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.
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.