‘Legal highs’ are substances that are chemically similar to the active ingredients in illegal drugs, and produce some of the same psychotropic effects, but circumvent legislation by being different in just the right way to escape the definitions in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act (UK).
These novel synthesised substances are also known as ‘designer drugs’. The government attempts to keep up with the exponentially expanding array of designer drugs by adding new and ever broader definitions to the Act, as exemplified in a recent draft amendment order. However, legislators are constantly thwarted by the efforts of illicit chemists.
A consequence of this process is that as the designer drugs that most closely mimic the original narcotic substance are made illegal, much less similar derivatives take their place. Unfortunately, new formulations are becoming increasingly toxic, leading to more damaging side effects.
Dr. Les King, former advisor to the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs, writes in a technical review of the legal high alternatives to cannabis (derivatives of the active ingredient: THC) that constantly adding to and re-writing the Misuse of Drugs Act may not be the best method for tackling this issue.
In conclusion, the answer is perhaps to do nothing. While this idea may be unpalatable to politicians, the reality is that few would notice, administrative costs to the Home Office would be reduced, ACMD could focus on priority issues and little harm would be caused.
The review describes how THC derivatives (synthetic cannabinoids) can be modified extensively without losing the cannabis-like psychoactive properties, hence why the continual attempt to eliminate these substances is potentially futile.
The topic is also discussed in a report published by the charity YouthRISE. It explains the current situation with regards to legal highs internationally and echos the arguments put forward by Dr. King.
The emergence of NPS (referring to a new substance that has not yet been scheduled under one of the international drug conventions) has lead to an extraordinary diversity of substances on the market available to new generations of users and raises some fundamental questions about the current policy of drug prohibition
Several recommendations are made at the end of the report, including an action widely supported by the reform movement that the Beckley Foundation is part of, which is to remove criminal sanctions for drugs.
In the context of synthetic substances, this would diminish the constant cat-and-mouse chase between government and illicit chemists that results in the production of ever more toxic substances.