I have been reflecting on the debates surrounding the recent passing of a new drug law onto the British statute books which comes into effect from 1st April 2016. This new law, which will act in parallel to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, effectively bans all substances (with the exception of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine) with a ‘psychoactive effect’ on ‘normal brain functioning’. It criminalises possession with intent to supply, with no clear boundaries (as there are not with social dealing of ‘traditional’ street drugs’) as to what will be ‘simple’ possession as opposed to possession with intent to supply. You know my opinion on novel psychoactive substances (NPS), cheap and nasty drugs producing potential acute/chronic harm. But that doesn’t mean I think a blanket ban of ALL psychoactive substances is a good idea, or that it will work any better than our current ‘creaky’ drug ‘control’ system.
Where has this Psychoactive Substances law come from? We need to decipher its emergence if we wish to understand how we have arrived at this slightly ridiculous but also highly problematic situation. It is worth reflecting on the emergence of so called ‘legal highs’, or what are now referred to as ‘novel psychoactive substances’ (NPS) by the scientific community. Drug histories are always useful in understanding drug presents and futures.
In 2009 we first heard talk of ‘mephedrone’ or ‘M-Cat’ in clubs and at afterparties (Measham et al 2010). At that time there was growing user disillusionment with purity of illegal drugs. In the UK in 2009 there was, as one of our interviewees put it, “a dire drug drought” characterised by low purity MDMA tablets (Smith et al 2009). The mean mg of MDMA per ecstasy tablet decreased from 52mg in 2007 to 33mg in 2008. To put this figure in perspective, around 80mg of MDMA is considered to be an ‘active dose’ whilst extremely potent 320mg MDMA pills are now available via the dark web. Moreover from 2007-2009, fake pills containing already banned substance BZP were rife, and cocaine purity had dropped to less than 10% (FSS 2010).
Given this situation, by 2009 dance club-goers were among the first to add mephedrone or ‘M-cat’ to their polydrug repertoires, especially among those in the gay club scene in South London (Measham et al 2011). Those dance drug-takers that could afford it switched from ecstasy pills to ‘purer’ MDMA crystal/powder (Smith et al 2010). Although mephedrone was banned in 2010 by the UK government, its use continues, and many more ‘legal highs’, notably potent ‘herbal smoking mixtures’ and other unknown white powders with stimulant effects, are available in headshops, online, and from street dealers (Measham et al 2011a). NPS are the nasty genie that prohibition let out of the bottle, and one which the UK government, in the passing of this new law, are desperately trying to stuff back inside.
The UK government need to learn one crucial lesson from the emergence of so-called ‘legal highs’. Their emergence is directly related to global prohibition and the war on drugs we have been fighting for over 100 years, some would argue unsuccessfully. Whilst the global prohibition regime may have had some successes in supply reduction, it is less successful by other measures, and crucially extremely unsuccessful in terms of harmful ‘unintended consequences’ of prohibiting psychoactive substances.
So what will the consequences of this new UK law be? It is hard to judge. My hope is that those that wish to take drugs will (re)turn to those we know a lot more about, such as cannabis, MDMA and cocaine. Purity and availability of these ‘traditional’ street drugs have returned to or exceeded pre-2007/2008 levels. At least we know about the effects of these more familiar substances, and can help people mitigate against risks and possible harms. What is clear is that the human desire for intoxication, sometimes at the cost of a person’s health, wealth and even liberty, endures. Without a recognition that demand for psychoactive substances will not go away, banning psychoactive substances will not ‘work’, as, simply put, it hasn’t in the past. Whilst the government pushes through an ill-thought out, clearly politically motivated law, there is little or no provision for resources to enforce it, nor additional resources for drug education, harm reduction, outreach, youth, and alcohol/drug services to help those who have got into trouble with psychoactive substances.
Forensic Science Service. Drugs Update: Drugs Intelligence Unit. Birmingham: Drugs Intelligence Unit. 2010; 50.
Measham, F., Moore, K., Wood, D. and Dargan, P. (2011), The Rise in Legal Highs: Prevalence and patterns in the use of illegal drugs and first and second generation ‘legal highs’ on South London gay dance clubs, Journal of Substance Use, 16(4), pp.263-272.
Measham, F., Moore, K. and Østergaard, J. (2011a), Mephedrone, “Bubble” and unidentified white powders: the contested identities of synthetic “legal highs”, Drugs and Alcohol Today, 11(3), pp.137-146.
Measham, F., Moore, K., Newcombe, R. and Welch, Z. (2010), Tweaking, Bombing, Dabbing and Stockpiling: The emergence of mephedrone and the perversity of prohibition, Drugs and Alcohol Today, 10(1).
Smith, Z, Measham, F and Moore, K. (2009), MDMA Powder, Pills and Crystal: The persistence of ecstasy and the poverty of policy, Drugs and Alcohol Today, 9(1): 13-19.