The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform

Legal Highs

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.

‘Legal highs’ include:


Synthetic compounds


Also known as ‘designer drugs’, these are synthetic chemicals created to bypass the restrictions on similar compounds. (e.g. mephedrone, methoxetamine, and until recently, BZP, GHB, and GBL.)



Plant-based Products


Natural plant materials containing psychoactive material. (e.g. Salvia divinorum, Kratom, Kanna).






A type of psychoactive plant-based product. (e.g. baby Hawaiian woodrose, which contain LSA, chemically related to LSD).




Psychoactive Fungi


Another type of psychoactive plant-based product. (e.g. fly agaric).





Smoking Mixtures


Designed to emulate the psychoactive effects of cannabis without using prohibited plants or compounds. (e.g. Spice, Smoke, Neder Mix).


The United Kingdom Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 aimed to protect the public from dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs and related substances, but it was drafted in a social and political context markedly different from that of the present day. There are many reasons why the 1971 Act is no longer ‘fit for purpose’ but the recent explosion in popularity of and number of new legal highs now available highlights the inadequacy and ineffectiveness of this Act. The time is right for a re-examination and updating of the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971.

The Misuse of Drugs Act was passed into law in 1971 at a time when new drugs appeared very rarely. Nowadays, new drugs become available over the internet almost on a weekly basis.

Many of these new psychoactive substances are widely available in an uncontrolled and unregulated manner for purchase in outlets and over the internet. However, unlike traditional illegal psychoactive substances, such as cocaine and ecstasy, which have been studied for decades, the effects of these new substances are unknown and untested (Birdwell et al., 2011). The uncertainty of the effects and possible risks associated with this group of substances, combined with their ease of accessibility, presents a major challenge for current drug policy legislation as well as a major potential public health risk.

The current approach for identifying potential risks associated with new psychoactive substances is based on the recommendations of the Council of the European Union, which state that when a new psychoactive substance is identified in the drugs market, scientific advisory bodies such as the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) or the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) are requested to conduct a risk assessment. If a certain level of harm is identified, the substance is legislated against, usually under the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971. This process typically takes anywhere from 6 months to 2 years to complete.

However, new substances are constantly being produced and marketed with the explicit aim of circumventing the legislative restrictions. The main change in the last decade has been an increase in the range, potency, profile and availability of new substances, while their prices have remained consistently low. This process has been driven by the development of global web-based marketing and distribution networks.

Another factor that has highlighted the inadequacies of the current system is the speed of the marketing and manufacture over the internet of new “legal highs”, which vastly outstrips the rate at which the current legislative procedures can deal with them. To deal with this new era in drug-use a more intelligent and modern policy response is needed.