23rd April 2017

        The most dangerous drug by a country mile is Heroin. While meth can seriously screw you up Heroin can kill you as easily as putting a gun to your head.

        • Kitty Catkin

           /  23rd April 2017

          It used to be used for things like tooth extraction; JM Barrie had his out with heroin ! Yes, that JM Barrie. Coleridge and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were opiate addicts; she was a morphine head, as chemists sold it then. I cannot understand anyone using heroin-the girl I saw in Wellington and the addicts I saw in London would put anyone off trying it. The thought of not being in control of my head would be terrifying to me-and no heroin addict whom I have ever seen made it look attractive enough to be tempting.

  5. btw; If the world had listen to Pres. Jimmy Cater in 1977, there would likely be no synthetic cannabis industry.. Jim sez “allow adults to possess up to one ounce (natural herb), for personal use”

    BUT the war on drugs was to far gone & still is.. hopefully for not much longer 😦


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