The new nationwide ban on legal highs has come into force, sparking a mixed set of opinions and responses. Some have welcomed the ban as an important step in tackling dangerous substance abuse issues, while others have expressed doubts as to the practicality of enforcing the ban.
Legal highs, also known as “new psychoactive substances,” are chemical substances that are designed to have effects very similar to those of prohibited drugs, but also to be different enough in composition from those drugs to escape existing bans. They are ostensibly sold for purposes other than human ingestion – another step in evading existing drug laws – but when ingested produce a “high” similar to other drugs such as cocaine. Last year, a rise in prison violence was linked to legal highs, and over 100 deaths around the country were believed to involve such substances.
The new law represents a blanket ban on all such substances, effectively closing all the loopholes that the previously slipped through. Bans have previously been enforced on the local level in some areas, but the new law takes effect nationwide. It prohibits production of these substances, as well as selling or otherwise supplying them. It also empowers the police to shut down both online stores and physical “headshops” which sell drug paraphernalia, as well as to carry out searches and to confiscate and destroy any such substances they find.
Many have been delighted by the new law. Notably, those who have campaigned against the use of dangerous psychoactive substances have welcomed the ban. Karen Vandersypen, who began campaigning against legal highs after they led to the death of her son, described herself as “delighted.”
However, there are also doubts about whether it will be feasible to enforce the ban effectively. The new law was originally supposed to take effect last month, with questions about enforcement reportedly being among the reasons for the delay. Now the government has released its “forensic strategy,” methods of testing substances to establish whether they fall within the scope of this law, further doubts have been expressed. A number of lawyers, forensic experts and pharmacologists predicted that enforcing the prohibition on new psychoactive substances would be “fraught with difficulty.”
Critics have also suggested that convictions under the new law would be relatively difficult to obtain. A large part of this difficulty relates to the testing strategy, and difficulties in definitively establishing that a substance produces a high. According to professor Les Iversen, chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), writing in a letter to the Home Secretary: “There is currently no way to define psychoactivity through a biochemical test, therefore there is no guarantee of proving psychoactivity in a court of law.”