Legal highs – Not suitable for human consumption

by scotslawstudent

The Wanderings of a Law Student had a look at legal highs following a BBC documentary on them presented by George Lamb and has produced a very interesting report on the rationality of criminalising them. I also saw this program, I found it slightly disheartening as I find all shows which seek out and interview teenagers who smoke drugs in car parks. I don’t exactly think I was better for not spending my teenage years doing this but at the same time that’s basically it.

The main thing that I took from the show was that some people will consume unbelievable substances. I personally won’t eat homemade mayonaise that’s been left out of the fridge so a lot of the products going under the umbrella of legal highs really don’t stand a chance.

WLS divided legal highs into two categories – natural and man made chemicals. I personally prefer to consider legal highs as broadly “serendipitous” or “deliberate” – there are many things which get you high, but some are deliberately sought out, things like salvia, peyote etc,and others just happen to do that while actually being intended for something else. My main issue lies with the proposed criminalisation of these serendipitous legal highs.

Deliberate legal highs do include the changing of chemical structures to produce a molecule with similar effects but falling outside of drug prohibitions. Banning the remixing of narcotics sounds fair enough but I do urge caution in pursuing this too closely, for example this:


is dimethyltryptamine, it’s a potent psychedelic drug sold under the name “DMT” and is considered a “Class A” substance in Britain. It can be changed to, say:


5-methoxy-dimethyltryptamine which has much the same effect. This, for colour, is the chemical produced by a certain species of toad and so if you hear of anyone attempting to lick toads (literally, licking toads) this is the substance they’re after. Or maybe they just really like toads. This example is as illegal as all get out in the US but I can’t actually find any reference to it being illegal in the UK, even though regular DMT gets the class A rating. However, this

is 5-hydroxytryptamine, it’s a very similar chemical from the same functional group as the previous two- the indole group of alkaloids generally and the tryptamines more specifically. It’s mood altering and in excess can be linked to severe mental illness. The thing is it’s more commonly known as the neurotransmitter serotonin and is naturally found in humans and animals and actually mostly regulates digestive function. I don’t think anyone wants it criminalised.

Serendipitous legal highs are dual use, GBL being quite a good example. GBL is “liquid ecstacy” or, in its day job, an industrial paint stripper. I have great sympathy for the mother of Hester Stewart, the medical student who died after consuming a lethal cocktail of GBL and alcohol, but don’t support her call to have GBL turned into a Class A narcotic. You really shouldn’t be drinking industrial solvents, particularly not as a medical student which just makes it ironic as well as tragic. Stewart’s death sounds more like misadventure to me. She didn’t overdose on drugs, she drank paint stripper. She drank it because it has narcotic effects but that doesn’t change what it is.

WLS and I come to the same conclusion about these products but we differ on the working.

To summarise WLS he argues that drugs (especially these) should not be criminalised, as there is no inherent moral wrong. He makes the claim that criminalisation implies strict moral wrongness and I do not agree — I think many crimes are just bad because we say so. Tax offences, for example, are wrong simply because the tax code says they are. I would be perfectly comfortable considering this as a case of malum prohibitum should the legislation go through even though I don’t agree with the effect, which would include a maximum 2 year custodial sentence for possessing paint stripper. I argue that the fact that something is not inherently morally wrong is no bar to it being criminal. The big crimes are morally wrong, yes, but little crimes disrupt society too.

Physical harm is a fair reason to ban something but I suggest that it should be the harm to other people which is the main determinant. I would see no problem with arresting people attempting to drive under influence of these products even if not necessarily arresting people for having a packet of them in their pocket. This does not take into account possible longer term consequences such as increased NHS demand which is a genuine and dramatic cost on society. The psychological effects are undeniably strong and no one should consider the risk to the public less just because they are not criminalised. Sky diving is not criminal and yet very dangerous. The law doesn’t and shouldn’t eliminate all risk in the world. Part of living in an adult world is avoiding doing things like snorting (as seen on the George Lamb documentary) bath salts. It should be noted that the link shows you a 1 gram packet of bath salts, it will probably make a suspiciously unsatisfying bath but they are balt salts and they shouldn’t be snorted up your nose.

The issue of criminalisation is being driven by some high profile cases – the death of Hester Stewart being the one which appears to have received most visibility. The problem of deciding law based on hard cases raises its head here – the law cannot apply differently to situations which make it to the Daily Telegraph.

My main problem with legal highs, and the same concern I have with herbal medicines, is the lack of testing and consistency. I would much rather have other people explore the risk of unknown compounds before I consume them. Pharmacology is something I know just enough about to know not to mess with.

The mutating hydra of legal highs is a real problem for those using them and unless you are dealing with seriously high quality products in any sphere of industry you are going to experience considerable variation along the line, from competing products and even from within the same wrapper. These are all serious concerns and regulation would start to fix quite a bit of this and I think that’s why it’s a more practical approach. These are legitimate businesses, they aren’t mixing their Columbian pure with gasoline and trying to kill James Bond while pretending to be a religious retreat, and we assume they will respond to regulation. If they didn’t they’d presumably be selling regular drugs.

Lack of consistency is not, however, why I think legal highs should not be criminalised. This is because I believe that if we make legal highs illegal there will be no end to what cannot be considered an illegal narcotic. These products are, perhaps slightly nefariously, sold as air fresheners, bath salts and solvents. They are not suitable for human consumption not due to arbitary packaging guidelines but as an inherent result of what they are.

I am against using legislation to gain some vengeance for mistakes after the event, I think this impinges on the rest of humanity’s right to self determination. If someone is snorting bath salts or smoking pot porurri the problem isn’t drugs, it’s insanity. There are people who drink white spirit and windscreen washer because they’ve got tons of alcohol in them but that’s not enough to make them illicit drugs. It’s a thoroughly illjudged thing to do with your time but it’s not a drug offence.