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Is the UK Addicted to Legal Highs?

Is the UK Addicted to Legal Highs?

A report published on 26 June by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) has found that the UK has the greatest demand for legal highs than any other EU Country. With an excess of over 300 different types of legal highs on the market, 670,000 of 15–24 year olds in the UK have already experimented with such substances. The significance of this number is demonstrated in the fact that the UK accounts for almost 25 per cent of legal highs or psychoactive substances sold EU-wide, with Poland in second place at 17 per cent.

However, these statistics are believed to be cause for concern. Despite the legality of these substances, the UNDOC stated that this:

new generation of drugs sold online are untested for safety and are potentially far more dangerous than traditional drugs such as cocaine and cannabis.

So why doesn’t the UK just put a ban on these harmful substances?

Some of the more popular legal highs, known by street names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Bath Salts’, are believed to mislead younger generations by their seemingly harmless names. However, health professionals have firmly maintained the danger in taking untested and unregulated substances, mainly originating from Southeast Asian countries and distributed internationally online.

So why doesn’t the UK just put a ban on these harmful substances? Indeed, Mephedrone, the former legal high commonly known as ‘Meow Meow’, has now been classified as a Class B drug following its implication in a number of teenage deaths. Justice Tettey, representing the UNDOC noted that whilst there is great demand in the UK for legal highs, ‘it had also successfully introduced legislation to bring some of the substances under control’. He praised the fact that such legislation had resulted in a decrease in the use of Mephedrone in the UK.

However, it is suggested that in fact banning these legal highs which are causing such widespread concern across Europe, may not get to the root of the problem. This is because once a drug has been banned, its molecular structure can be altered slightly, producing the same effects once taken but bypassing any national or international laws which prohibit its use. Since the chemical compound of the substance is not the one subject to the law, it cannot be considered illegal. The UNDOC report acknowledged this situation stating that legal highs are:

proliferating at an unprecedented rate and posing unforeseen public health challenges. The international drug control system is floundering, for the first time, under the speed and creativity of the phenomenon of this type of substance.

Following the report, the UK government has decided to take action and the Home Office has published its own set of initiatives to help tackle the dangerous health effects of unregulated legal highs. The UK is part of an international agreement alongside the other G8 countries. The G8 Statement of Intent on New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) contains these initiatives, the main aspects of which are sharing intelligence and protecting the public.

It is believed that sharing intelligence on the emergence of new legal highs and NPS, their supply routes and their impact on public health, will lead to greater NPS monitoring, research and analysis of these substances. Therefore, more effective regulation and knowledge of the health effects of such substances will not be as scarce as it is today. Regarding public protection, the Home Office has stated that the UK has:

Only in time will we be able to assess the effectiveness of these measures.

introduced temporary class drug orders in the UK, which provide a swift legislative response by protecting the public while giving time for independent experts to prepare advice and enabling law enforcement agencies to target traffickers.

Only in time will we be able to assess the effectiveness of these measures. However, with the usage of legal highs in the UK steadily increasing, as well the production of such drugs, the government’s plan to take action is an absolutely necessary one. As Jeremy Browne, Crime Prevention Minister stated, ‘we must remain vigilant to the threat’ that legal highs pose to the UK and the younger generations.

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