The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform

Tackling ‘Legal Highs’

Prohibition is Not the Answer

Traditional approaches to drug control based on prohibition and criminal enforcement can actually cause more harms than the harms associated with the use of the drugs themselves. Designating a new legal high as ‘illegal’ leaves a gap in the market, which is then filled by unregulated criminals, with far fewer controls on manufacture and distribution, and no guarantee that the drug is not cut with other more harmful substances. An example of this process concerns Krokodil, a highly toxic drug popular in Russia used as a substitute for heroin, made from over-the-counter painkillers. Where a demand for a substance exists, there will always be suppliers willing to fill a gap in the market with little regard for the safety of the substance they are selling.

There is no conclusive evidence that classifying a substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act or equivalent legislation reduces overall harms, price, or even use. The challenges posed by the issue of legal highs provide an opportunity to look at drug control policy afresh, without the distraction of such ideological arguments as winning the ‘war on drugs’.

How to Tackle the Problem

This review suggests a number of approaches that governments could implement in order to reduce the harms associated with legal highs:

  • Investigate alternatives to the Misuse of Drugs Act which, with the influx of legal highs, is no longer “fit for purpose.”

  • Research amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act, such as the Class D model, or a Medicines Act, to address the problems posed to the current legislation by legal highs.


  • Conduct more rigorous research into the full range of impacts (including unintended harms) of the control and enforcement elements of drug control and drug policy.

  • Bring forward policies that are based on scientific evidence and prioritise the health and well-being of users, whilst educating the public fully over the harms related to each substance.

  • Introduce a more rational system of classification of substances according to the individual harms of each substance according to its toxicity, the potential for user dependency and the possible social harms. It would be important to include all psychoactive substances within such a comparison, irrespective of their current legal status.


The impact of the new generation of psychoactive substances, “legal highs”, poses many problems for the drug control regime introduced by the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971, and starkly throws into focus the inability of the current UK and European Union systems to deal with the new substances which popular demand and new technologies are bringing onto the market. There is consequently a growing danger that, unless government takes decisive steps to reform drug strategies, the current regime will fall yet further in public esteem.