How the Drug War Creates More Drugs

There has been an explosion of so-called ‘legal highs’ in recent years and their production shows no signs of abating.

These potentially dangerous drugs—sold as plant food, collector’s items or bath salts—have been blamed for a number of incidents ranging from fatal overdoses to a series of “zombie-style cannibal attacks” (later disproven).

As lawmakers rush to come up with legislative responses—often consisting of new laws banning these substances—a recent report by a group of lawmakers reveals that it is precisely this proscriptive impulse that may be driving the creation of even more synthetic drugs.

Manufacturers of these drugs (the majority of which are marijuana substitutes) produce them to bypass existing proscriptive drug laws. But once the new substance is banned, chemists get to work to produce newer, possibly even more dangerous drugs, according to a new report by the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform.

“Banning substances within the current system has not, and in our view will not, reduce their use overall,” the group wrote in its report Towards a Safer Drug Policy: Challenges and Opportunities arising from ‘legal highs’.

“Evidence presented here indicates that, paradoxically, the banning of one drug can make the situation worse by stimulating the production of yet more new, unknown and potentially dangerous substances.”

The group suggests that the UK government study alternative policies like one being introduced in New Zealand that would create a licensing regime which would require any new substances to go through a lengthy testing process before approval for legal sale.

The group wrote, “A useful feature of New Zealand’s planned policy is to assess both the harms arising from a particular substance and the harms arising from controlling it.”

This passage contains one critical recommendation that any government would be wise to follow—the impacts of laws should be examined just as thoroughly as the impact of particular drugs.

Because evidence is beginning to indicate that the consequences of the response may be as bad as the thing we are trying to control.

Read the All-Party Group’s report here.

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Why did you feel the need to mention the “zombie-style cannibal attacks” if it was - as you said - later disproved? Why can't we just let ridiculous myths like this die? "Legal highs" do not turn people into flesh-eating zombies, and neither are they automatically any more toxicologically dangerous than any other drugs just because they are unregulated but popular with kids.

I find it incredibly distasteful that the drug policy reform movement has jumped on so-called "legal highs" to use as a tactical straw-man or scapegoat in the desperate effort to ignite rational discourse with politicians about the failed war on drugs.

How many of you have taken any of these so-called "legal highs" which are now being demonized? Where's the scientific evidence that all of these "legal highs" are as dangerous as the drug policy reform movement is debasing them to be? Yes there have been some deaths attributed to a few of the compounds which come under the broad umbrella term of "legal highs", and yes there have been unscrupulous vendors misrepresenting their products or selling adulterated material, but this in no way means that "legal highs" are some kind of demonic evil which need to be eradicated.

Why not regulate these compounds as well? I find it incredibly hypocritical that the drug policy reform movement claims to be about removing prejudices and taboos surrounding drugs, whilst at the same time some groups in this movement are pushing a campaign of negativity against perfectly valid molecules which are *legal* - but unregulated. This is no different to what DARE was on cannabis. It's just wrapped up in a different package and sold to idiot politicians as a quick sacrificial straw-man to get them nodding yes, instead of taking the effort to fully educate such politicians as to the absurdity of their entire perspectives on the issue of psychoactive compounds and the human right to seek intoxication.

And let's not forget that all the illegal drugs which we are all trying to legitimize were also once "legal highs". LSD was once a legal high, as was MDMA. So was psilocybin and cannabis.

Let's not lower ourselves to the level that the drug warriors did with the currently illegal drugs by doing the same to all the compounds which fall under this wide category. Let's use scientific evidence first before declaring them more or less dangerous than other drugs.

Point taken and thanks for the response.

The reason for including the zombie attacks was precisely to highlight the hysteria surrounding these substances. Some of the hysteria is justified, some of it is plainly absurd.

I do however, have to disagree with your reading of some of the points in the article. Highlighting the potential harms of drugs is not to give credibility to the drug warriors. It is only to say these things have potential harms and ask whether our current policies are exacerbating or minimizing these risks.

Synthetic drugs (whether they fall under the legal hghs umbrella or not) have tremendous risks -- like any drug. The difference is that we understand the risks of "traditional" (?) drugs like cannabis, mushrooms and even heroin. We know health patterns over time and we have interventions to deal with some of the greatest dangers like overdose and blood borne viruses.

We have very little idea of the potential harms of synthetic drugs and we only learn about them over time (for example, ketamine and bladder damage and the aforementioned deaths). If there were some regulatory mechanisms, these substances might be better understood, which is what New Zealand is trying to do.

It's hard to say how this will work but the very point is that it is a regulatory departure from the traditional, knee-jerk prohibitionist approach that I think both of us find so problematic.

I think our views have more in common than you think.

The only part of your comment that I have to disagree with strongly is the mention of a human right to seek intoxication. I don't believe any such right exists. It is enshrined in no binding legal instrument and it is impossible for the state to respect, protect and fulfill this right (which are the primary duties of states vis-a-vis their international human rights obligations).

I tend to side with those who ague that prohibition does not empower states to violate all the other rights already enshrined in international law (right to health, privacy, family life, freedom from torture, cruel inhuman and degrading treatment, prohibition on arbitrary deprivation of liberty, etc.)

But it is certainly an interesting legal question that has kicked up quite a lot of debate in the drug policy reform movement, so I do appreciate you raising it.

Thanks again for the comments.

The most ironic thing about the anti drug laws is that the banned substances are much less dangerous then forced anti psychotic medications! That is a part of corporate welfare just like the prison-industrial and military-industrial complexes. Alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals want to keep a monopoly over our health care.

The war on drugs makes it harder to get certain drugs, but in its place it makes people with drug abuse problems seek other options. That is where it becomes a problem. So we've captured a ring leader making meth... what does that mean? Meth users seek alternatives, i.e., bath salts- If you've followed any news on bath salts, its made people crazy.

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