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The ‘war on drugs’ has not been won. Dangerous ‘legal highs’ are booming

30 May 2014

8:00 AM

30 May 2014

8:00 AM

It’s fashionable nowadays to claim that young people in Britain don’t know how to have a good time. There’s certainly plenty of evidence to suggest we’re avoiding the drugs our parents’ generation got their kicks from. Fraser Nelson discussed this in The Spectator last November, arguing that Britain’s youth were becoming more abstemious:

‘Marijuana, LSD, speed, cocaine — surveys show that every drug you can think of is plunging in popularity amongst the young. The proportion of under-20s who say they have taken drugs in the past month has halved over the last decade. Only two drugs are on the up and both are legal: Ritalin and Modafinil, stimulants that can power students through ten-hour study sessions.

‘It’s a long way from Woodstock. Whereas older generations took drugs to party (and still do), Britain’s young are now popping pills that help them work harder.

‘Shunned by the youth, Britain’s drug dealers are watching their market collapse. Over the past two decades, the street price of cannabis, cocaine and Ecstasy has fallen by at least two-thirds. A tab of LSD is now cheaper than a half pint of cider. Never have illegal drugs been more affordable — but never have young people shown less interest.’

Fraser is in some ways right. The popularity of ‘every drug you can think of’ may be plunging. But what about the ones you can’t think of? What about the 97 so-called ‘legal highs’ that have emerged onto the market in the last year? And how to explain the 670,000 young people in the UK between the ages of 15 -24 who say they have taken a legal high at least once, according to a UN report published last year? Young people may not be taking cocaine, cannabis and LSD as much as they used to, but let’s not play dumb here – they are still taking drugs (and not just ones to make them study harder).

These new drugs are hitting the market at a remarkable and unprecedented rate. Since 2008, 348 new types of synthetic drugs have appeared in more than 90 countries around the world. The list of substances controlled by the UK Misuse of Drugs Act may be long, but you can guarantee the list of drugs not yet classified is even longer.

Fraser points to the fact that the street market for drugs has begun to collapse. But what he fails to mention is the rise of internet drug emporiums. Legal highs (and illegal ones) can be bought from efficient retailers, who will zip them to your house via the Royal Mail – the oblivious drug mule. The UK now has the largest market for legal highs in the EU. These types of substances are particularly easy to flog via the internet, because they don’t fall foul of the law.


But a drug that has evaded criminal classification is no safer than one that hasn’t. Both can be dangerous. In 2011-2012, 6,486 people in England were treated for abusing legal highs, an increase of 39% compared with five years previously.

In the face of this, the law has been playing catch up. But given the almost infinite scope to alter the chemical structure of these new drugs, new formulations are outpacing efforts to impose control.

Legislation is occasionally updated, as was the case with mephedrone, a drug that was popular (and legal) during some of my time at university. Like many legal highs, it mimicked the effect of an illegal drug – in this case, speed and ecstasy. In 2010, it was made illegal in the UK, and became a class B substance.

But mephedrone is an exception to the rule. Last year, the Centre for Social Justice criticised the government’s response to the ever-expanding range of legal highs, saying it had only used temporary banning orders three times to control approximately 15 substances since 2010. More than 150 new substances have gone on sale since then.

The law simply cannot cope with this new era of drug use. The intensely prescriptive approach – whereby drugs can be legal or illegal simply through a small change in molecular structure – is unhelpful, creating the illusion that legal highs are ‘low risk’ in comparison with illegal drugs. When coupled with the fact that illegal drug use is in decline, this illusion fuels the mistaken impression that the ‘war on drugs’ is won.

But drug use hasn’t died; it has mutated. We now have two competitive markets for unregulated drugs – one illegal, one ‘legal’. Why not use the surge in the growth of legal highs as a chance to address this? Nixon’s rhetoric about the ‘war on drugs’ dates from 1971 – the same year Britain established the Misuse of Drugs Act. Both are archaic. Both are failing. We should push for a sensible discussion on drug use in Britain that may bring with it the possibility of legalisation and regulation of certain drugs. We shouldn’t be so scared of this; the current situation is far murkier.

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Show comments
  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Legalize all currently illegal drugs.
    Put the dealers out of business.
    Cut property crime by more than 50%.
    Introduce quality control and quality consistency.
    Cull degenerates parasites from society.
    What`s not to like?

  • forumula_freddy

    To those that say “There IS no war on drugs”, you’re right. This term was invented in the Nixon era to give the impression that there was some good fight to be fought and imply that anyone that didn’t take part was “going soft” or a traitor.

    What there IS is a persecution of anyone who has anything to do with any recreational or inspirational drug that isn’t alcohol, tobacco or caffeine. How daft is that?

    The laws against people with drugs remind me of the laws on witchcraft. Both are based on fear, ignorance and roughly the same amount of scientific evidence.

    • davidraynes

      The WoD expression was actually first used in the Washington Post in the late 1920s.

      Pro drug use commentators are generally ill informed

  • andagain

    But a drug that has evaded criminal classification is no safer than one that hasn’t.

    Campaigning to ban caffeine and alcohol, are you? After all, all the other bans have worked so famously well.

  • Smithersjones2013

    I cannot think of a better solution to our urban liberal elite problem than allowing them to pump themselves full of drugs every day but politically blanket legalisation of drugs is a non starter (that it is something that is supported by the Libdems should tell you that).

    Legalisation of drugs will send the message to youth that despite any
    age restrictions drug taking is OK (much as it does with tobacco and alcohol) and will increase the levels of taking of all drugs many fold amongst the young. As a consequence the number dying and being hospitalised will increase significantly as the figures above demonstrate.

    The idea of the parents of children and young adults being told that their kids are dead and the government is not doing anything about it because its ‘legal’ is a non-starter. Its a non starter with tobacco products and its a nonstarter with alcohol products. So junkies are flatulating into a head wind if they think that drug legalisation would ever occur.

    From a business perspective non regulated drugs are always going to be far cheaper to produce and the time from creation to availability in the market place will always be much (far shorter testing regimes and no certification overheads, no government taxes to make regulated drugs uncompetitive). Why would any suppliers bother with legalisation when it can make greater profits far quicker in the unregulated market?

    After all, as suggested above its not as if the Government have any control over the market in the first place. Its not like its alcohol or tobacco where the variants of the products are limited. So even if the government did legalise a whole string of drugs, the suppliers would just provide a whole new batch of unregulated drugs to maintain their profits. There will always be a thriving unregulated market

    So having spent millions of pounds of taxpayers money in regulating hundreds of drugs the government will have moved no further forward and lumbered the electorate with yet another pointless layer of bureaucracy and still the Government will be faced with a war on drugs that they will still be losing.

    Therefore whats the point of doing anything except perhaps looking at ways of beefing up the identification and pursuit of suppliers of these drugs and going back to the days when every now and then people got prosecuted for using them. Providing a deterrent might actually save the taxpayer some much needed cash and the odd life here and there because in reality the only weapon the government actually has in this war are deterrents…….

  • ShaunRichards

    This is interesting timing as the UK Office for National Statistics is about to add illegal drug use (and prostitution) to the UK economic output numbers (GDP). Therefore the powers that be will be very disappointed to read that use is dropping!

    For those of you who do not follow such matters it is a result of us adopting a European standard called ESA10 and is estimated to have this impact for 2009.

    “£4.4 billion attributable to illegal drugs.”

    There are however a lot of problems with the methodology at play here and I have analysed them towards the end of the article linked too below.

    • Smithersjones2013

      Indeed that the Chancellor of the Exchequer may one day be hailing the success of pimps, whores and drug dealers in contributing to the growth of the economy does have a surreal ring to it. It brings a new meaning to the term ‘service industries’.

      Of course in being praised by politicians the pimps, whores and drug dealers will be in good company

  • JoshuaCzajkowski

    Easy. Legalise certain drugs like cannabis and MDMA, tax them, sell them from pharmacies and undercut dealers. The drugs will be pure. You just taken an industry worth billions of pounds out of the hands of thugs and criminals and created much-needed revenue for the treasury. All of this whilst expanding individual freedom.

    • Smithersjones2013

      So the dealers you undercut produce new more dangerous unregulated ‘legal’ highs that are cheaper to produce, far quicker to the market and therefore have a much cheaper price and so undercut your expensive ‘pure’ cannabis’

      Now which are most hard up kids going to buy huh?

      PS Every time something is taxed it reduces people’s freedom. Taxation is a constraint on freedom.

      • JoshuaCzajkowski

        That’s an interesting theoretical idea about freedom i’ll have to ponder on. I have to say i have never thought about that, cheers.

        • Mac Millar

          Drugs like cannabis are illegal because they are unsafe at any dose. It is irresponsible for a person to play Russian roulette with their mental health for the sake of a trifling pleasure. How about instead of arguing for the legalisation of cannabis you instead argue for British people to regain their sense of self-restraint.

  • davidraynes

    “We should push for a sensible discussion on drug use in Britain that may
    bring with it the possibility of legalisation and regulation of certain
    drugs. We shouldn’t be so scared of this; the current situation is far

    The trouble with writers like you, dipping into pronouncing on drug policy, clearly from a fairly ill informed base of knowledge, is that you pronounce solutions without considering any of the evidence base or the consequences for society.

    Legalisation of all possible drugs, is being pushed around the world by big business. Foremost among those pushing it and financing it with millions of dollars, is George Soros. He has virtually single handed bought drug policy changes in some places.

    Yes, Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPSs), what you so carelessly call in tabloid fashion “Legal Highs”, are causing a problem. Yes the Internet presents a problem in making a market place.

    By far the biggest problem in the UK is surely the high street shops which this government has failed to close down. Countries such as Poland, Portugal and Ireland have outlawed these shops. New Zealand, started off down your route (much to the delight of drug legalisation lobbyists) but has recently had to reverse that policy in response to overwhelming public pressure.

    The UK Minister, LibDem Norman Baker, seems to be suffering from “paralysis by analysis”, possibly because (amazingly) Nick Clegg is a legaliser and appointed him in rather odd circumstances after sacking Jeremy Browne who was probably going to do something.

    Drugs use, legal or illegal, is a cultural issue.

    Britain and particularly Scotland, has a serious problem.

    It is very difficult to see how legalisation of substances unfit for human consumption would improve the UKs using culture or what the net public benefit would be.

    • B7lls

      Legalisation of all possible drugs, is being pushed around the world by big business.

      Without listing all possible drugs, I’d be interested to know which big businesses are pushing for the legalisation of:

      1. Crack cocaine
      2. Heroin
      3. LSD
      4. Crystal Meth
      5. Amphetamines

      • davidraynes

        Well the Drug Policy Alliance in the US (financed substantially by Soros) is, though the DPA spokesman I have heard talk, more than once, about legalising all drugs and argue for it, said he was not so sure about crack . Rather a stupid remark since crack can be sysnthesised at home from cocaine, if that were legal.

        In the UK, Transform is and that organisation has taken funding from Soros in the past, may do currently.

        Soros of course is not just one business.

        If you want to know more, look up the DPA and Ethan Nadelman.

        Pointless asking me to find things you can easily find for yourself. These matters are not secret though they did used to be less open. Soros is quite open about what he is doing.

        Things got so bad in the UK at one stage, that our one time Deputy Drug Czar, Mike Trace, had to resign from a new post at the UN when exposed as working covertly as a “fifth columnist” (his words) for the Soros “Open Society”.

        I was with him the morning he was exposed, he said he was “disgraced”, as indeed he was.

        • Transformdrugs

          Again – no engagement with the arguments or what Tranform or DPA actually say or do – , just; ‘you disagree with me therefore you must be ‘uninformed’, and lots of tired name calling.

    • Transformdrugs

      ‘Legalisation of all possible drugs, is being pushed around the world by big business.’

      this is a typical misrepresentation by you David. Transform have called for strictly legally regulated markets for drugs – with different models for different drugs. the

  • hifiwigwam

    “The ‘war on drugs’ is not won”

    No one ever said it had been. The war on drugs is a sad and pathetic waste of money.

    • La Fold

      I fully concurIn reality it has turned into the equivalent of trench warfare.
      Im glad more kids are staying away from the Persians, but maybe they should, muisc today is bloody awful!!

    • Roland Gyallay-Pap

      Theresa May and the proho elements of the government consistently say that the “current approach [to drug policy] is working”, pointing to falling use of traditional drugs. Aside from them, no one in their right mind would have the audacity to say something quite that stupid.

  • Michael H Kenyon

    The uk lacks the imagination or common sense to legalise soft drugs. Maybe when it sees that taxes are up and crime and disorder down in the USA States that have grasped the nettle (as it were), and European places with more liberal policy haven’t gone to pot (hah!), we can see this as a personal matter, like pints and pies?

    • Smithersjones2013

      Well once the novelty of smoking pot in public has worn off then it will go back to business as usual with the dealers offering new cheaper unregulated ‘highs’ . As demand for pot falls the price will rise and drive more towards unregulated markets. As the demand for unregulated high once again rises the price of unregulated drugs will fall further undercutting the legal drugs. And so it will go on.

      There is no end to the war on drugs……

      • Michael H Kenyon

        I am mindful of this potential loop, and though personally libertarian, doubt the BMA is likewise minded, and not about to legalise LSD, base amphetamines, or heroin. But just as people tend to stick with their preferred drinks and do not move on to Buckfast/ Polish White Spirit, I suspect that many people would be happy with cannabis. it depends what receptors you want tickled.

      • andagain

        As demand for pot falls the price will rise

        How curious. I thought lower demand usually led to lower prices.

      • andagain

        If people STOP using a drug because it has been legalised, the solution is obviously to legalise every drug…

    • davidraynes

      “Soft Drugs”?

      This expression is a planted meme, first used by a pro pot Dutch Mayor in the early 1970s. Of course it has been repeated endlessly to promote pot and y the ignorant, including politicians.

      Cannabis is certainly not the “soft” drug it is often portrayed as. It has profound & permanent, mind changing, life-changing, effects on many teenagers who take it when their brains are undeveloped and immature. The beffects of cannabis cross the placenta and affect the unborn brain.. It is addictive for many.

      Modern forms of low CBD, high THC cannabis are even more risky.

      • Michael H Kenyon

        Substitute ‘alcohol’ for cannabis, and the same follows. People should be allowed to be responsible for themselves. Just because some persons abuse a freedom, it doesn’t mean those who use that freedom responsibly should be punished.

        • davidraynes

          Actually, in terms of the effects on the brain, it does not follow. Even fairly modest cannabis use in early teens can ruin a life, permanently.

          Your absolute freedom to use any substance, however harmful, argument, has been lost. By all means waste your time fighting it. Hardly anyone will listen. It is tilting at windmills.

          We control the damaging effects alcohol and tobacco by laws, more of them recently in respect of tobacco, & with definite social benefits.

          The international drug conventions are the best kept international agreements of all time.

  • La Fold

    Ive known lads that have banged the jack and jills and been on the boutrous boutrous ghali for years, trawled the techno clubs of Berlin with them and everyone of them now is a fairly successful, well adjusted person, one has a very good job for the Qatari state oil company. Then again Ive known people who if you give them 3 beers they could start a riot in a phone box and box their own shadow.
    Until the state realises it has absolutely no moral authority because it says one drug is okay another is verboten we will have the glorious side effects of prohibiton, low quality, high prices, violence and deaths.

    • Smithersjones2013

      And I knew people who took drugs who died from a drug overdose but have never met anyone who has subsequently died directly from alcohol poisoning. Your point is?

      • MC73

        Obvious I would have thought. Perhaps not.

      • La Fold

        I have also known people who have died from drugs too my pedigree chum. So you havent known anyone who has died directly from alcohol poisoning? That is probably due to the fact it is legal, somewhat freely avaialble, taxed and regulated in relation to quality and sale etc See my point now?

  • right_writes

    The rise of the so-called “legal high” is completely down to the authoritarian manner in which human stimulation is treated by po-faced governments across the globe.

    In much of South America, the locals have been merrily chewing coca leaves for 1000s of years, some found its way to the west, where it became popular amongst a few people, mainly ex-pats, and the authorities decide that, this we cannot have.

    So what happens to the locals…? Nothing, they carry on chewing their coca leaves…

    What happens to the overseas customers?

    They get cocaine, a sulphate from those leaves, highly concentrated and dangerous, much more portable to transport. Then that becomes free-base (home made crack) and then full-blown crack… All the time the risks for selling this stuff increase relentlessly, and the inter-gang warfare does the same.

    We have just witnessed the same thing in regard to the stimulant known as “qat”, ol’ Kitten heels has just banned the stuff, rather than banning its users [:)]…

    Next thing you know, there will be a new invention, straight out of the Kenyan factory/warehouse where most of the qat has been processed in the past, they aren’t going to throw that income source away.

    True liberals would not have any laws banning the recreational use of drugs and stimulants.

    • Smithersjones2013

      In much of South America, the locals have been merrily chewing coca leaves for 1000s of years,

      And you think that these despotic South American countries with their widespread poverty are something we should base our society on?

      • right_writes

        No, what makes you think that?

      • mctruck

        I don’t think you’ll find any South American countries, despotic or otherwise, with thousand-year histories. There have, however, been native people quietly chewing coca leaves since before recorded history.
        Peoples are not countries, nor yet governments.