Legal highs

Legal highs

By Chris Bovey

It’s over two years since the government’s Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) came into force, which sought to ban the sale of any substance that could have psychoactive effects, with a few exemptions, including two of the most dangerous legal highs, alcohol and tobacco.

At the time experts warned it would not achieve what it was seeking to achieve and probably make things worse.

This week the Home Office quietly sneaked out a report while Brexit was dominating the news which concluded the PSA has failed to meet any of its goals:

  • While high street ‘Head Shop’ sales have stopped, the trade has just shifted to street dealers
  • The ‘cat and mouse’ game of new drugs coming onto the market as others are banned has continued
  • Use among children and the homeless have not fallen, and the review cannot say if overall drug use has fallen because even where adult use has reduced, people may have shifted to other banned substances instead
  • In prisons, use of synthetic cannabinoids (‘Spice’)  in particular has increased while deaths directly attributable to NPS appear to have fallen in England and Wales, they have risen in Scotland
  • The review cannot tell if overall social and health harms have fallen because people may have just moved to other drugs – where deaths, for example from cocaine and MDMA use, have been rising sharply

The legal high trade has actually been around since the 1990s, initially selling herbal plant-based products mainly from The Netherlands that authorities were not interested in, because they thought they thought they didn’t work and ravers also not interested in, because they thought they didn’t work. They were even marketed as a safe alternative to illegal drugs and there was a niche market for people who didn’t want to break the law, take something with listed ingredients and dosage instructions on the packet that gave you a bit of a buzz without the nasty comedown often associated with their illegal counterparts.

Drawing of magic mushrooms.

Shrooms used to be legal in the UK before 2005.

In 2001, a letter was circulated by the Home Office, confirming it was not illegal to own, sell or give away a Magic Mushroom, providing it was fresh and had not been processed. This led to a huge boom in the legal sale of Magic Mushrooms, Philosopher Stone Truffles and Magic Mushroom grow kits that caused no harm to society whatsoever. I was the first person ever to sell Magic Mushrooms on the Internet. In fact, the Home Office were not even bothered about it, as they preferred people purchased safe products to consume from a VAT registered business, rather than take potentially dangerous chemical pills sold on the criminal black market that were made in someone’s back shed and could contain anything.

That changed when the British media hyped up a campaign against Magic Mushrooms being sold in high street shops in the UK. In December 2004, the CPS tried to prosecute a shop owner in Gloucester for selling Magic Mushrooms claiming they were making a preparation. I gave evidence at that case and the judge threw it out as an Abuse of Process, stating the law was too ambiguous and if the government didn’t like it they would have to change it.

The government did just that, ultra-right-wing Labour MP, Caroline Flint, who was the Drugs Minister at the time, amended the Misuse of Drugs Act to ban any fungi containing psilocybin or psilocin, the active ingredients in shrooms and truffles, introducing a ban in the summer of 2005, without referring it to the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), as required by law. A group of Magic Mushroom vendors, myself including, considered taking the government to Court to ask for a Judicial Review to overturn the ban on the grounds it was unlawfully implemented, but it was prohibitively expensive, so they got away with not observing their own laws.

A similar prosecution, where I also gave evidence, was made against a vendor of mescaline-containing cacti, which also failed on the same grounds that plants which contain controlled substances were not illegal.

The Magic Mushroom boom at the beginning of this century opened up a thriving new market and headshops soon started finding alternative products to sell. The herbal highs and entheogenic plants were still legal to sell and were becoming increasingly popular.

New products were also entering the market, including Spice, a herbal mix that had a synthetic cannabinoid, later discovered to be JWH-018, sprayed onto a carrier herb. It didn’t get any media attention because it wasn’t quite as strong as the real thing and didn’t taste particularly nice to smoke. It was still a big seller for people who couldn’t obtain real cannabis or didn’t want to break the law, it was produced  by only one company, as nobody knew what was in it, until the Brenam Laboratory in Germany discovered the compound they used (JWH-018), which resulted in a number of competitors producing similar Spice products, making them stronger to compete, as people tend to buy the strongest product.

Eventually, it got the attention of the media and therefore the government, so in December 2009 the government banned JWH-018 and any of its analogues, but that didn’t do much, as in China they were always able to get around the law. Every time the government banned a group of cannabinoids the Chinese would find a new one, it was a game of cat and mouse. This also attracted the interest of the Ukrainian and Russian mafia, who started to make and supply dangerous Spice products in the UK, such as Black Mamba. These were badly made and had far too much of the active cannabinoid sprayed on them, sending you to outer space in a couple of tokes.

Additionally, the weaker and safer herbal high products which used to have dosage advice and ingredients listed on the packet were becoming less popular, being replaced with new chemical substances from China that had similar effects to already banned drugs such as speed or ecstasy, yet were often stronger and potentially more dangerous. The government were never going to give you a pat on the back for that and say “well done lads”.

The first chemical high product that became popular in the UK was BZP, which had already been legalised by the New Zealand government and legally sold over there, as it was considered very safe. They were produced in New Zealand, although their biggest market was the newly emerging legal high market in the UK.

Photo of Professor David Nutt

Prof David Nutt, the government’s drugs advisor sacked for telling the truth.

Not long afterwards, the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) deemed legal highs illegal to sell in the UK, but sellers quickly found a loophole in the law by selling them as bath salts or bath salts or incense or potpourri, etc., as long as it was not for human consumption, so all this achieved was no dosage advice on the packets. The government also banned BZP in 2009, despite not being any deaths directly attributed to the substance. It was soon replaced by a much nastier drug, mephedrone, that did kill people, although ironically, according to Prof David Nutt, the number of drug deaths in the UK during the mephedrone boom went down, as people were switching from illegal cocaine to the then legal mephedrone, which has a lower risk of death from usage.

Again, because the market was unregulated, unscrupulous idiots were producing and selling the strongest products they could with no thought or care for consumers. Mephedrone was banned and replaced by even nastier products from the Chinese, who couldn’t care less as they’d never forgiven the British for the Opium Wars, the government simply couldn’t keep up; even with a new law that gave Ministers the power to give a temporary 12 month ban of any substance before it could be reviewed by the ACMD.

Eventually they had had enough, so along came the PSA, which sought to end the trade in legal highs and while there may have been noble intentions behind the Act, as understandably the government didn’t want people ending up in hospital wards from panic attacks after smoking a super-strong synthetic cannabinoid that was 100x stronger than necessary or even in the mortuary from having a fatal reaction from some bath salt from China.

Bottle of poppers

Industrial solvent abuse is fine, but don’t you dare spark up a joint after sex.

The government at the time confirmed poppers would be covered by the PSA, until a gay Tory MP, Crispin Blunt, complained in the House of Commons that he used them for sex, so the government miraculously announced all of a sudden poppers would not be covered by the PSA because they now claimed they did not “directly stimulate or depress the central nervous system, therefore, were not psychoactive” or seen to be capable of “having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem”, yet safe NO2 (laughing gas) would still be covered (which they give to pregnant women while giving birth).

Prof Iverson, the puppet that replaced Prof Nutt after he was sacked as Chair of the ACMD for telling the truth, wrote them a report to justify exempting poppers on the basis that he claimed they did not activate the Central Nervous System.

A quick search on Google Scholar revealed numerous studies to the contrary. Here’s a scientific study I found:

http://www.industrialpsychiatry.org/article.asp?issn=0972-6748%3Byear%3D2008%3Bvolume%3D17%3Bissue%3D1%3Bspage%3D55%3Bepage%3D58%3Baulast%3DSimlai

It’s a bit of a boring read, I’ll try to summarise, it linked usage of poppers to encephalopathy (brain disease), ataxia (muscle spasms), peripheral & cranial neuropathy (nerve damage), Parkinson’s disease and optic nerve damage (vision loss).

The paper also stated that poppers produce NO, which binds to receptors in the brain, which is contradictory to the government’s assertion that poppers are not psychoactive and do not stimulate the central nervous system.

I’m not personally advocating banning poppers, even if they were only exempted from the PSA so a Tory MP could have a bit of bum sex, but it’s strange they are still illegal to sell for consumption, they are sold as room odourisers. What’s more, the government banned the safe form of poppers, amyl nitrate. If poppers do not meet the government’s definition of psychoactive, then probably nothing else does.

Poppers on sale today contain isopropyl nitrite, isobutyl nitrite and butyl nitrite that are far more toxic than the original amyl nitrate they banned. The currents ones used are like sniffing petrol, according to this paper they kill eye neurons:

Repeated inhalation of poppers may be associated with prolonged bilateral vision loss due to the disruption of foveal cone outer segments. Retinal damage may progressively improve following drug discontinuation.

Catnip could be technically illegal to sell under the PSA, since it has mild psychoactive properties, but industrial solvents linked to blindness and nerve damage are fine, as long as you put “not for human consumption” on the side of the bottle. The original safe form of poppers, amyl nitrate, remains illegal.

The PSA law makes no sense, there has not been one successful conviction contested in the Courts. Prosecutions for selling perfectly safe NO2 collapsed after the government’s own experts said “laughing gas” was exempt, making a laughing stock of the law.

The government were warned by experts at the time the law would create more problems than it solved. Some headshop owners tried reasoning with the government suggesting they introduce a regulated market of the safest legal highs, of which there are many that are safer than alcohol, tobacco or poppers, but they were brushed off and their legal tax paying businesses were handed over to the criminal black market. Not all headshop owners wanted to hospitalise or potentially kill their clients, as asides not being very good for repeat custom, it is unethical and immoral to sell a potentially dangerous substance, legal or not.

Since they shut down many headshops, spice has got stronger and use amongst children, homeless and prisoners has gone up. Chemicals that are far more dangerous than Cannabis, MDMA or Magic Mushrooms that are still not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act are legal to possess, proof of intent to supply would be needed for a successful prosecution that has less severe penalties available than there is for the supply of many safer banned substances. In short, it’s been an epic failure.

Martin Powell of Transform Drug Policy Foundation said:

“This blanket ban was supposed to cure the UK’s ‘legal high’ problem, including Spice. But as experts warned before the new law was implemented, beyond the cosmetic success of ending legal sales in head shops, little positive has been achieved. And in many respects the situation has deteriorated. Trade in these drugs has moved from legal shops to criminal street markets, with problematic use a growing problem in UK city centres and prisons. At the same time Class A drug use and deaths have risen, suggesting drug use has just shifted not reduced, so the review can’t say if health and social harms have fallen.”

Photo of spice packet with caption "End the war on drugs, ban legal highs."

Prohibition doesn’t work, so let’s have some more!

Of course, if cannabis were legal, then there would be no demand for Spice, or indeed if there were a regulated market for safer legal highs then the organised criminal gangs involved with the production and supply chain of potentially dangerous substances would be put out of business. No bad thing considering they pay no tax, use violence to control their territories, even people traffic children to grow cannabis. This evil could be put to a stop if the government changed its approach to drugs, focussing on harm reduction instead of criminalisation if they allowed a legal market for safe products, but their banker friends in the City of London who launder dirty Cartel drug money might have something to say about that.


Chris Bovey, writer and musician.

Chris Bovey is a businessman, writer, musician and practical joker. He lives in Devon with his partner, two children and cat.

Kids hooked on gambling? Let’s teach them to really rebel!
Medical cannabis law described as ‘cruel & botched’ by a Tory.