The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform

Legal Highs

The appearance of synthetic legal highs is predominantly a 21st century problem, and one that implies the need for a complete shift in drug policy.

Legal highs are exactly what they sound like: narcotic substances that aren’t subject to criminal sanctions. They are mostly sold on websites advertised under the headings of ‘research chemicals’, ‘bath salts’ or ‘plant food’, meaning they are exceptionally easy to gain access to. Making it explicit that the substances ‘are not for human consumption’ is of course spurious, but allows companies to sell these narcotics without prosecution.

Synthetic Legal Highs

Since 1997, 110 new substances have been notified to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) [1]. The production of synthetic legal highs seems to be accelerating, as 24 of these substances were brought to the EMCDDA’s attention in 2009 alone [1] and now they are appearing at the rate of almost one a week. Their popularity is also rocketing. In 2009, during the ‘boom’ of the legal amphetamine-like drug mephedrone, the drug was reported to be the fourth most commonly used narcotic substance, behind only cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy [1], and the most popular legal high [1].

Health Risks

Unlike ‘traditional’ illegal drugs, which have been monitored and researched for many decades, legal highs have been subjected to minimal research, allowing us very little knowledge of their health risks [2].

Temporary Bans

Politicians have attempted to curb the problem of legal highs by implementing ‘temporary bans’: making a substance, or any ones similar to it, illegal to possess,

produce or traffic. Ostensibly, to some, making a substance illegal as soon as possible is the best course of action, but there are many weighty negatives to this approach:

-  As soon as one substance is banned, another one or more are released to take its place, resulting in a new, unknown and possibly even more dangerous drug being available on the market [2].

- These bans are carried out with little or no evidence of the health risks or benefits of substances [2].

- Banning legal highs places them in the criminal market, meaning that, to increase their profit, dealers will likely ‘cut’ the substance with other possibly more dangerous substances [2].

- Making a high illegal can slow research into any medicinal qualities the substance must hold [2].

The ban of legal highs has been shown not to affect the availability or consumption , as has been shown from the example of Mephedrone in the U.K., where its use has in fact increased since its ban.



[1] The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Annual Drug Report, 2010

[2] Taking Drugs Seriously: A Demos and UK Drug Policy Commission Report on Legal Highs