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’.