The upcoming legal highs ban has largely been a complete cluster fuck. While there's no doubt most of the substances covered by the Psychoactive Substances Act are not fit for human consumption, the government's approach of imposing a blanket ban on basically anything (bar alcohol or tobacco) that affects the human brain has been criticised for a number of reasons, including a) handing all the power directly to street dealers, and b) being almost completely unenforceable.
Plus – and this should be glaringly obvious, taking all drug policy history into account – banning drugs never stops people from taking them. Charities have warned that users are already stockpiling certain substances before they're made illegal, while Kenny Malcolm of the charity Alcohol and Drugs Action has pointed out that people will just order their legal highs online once the ban comes into effect.
The Act has been pushed back while lawmakers formulate a way to actually make it work. But to try to understand how it'll impact the prevalence and usage patterns of the drugs it's supposed to be targeting when it does eventually come into effect, I asked drug counsellor Mark Dempster and UK drug law charity Release what happened when five other drugs – mephedrone, magic mushrooms, GHB, ketamine and khat – were outlawed.
MEPHEDRONE, BANNED IN APRIL OF 2010
Build up to the ban: People had plenty of time to stockpile stores of mephedrone before a ban came into effect, so stockpile they did. It may seem surprising that users were so prepared, given that one of the hallmarks of mephedrone use was wildly underestimating how much you'd need, then having to periodically go back to buy more over a 48-hour timeframe – but there you go.
Immediately after the ban: Still widely available online and through dealers who'd bought up vast quantities before it was banned, mephedrone remained popular for a while; the low purity levels of MDMA and cocaine at the time meant that many recreational drug takers continued to use it as a replacement for these substances. Its purity stayed high, but unsurprisingly – given that supply was low, relative to its availability before the ban – it became more expensive.
Short-term: A few months after the ban, the purity of mephedrone began to decline, while the purity of MDMA and cocaine increased, causing some people to switch back to their previous drugs of choice.
Long-term: Mephedrone use declined pretty sharply not long after the ban came into effect, and only continued to decrease. However, according to Release, this is more likely to be a result of the dynamics of the drug market – MDMA getting better as mephedrone was getting shit – than because of the change in law. There's also been an increase in people injecting the drug, which can potentially be explained by the rise of "chemsex" – drug-fuelled same-sex sex parties – where mephedrone is popular, alongside GHB and amphetamines.
MAGIC MUSHROOMS, BANNED IN JULY OF 2005
Build up to the ban: Users in urban areas stockpiled mushrooms as legal sellers tried to get rid of their existing supplies, while those in rural areas continued to pick them fresh, because it's presumably very hard to be caught picking mushrooms in a field in the middle of nowhere.
Immediately after the ban: There was no noticeable change.
Short-term: Dempster noted that some users started switching from exotic foreign mushrooms to the type that grow wild in the UK, because they were easier to get hold of – and, conveniently, totally free if they picked them themselves.
Long-term: The Crime Survey for England and Wales states that use of magic mushrooms since 2005 has halved from 3 percent of respondents aged 16–24 reporting use in the last year to 1.5 percent. However, a spokesperson for Release told me that these statistics are problematic, as they stem from a household survey, a type of survey that often fails to capture the experiences of students. Given that students are one of the groups most likely to take mushrooms, the idea that these results represent a decline in mushroom use is questionable. Release also pointed out that most people who take magic mushrooms do so occasionally for experimental purposes rather than as part of a pattern of long-term use, which means the majority of users are unlikely to have had their usage massively affected by the change in legislation.
GHB, BANNED IN JULY OF 2003
Build up to the ban: Release doesn't have much data on recreational GHB use before the ban, as it was only really popular in relatively small circles. For the same reason, not a huge amount is known about the market, beyond the fact it was very small. Dempster didn't notice any changes in the lead up to the ban, either.
Immediate impact: Nothing changed, according to Dempster.
Short-term: Dempster pointed out that GHB was mostly used by a relatively small number of people in the gay community, and that shortly after the ban came into effect, sections of this community began to feel as if they'd been criminalised.
Long-term: According to Release, the fact that there's only a small, niche market for GHB means it's unlikely there will have been any significant shifts in market behaviour. There was a rise, however, in the use of GBL – a chemically-similar substance that converts to GHB once it's ingested – until it too was banned in 2009. Dempster thinks the ban might have caused some people to switch to drugs that are easier to get hold of, but it hasn't had much effect on overall use, with GHB, like mephedrone, now popular on the chemsex scene.
KETAMINE, BANNED IN JANUARY OF 2006
Build up to the ban: No noticeable changes, according to Dempster and Release. While a few surveys were carried out about ketamine use before it was made a class C drug, none were thorough enough to produce any meaningful data. A study in 2001 found that 20 percent of employed drug users in night clubs had used ketamine, which seems like a weirdly specific set of criteria, but shows the drug was pretty popular at the time.
Immediate impact: No noticeable change in use. Ketamine was also far less likely to be cut a decade ago, so there were no major changes to the purity.
Short-term: Use doubled between 2006 and 2008, so if the ban was intended to stop people using the substance – which it definitely was – it failed fairly spectacularly.
Long-term: Use increased from 0.8 percent to 1.4 percent between 2006 and 2015, with ketamine being bumped up to a class B drug in 2014 after it became clear that heavy use was seriously harmful; a number of users had to have their bladders removed, while others died after the drug gradually took its toll on their bodies.
KHAT, BANNED IN JUNE OF 2014
Build up to the ban: No noticeable change.
Immediate impact: Some British "khat houses" – which were essentially community centres for people from the Horn of Africa where khat was chewed – closed down or switched to selling coffee.
Short-term: The price of khat started to go up, and fresh khat began to get rarer. Some users changed their substance of choice from khat to alcohol. Dried and powdered khat started becoming more popular.
Long-term: Khat now costs up to £230 per kilo, compared to the £12 per kilo that it was available for prior to the ban. There have been reports of hospitalisations linked to the use of dried khat. Dempster pointed out that more people in Ethiopian and Somali communities who would otherwise have been classed as law-abiding citizens find themselves on the wrong side of the law due to involvement with khat. Release highlighted the fact that the ban now provides the authorities with another excuse to stop and search young Somalis.
To summarise, the effects that banning these substances had ranged from "very little" to "extremely negative". Control was handed to street dealers, minority communities were criminalised and the market was flooded with impure and inferior drugs. Most importantly: besides magic mushrooms – and the data for them is based on a dubious survey – banning these drugs didn't stop anyone from taking them. In the case of ketamine, the number of users actually went up.
British lawmakers have a long history of just flat-out ignoring the advice of the drug experts they pay to advise them, and nothing's changed on that front with the Psychoactive Substances Act. You'd hope, then, that at least their memories of these drug policy failings would act as some kind of back-up buffer against all that stubbornness – but, sadly, it looks like they're just ignoring those too.
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