UK lawmakers recently unveiled a proposal to ban “any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect.” The Psychoactive Substances Bill of 2015 was introduced in response to the growing trend of synthetic or “legal high” drugs. It does exempt alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, food, and medical products, but includes all other substances that are “capable of producing a psychoactive effect.” One article points out how quickly the policy starts to unravel—under this definition, air freshener, incense, flowers and perfume would all be illegal under this new law. The UK has staked out the ultimate position on prohibition: substances are presumptively illegal unless specifically sanctioned.
As countries in Europe and across the globe look to liberalize their cannabis policies, the UK appears to be headed in the opposite direction in an ill-fated attempt to clamp down on synthetics. Instead of legislation, the best way to reduce the usage of “synthetic marijuana” is to increase ease of access to the real thing: marijuana.
Many states in the U.S. have outlawed some of the more popular synthetics, like “bath salts” and “spice.” The problem with trying to stop these drugs, however, is that they can be modified to remain legal. Producers of these drugs can rearrange just a few molecules to place them beyond the reach of lawmakers and legally into the hands of consumers.
Make no mistake—these drugs are dangerous, widely available, and their effects poorly understood. Taking these drugs is like playing chemical Russian roulette. They have been linked to a significant number of hospitalizations and deaths, including a gruesome case where a Florida man ate someone’s face off while high on bath salts. Synthetics do pose public health challenges for regulators, especially given how easy it is to flout drug laws with basic industrial chemistry.
Unfortunately, just as is the case in the UK, drafters of laws seeking to ban synthetics here in the US far too often use a hatchet when they should be using a scalpel. Prohibition does not work and we do not expect laws intended to reduce synthetic usage to work either. If anything, the increasing prevalence of synthetics provides yet another reason to legalize cannabis. If those who use synthetics had easy access to safer, natural, alternative means of altering their states of consciousness, many would no doubt choose cannabis over use synthetics. Providing legal access to drugs leads to less drug use. This has been the case in Portugal and the Netherlands and there is no reason to believe this would not also be true here.