What is the law in the UK in relation to legal highs?

What is meant by a legal high?

A legal high is a synthetic mixture produced purposefully to give a similar effect to that of illegal drugs. In most cases they are often produced in order to give the same affects as ecstasy, cocaine or cannabis.

Legal highs are as the name suggests legal under UK Law and therefore can be freely bought over the internet with all that is required is a credit card. As a consequence of this they have become ready available to young people throughout the UK. The UK has now become the largest producer of legal highs within the European Union with many sold in shops throughout the country as well as over the internet.

This has sparked significant concerns within the UK Government in relation to the health and safety of young people.

What is the current law in relation to drugs in the UK?

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 controlled substances are split into the following three categories:

  1. Class A
  2. Class B
  3. Class C
Class A is the most serious and carries with it the most stringent penalties.

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 you will be liable for a criminal offence if you have committed any of the following acts:

  • You are found to be in possession of a controlled substance
  • You are found to be supplying a controlled substance
  • You are found to be in possession with intent to supply
  • You are found to be producing a controlled substance

So what is the position in relation to legal highs which have been seen to cause harm?

In the summer of 2009 legal highs such as GBL and BZP were classified by the Home Office as being Class C controlled substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Furthermore a smoking substance which was used as a substitute for marijuana called Spice was classed as a Class B controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

What is BZP?

BZP is a drug which has effects similar to those of ecstasy which is commonly known as “Benny”. This was originally a worming treatment for cattle and was marketed as such until the trade of it and possession of it was outlawed in the UK.

What are the consequences if I come into possession of these drugs?

As the above drugs have now become controlled substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act the following penalties will ensue:

  • BZP or GBL (Class C)

For possession an individual will receive up to two years imprisonment or an unlimited fine or in some cases both.  For the criminal offence of supply an individual will receive up to 14 years imprisonment or an unlimited fine or in some cases both.

  • Spice (Class B)

For possession an individual will receive up to five years imprisonment or an unlimited fine or in some cases both.  For the criminal offence of supply an individual will receive up to 14 years imprisonment or an unlimited fine or in some cases both.

What happens to the market once these high’s become illegal?

As a consequence of the reactionary outlawing of certain legal highs once they are already on the market similar legal highs with slightly different chemical compounds will be produced which do not fall within the category of the controlled substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

For example one product which is causing significant problems within the UK is one called mephedrone.

Mephedrone is also nicknamed “meph” and is often marketed as plant food. More often than not it is sold with the proviso “not for human consumption” despite the use which it is clearly sold for as it is customary to take this white powder through snorting up the nose.

It has often been sold for as little as £15 for a gram and is readily available both online and in high street “head shops” which often sell smoking paraphernalia. It is a member of the methcathinone family of substances. Such products are structurally similar to amphetamines which are illegal as a Class B substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

So what is the problem with Mephedrone?

Reportedly mephedrone has been the source of 25 deaths in England and Scotland since it first started being sold on the UK market as is seen to carry a huge health risk.

What does the UK Government plan to do in relation to Mephedrone?

Methedrone will be classed as a Class B controlled substance in April 2010 meaning that it will thus become an illegal drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

As of the 29 March 2010 the importation of mephedrone into the UK is a criminal act under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Is mephedrone legal in all countries?

Mephedrone is currently illegal in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Israel.

What are the legal problems with legal highs?

One of the issues with a supposed legal high is that due to the substances being legal little is known about the side effects of taking them. In relation to illegal drugs such as ecstasy much testing goes on regarding the chemical compounds and so much is known about the effects of ecstasy and also when it is cut with other substances.

In relation to legal highs there is little testing going on. Furthermore if people are admitted to hospital suffering side effects from these substances they are often reluctant to say what they have been taking, therefore very little information is in fact known.

As a result of this no one knows what the actual long term effects of these substances are which could mean that they could possibly interact with other forms of medication taken legitimately such as the contraceptive pill. They could even go so far as to cause birth defects.

What are the other possibilities for the UK Government?

As banning these legal highs just seems to force the market to create similar products which are not illegal there may be other possibilities to try and protect against the possible harms of legal highs. For example in New Zealand legal highs are immediately put into a Class D which means that they are not illegal to be sold or to have in your possession but where they are monitored. Manufacturers thus have to specify the content when they are produced and the government can monitor them and their distribution knowing both the harmful effects and the circulation of the drug.