At midnight last night, legal highs became illegal in the UK. Despite the fact it's been shown time and time again that politicians simply sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting "make it go away" does absolutely nothing to reduce drug use or drug harms, it's exactly what the British government has decided to do. Again.
The Psychoactive Substances Act has outlawed anything that the government believes has a psychoactive effect on the human brain—besides alcohol and nicotine, of course, because both of those are tidy little earners for the Treasury. It's the end of an era for your neighborhood head shop—as well as the online businesses and festival stalls that used to sell legal alternatives to cocaine, pills, MDMA, and weed—and I wanted to say a proper goodbye.
So to do that I went down to south London to meet Jim, a guy in his 50s who's puffing away on a Silk Cut outside the head shop he's been running for the past four years.
"We get a few locals, but a lot of people travel," says Jim, guiding me around the shelves, which are heaving with grinders, bongs, and pipes. "A lot of my customers see me online, although we do a party night delivery—people leave a message asking for whatever, and I'll drop it to their door."
Taking pride of place on Jim's hefty glass counter is his impressive collection of packaged up legal highs.
"You could be here all day, and you'll see such a variety of people: from lads just out of prison to the suited and booted who work in the city up the road," says Jim, adding that his clientele ranges from 20-somethings to pensioners, although nobody is allowed in without ID.
Jim had invited me to join him on one of his final nights of legal high trading, keen to communicate to anyone who'd listen that the Psychoactive Substances Act is a "load of bollocks." Taking a seat on his stool and lighting another cigarette, Jim sits back and starts to explain his frustration with it all.
"The main issue is the word 'psychoactive'—what does that even mean?" he asks. "There's been no testing, they've not listed items; it's just what they'll decide as they go, which makes no sense at all."
The government may not have drafted a clear list of what you can't produce, sell or import, but their list of exemptions includes nicotine, alcohol, tobacco, food, and drink. It also handily includes "any substance that does not cause a psychoactive effect," which clears everything up.
As we saw during poppers-gate—when poppers were set to be banned before an embarrassing (but welcomed) major U-turn—what counts as "psychoactive" remains a relative mystery. To bring a prosecution through a similar bill passed in Ireland in 2010, police have to prove that the substance being sold has a psychoactive effect—something they've only managed to do four times in five years.
"There's actually no law against possession," Jim continues, "unless you have a large amount, and they reckon you'll be reselling—but what constitutes a large amount remains unknown."
As his speech continues, I flick through the packets of synthetic cannabis: "Voodoo," "Cherry Bomb," and "Insane Joker Limited Edition" are the ones with names that stand out. "We've also got Gogaine, Ching, and Charlie Sheen," says Jim, chucking me some sachets of cocaine analogues to inspect.
Then there are your pills and your capsules, like Green Beans and Pink Panthers, which Jim later admits play havoc with your prostate.
"The reason we have so many is that they keep banning them," says Jim. "It's going to end up on the streets—people will continue to take these but without any regulation."
He has a point. At least here you see the quantities and the ingredients. Jim even dishes out information on what his products will do. The trade starting moving into the hands of street dealers not long after the government announced its plans—dealers who are likely to be far more unscrupulous than Jim and his head shop peers.
"Oh shit, you probably shouldn't touch that," Jim warns me from a distance. "That's Kronic—you'll probably get a bit high now from it touching your hands."
We jump into Jim's car and start driving toward Streatham on a delivery run. We're off to meet a regular, DJ Kooba, one final time.
"I take them for fun," Kooba explains to me in his lounge. "I take drugs probably every second week—I'm not hooked on anything. Although, if it's cool, I might do a bit now."
While Kooba and his friends get down to it, I ask Jim what he'll do now that his former income stream has been criminalized.
"I'll have to stop selling legal highs—for a while at least," he says. "I'll just sell smoking paraphernalia, vapes, that sort of thing."
For someone so adamant that this law change serves no purpose, is he really going to take the ban lying down?
"I don't mind being the last man standing," Jim replies, thinking carefully. "But I want to see what the law is going to look like in reality. I'll be getting legal advice purely because I don't know how they can prove something is illegal, and how they'll make these exceptions work."
With the rest of the room chatting away, Kooba asks if I'd like to see his toy cars and paintings. "I'm a bit obsessed with remote control cars," he laughs. As we head upstairs, we get onto the topic of the war on drugs.
"This is probably not going to be a good thing," he suggests, sitting down in his bedroom. "Whenever they criminalize something, there are serious repercussions—but I'm not going to stop taking them, legal or not. The legal highs don't seem that scary, because they're legal, but then they're so under-researched that they probably shouldn't be. I guess when you're buying illegal stuff from drug dealers you don't know either, so it's all the same."
It's probably the most sensible analysis of drug harms I've ever heard from someone in a Hawaiian shirt clutching a remote-control car. The situation before today wasn't perfect by any means—there's no doubt some of these substances are extremely harmful, particularly synthetic cannabis, which was recently found to be "as addictive as heroin."
But the problem, as far as I can see it, isn't going to be fixed by banning these substances and trying to brush them under the carpet. To deal with a problem like this, you have to confront it head on. You can't shy away from it, like the government is doing, and hope it just magically goes away. Look at Portugal: The country decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001 and now has three overdose deaths per million people per year, compared to the EU average of 17.3. It's through decriminalization and regulation—i.e. the grown-up approach—that meaningful changes are made, not by banning everything and running away from the problem.
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