A grey area has emerged between what is legal and what is not as states struggle with how to respond to the many new synthetic compounds emerging onto the market. Of the various types of ‘Legal highs’ the seminar focused on stimulants because of the parallels with the other main drug-policy issue of the moment; i.e. the status of traditional herbal stimulants. These older discussions have been reinvigorated by: Bolivia’s efforts to de-schedule coca-leaf at UN level; the debates on the status of khat between EU States, and of kratom across Asia; and the increasing stride of legitimate cannabis use on the domestic front, as in for example Spain.
This paper aims to set out some of the policy and public health issues raised by the appearance of a wide range of emergent psychoactive substances of diverse origin, effect and risk profile (commonly referred to as ‘legal highs’). It will start by considering what is meant by the term ‘legal highs’ and consider the historical context that has framed their appearance and must inform any response. It will then consider some of the approaches that have been adopted by different nations to control their availability and associated harms, including a preliminary assessment of their consequences, both intended and not.
Since first coming to public prominence at the end of 2009, legal highs have posed a major challenge to existing legal and legislative structures designed to deal with drugs. With the market in manufactured psychoactive substances like mephedrone moving faster than public policy can accommodate, this report asks whether the assumptions enshrined in the 40-year-old Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) are still valid when applied 21st century drugs market.