The War on Designer Drugs: Britain Bans Legal Highs

A bottle of the unclassified drug gamma-butyrolactone (GBL)
PA Photos / Landov

The War on Designer Drugs:Britain Bans Legal Highs

Thursday, Aug. 27, 2009
The War on Designer Drugs: Britain Bans Legal Highs
By Gaëlle Faure / London

In Britain, anyone looking to get high without the criminal side effects can go online or walk into a head shop and buy perfectly legal alternatives to a whole host of illegal drugs, from marijuana to ecstasy to cocaine. But not for long. On Tuesday, Aug. 25, the U.K. government announced it is set to ban these so-called legal highs by the end of the year. The ban on designer drugs such as stimulant BZP, narcotic alternative gamma-butyrolactone (GBL) and cannabis imitator Spice is being described as a precautionary measure, with the aim of getting the substances off the shelves before they've gained much notoriety — and before thorough studies have been done on how much harm they do to users.

With this new legislation, Britain joins the growing number of European countries that have tackled legal highs over the past several years. For now, dozens of U.K.-based websites and shops are still free to market and sell alternatives to illegal drugs and to ship them to any country that doesn't yet prohibit them. It's these legal drug dealers that the British ban seeks to target. "The priority will be to chase suppliers rather than users," says Martin Barnes, head of Drugscope, a nonprofit that studies drug use in the U.K., and a member of the advisory board that recommended the new bans.

(See pictures of the Great American Pot Smoke-Out.)

The U.S. has long had an answer to cutting off the supply of legal highs: a blanket law that bans not just one particular drug but any drug that resembles it. The Analogue Drug Act of 1986 automatically outlaws any drug "substantially similar" to an illegal drug in either composition or effect. The U.K. is moving closer to the U.S. model, but instead of a blanket ban, the government is crafting several smaller laws to cover whole families of drugs. Cannabinoids will join marijuana as a Class B drug, which will mean fines or up to five years in prison for possession and up to 14 years for dealing. BZP and GBL, meanwhile, will be Class C: possession could lead to a fine or up to two years in prison, and dealing comes with a sentence of up to 14 years.

Britain's war on legal highs started in May with talk of a ban on Spice. The Chinese smoking blend is generally described as herbal, but tests carried out in German labs have shown that its herbal mix is sprayed with designer chemicals that mimic the effects of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, but to a more potent effect. France, Germany and Austria have recently outlawed the sale of Spice, and the U.K. now plans to ban not just that specific cannabis substitute but all synthetic cannabinoids — a class of designer drugs structurally resembling cannabis — hoping to nip offshoots in the bud.

(See pictures of stoner cinema.)

"The experience of Spice shows us that it really is possible to come up with these new substances in a laboratory," says Barnes. He notes, however, that in cases like these, if manufacturers were to change their marketing and use similar compounds to create new drugs, "you could essentially only enforce the law by catching the [new] product and testing it."

So the legislation announced on Tuesday could spark a cat-and-mouse game, with manufacturers rushing to produce new drugs faster than lawmakers can prohibit them. An example of this seemingly endless cycle is the ban on BZP, a stimulant also known as 1-benzylpiperazine. The E.U. announced last year that all member states should ban BZP by March 2009 (lagging five years behind the U.S.). Like Britain, several other E.U. states still haven't complied, but already BZP "alternatives" are being advertised all over legal-high-vendor websites. It's unknown what exactly is in these BZP imitators, but if they're related to piperazines, manufacturers will have to find another alternative, as these too will fall under the new British ban.

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Drugscope's Barnes worries that by instituting blanket bans instead of targeting specific designer drugs, U.K. lawmakers will have to walk a fine line between trying to stay one step ahead of manufacturers and classifying drugs too hastily, especially those that haven't yet been proved to be harmful to users. Once drugs are classified, they rarely get downgraded or returned to legal status, says Barnes, owing more to political than scientific will. "Legislation is a blunt instrument," he says. "If we go down the route where we simply outlaw on the basis of potential harm, the heavy weight of the law might not always be a pragmatic response."

But with recent headlines showing that some legal highs are far from harmless, most in Britain are likely to support the new ban. Earlier this year, BZP was linked to the death of a 22-year-old British man who had reportedly also taken ecstasy. GBL, which is used legitimately as an industrial cleaning agent but is touted as a substitute for the outlawed date-rape drug GHB, has also garnered attention in the U.K. for its role in the death of a 21-year-old woman whose mother has crusaded to outlaw the chemical. "The key message to get across to young people [is], Just because it's legal doesn't mean it's safe," the victim's mother, Maryon Stewart, told the BBC.

An awareness campaign highlighting the risks of legal drugs, especially when they are mixed with alcohol, will kick off in September to coincide with the start of the university year. The U.K.'s drug czar, David Nutt, said in a statement that the drug advisory council would continue looking into other legal highs throughout the next year. At the top of the list will be mephedrone and its derivatives. Mephedrone, which can be used as plant food, is sold on legal-high sites as an alternative to cocaine.

(See a graphic on addiction and the brain.)

It seems the war against legal highs, like the war against the illegal drugs they're intended to replace, is set to be a long one.