During 2012 Police in New South Wales noticed that the number of incidents that seemed to be related to the use of “legal highs”, or synthetic psychoactive substances, was growing. Incidents included increased levels of violent behaviour and psychotic states resulting in hospitalisations.
No accident: Drugs presented as lollies.
It seemed that many young people who otherwise would not have used illicit drugs were attracted to these substances. These drugs were being promoted and sold as if they were harmless and had names like “herbal highs”, “party pills”, “herbal ecstasy” and “bath salts”.
There was a belief that as they were legally and easily obtainable they were therefore safe; otherwise they would not be allowed to be sold. However, by midyear the number of incidents was taxing hospital and police services in NSW, with some 30 hospital admissions per month at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney and reports of several deaths that were directly attributable to these drugs.
Usage falls after banning
In mid-June 2013, the NSW Government banned these substances from sale and declared them to be prohibited. Soon after these steps were taken, incidents that required the involvement of police fell in number from some 30 per month to 2 per month, while a drop in psychotic hospital admissions almost halved, from 70 to 39 per month, by July 2013.
Police were convinced that these substances were harmful and rejected the idea of making them legal and regulating their production and supply. As the ban had been so successful in reducing use and the harm, in September 2013 the NSW Government introduced changes to the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985 to prohibit the manufacture, supply and advertising of these synthetic psychoactive substances.
In the changes to the act, synthetic drugs were defined as products containing chemical substances artificially developed to mimic the effects of illegal drugs like cannabis, cocaine and methamphetamine.
The Irish experience
A recent study of the effectiveness of bans on these substances in Ireland supported these early findings.
By 2010 in Ireland, prevalence of the use of these substances among young adults reached 16 per cent, with some 4600 “head shops” selling these drugs to the public. Due to several incidents involving the drug and public concern, the Irish Government banned them. The results were unequivocal.
Prohibition worked and reduced harm, as outlined in a study in the International Journal of Drug Policy (Smyth, Cullen and Darker, “So prohibition can work?” Volume 26, issue 9, pages 887–889). The study demonstrated that problematic use of synthetic psychoactive substances (or novel psychoactive substances, as they are known, NPS for short) dropped dramatically after the legislation was enacted. While some use of NPS has persisted, it has been greatly reduced since the legal ban.
Despite warnings to the contrary, adolescents who continued to use NPS did so in a way that reduced risk and the legal ban did not result in increased use of other substances.
Reviews of the banning of these substances in Britain and the United States support these findings, as do the preliminary reports from NSW.
These opportunities to examine the impact of prohibition are clear evidence that bans do work to reduce use of illicit substances and the harm that results. These psychoactive substances are illegal for no other reason than the great risk of harm that they pose. The uncontrolled use of NPSs has been worrying many countries as the use and accessibly of these drugs has grown. The call to legalise their use to protect the users from harm is clearly misguided.
The evidence flies in the face of recent claims by Matt Noffs in an article published on The Guardian website (“Drug prohibition killed heroin users. Who thinks ice will be different?”, September 2, 2015) that prohibition of heroin resulted in fatalities as the “war on drugs” had failed. This claim is not substantiated by any evidence.
Further there is no evidence, despite Noffs’ claims in the same article, that the supply of sterile needles has prevented even a single case of HIV or that the frequency of use of the supervised injecting room has had any substantial impact on drug-related mortality.
Dr Ross Colquhoun is an executive member of Drug Free Australia and research fellow, and a member of the Drug Advisory Council of Australia (daca.org.au).