This story is over 5 years old.


We Asked an Expert What Would Happen if the UK Accidentally Legalized Ecstasy

Would the economy benefit? What about public health? Would xenophobia stop because everyone would be too busy telling each other they're the best friend they've ever had?
March 12, 2015, 4:49pm

Illustrations by Sam Taylor

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Ecstasy, ketamine, and crystal meth are temporarily legal in Ireland. But you already know that. Maybe you've booked a trip over with Ryanair, who reduced the cost of a flight from the UK to the Republic this morning from $58 to $15—a move that's presumably completely unrelated from the fact you can, for at least another 12 hours, now openly snort ketamine in Tesco. Perhaps you're in Dublin and celebrated last night with a legality "loophole pop-up party." I just don't know.


Another thing I don't know is what would happen if this kind of thing—a legislative fuck-up leading to the temporary legalization of a whole load of drugs—took place in the UK. To find out I spoke to David Atha, head of the Independent Drug Monitoring Unit, a drug research company offering legal advice to individuals caught in drug cases, as well as crown prosecutors.

David's spent the past 20 years monitoring the UK's drug trends from both sides of the fence, so I figured he'd be the right man to ask.

Some Dubliners at last night's "loophole pop-up party" (Photo by Sarah Elizabeth Meyler)

VICE: Hi David. Could a similar legislative error to the one that's happened in Ireland ever happen in the UK?
David Atha: If the government hasn't drafted legislation in a particular way, or the court hasn't set a precedent, it could lead to a sudden de facto change of the law, as has happened in Ireland. Obviously in Ireland the government's moving very fast to close the loophole. In Britain, I suspect the proceedings would take a little longer.

Fancy giving a hypothetical example?
You get a medicinal cannabis user that applies for a Home Office license to be able to grow, possess, and use it for medicinal purposes. There is currently no defense in law for using it for medicinal purposes, but if their case to cultivate cannabis was refused, they could apply for a judicial review of that decision. And then, if that was finally upheld by the courts, you could get a situation where home cultivation was legalized temporarily.


Say it happened with ecstasy, ketamine, and crystal meth, just like Ireland; would the UK turn into a free-for-all drugs market?
Twenty-four hours isn't long enough for a free-for-all drugs market to develop. But if [the legalization] was to last a couple of months, certainly things could happen. But that would very much depend on the actions that are taken by the authorities. They may do low-level harassment, as well as arresting people. It's not a question of prosecuting… there are other things the authorities can do to make life difficult.

Could police retrospectively arrest people once the substances became illegal again?
Yes, if they were still in possession or still supplying. But in terms of the law in general, no. It's the law at the time of the alleged offense that applies. I've had cases where people have been arrested with so called "legal highs" that were actually legal at the time of the arrest, but were made illegal a few weeks later, and they got off.

Say the government intentionally legalized and taxed the drugs currently legal in Ireland, what kind of revenue could they expect?
For ecstasy, you're talking [a market worth] £300 [$447] to £500 million [$746 million] a year. Meth, the market's probably less than £1 million [$1.5 million]. Ketamine somewhere between £10 to £15 million. Whereas cannabis is about £6 billion and cocaine and crack together is around £1 billion.


Do you think a sudden legality of ecstasy could lead to an instant upsurge in quality?
Not really. The government's had the law changed in an uncontrolled fashion. If the market was regulated you'd be looking at standard doses, which would guarantee the content. There would be nothing to regulate the content in this scenario.

In what way could authorities study the fallout of this scenario for their advantage?
Twenty-four hours isn't enough time to do anything—there's no project in place that can be rolled out to assess the impacts. There may be one that can be done retrospectively. If there was a big spike in deaths, for instance. To be honest, I don't think most users give a damn whether something's legal or illegal.

A lot of the drugs that have been made illegal recently have become more popular. It's like a British Kitemark to say that they work. We've found that since certain drugs—ketamine and GHB, particularly—have been made illegal, their users have actually increased.

In this instance there'd be a short window for authorities to act. What actions would they likely take?
What I suspect is that the police [would] continue to seize drugs, but they wouldn't prosecute for it. If you've got a white powder and they don't know whether it's ecstasy powder, methamphetamine, cocaine, or whatever, they would seize it, analyze it, and, by the time it's analyzed, it would be illegal again.


Are there any positive ramifications 24 hours of legal ecstasy could have on society?
If it was a for longer period where things didn't get any worse or if certain situations were to improve—like if the quality of tablets did improve, or there was clear quality control: fewer deaths, fewer people needing hospital treatment—then it might provide more ammo for the drug reform lobby.

Some more Dubliners at last night's "loophole pop-up party" (Photo by Sarah Elizabeth Meyer)

Could it benefit medical research?
I don't think it'll make any difference. In legitimate studies there's a lot of planning required—you have to move through various ethics committees to get proposals approved, irrespective of the legal status of a drug.

OK. Could it affect the black market drug economy, even in such a short timeframe?
There'd be some big parties. And whoever's got the drugs are quite likely to sell out… anyone in the know's going to make the most of it, and anybody that's got the ecstasy at the moment is going to be quids in.

Would that drive prices down?
It's been bought when it's illegal so you're going to pay illegal prices to actually purchase the stuff. It's too short a timescale for people to bring in large quantities that they weren't going to have anyway.

What if ecstasy was made legal two days before Glastonbury? What would happen then?
It depends. In Dublin this has taken everybody by surprise. If people were on the inside track and knew it was happening and could get the stock together, then yes, it might be different. I don't think many people who don't [take ecstasy] will suddenly want to, just because it's been made legal.


I think people who like ecstasy would use it more freely. But those that don't use it—unless they are deterred by the law, which is a small portion—most would continue to use their signature drugs of choice, whether it be alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, speed…

What about public perception? Could studying the effects of 24 hours of legal pills bring about any changes there?
Changes in perception aren't going to come from studying 24 hours; they're more likely to come from [studying] 24 months in Denver, where, as you know, cannabis has been made legal and is being treated as any other commodity.

So any studies of this nature would be focused primarily on economics?
Not just the economic aspects, but the health aspect, the prevalence of users, if it's becoming more or less prevalent among school children—that sort of thing. It's not just the immediate economic consequences of taxation but the wider economic consequences that the relaxation of the law would have on society as a whole. Like if people work better stoned because they're not coming into work with a hangover.

Talking of morning afters, how do you imagine the day after a legal drug binge like this would stack up for authorities, and those enjoying themselves?
Well, there's going to be some very, very tired people.

Follow James on Twitter.