Last month, selling almost any substance that gets people high became illegal in the United Kingdom. Lawmakers made exceptions for alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, traditional foods like spices, and existing prescription drugs, but the blanket ban on psychoactive substances is apparently intended to end the arms race between prohibitionists and black market chemists, who create new "legal highs" as soon as any specific substance is criminalized.
What the new ban really does, though, is illustrate the incoherence of international drug laws and the religious concepts of morality that lie at their heart. If we want better policies, we need to understand why this approach cannot possibly succeed, as well as its roots in a Puritan strain of Western culture.
Ireland's adoption of similar legislation in 2010 did shut down many head shops and obvious online stores. But it apparently did not reduce use of the most dangerous formerly "legal highs" or related deaths, and appears to have driven many users underground and to the dark web. Using the law to win convictions has also proved extremely difficult.
In fact, the United States has long had what is known as an "analogue" drug law, which attempts to preemptively ban drugs similar to existing illegal drugs—and here, too, prosecution has proved challenging. As a result, Congress has held hearings on synthetic drugs like K2 (or "Spice")—which we know can have bizarre and even dangerous effects, unlike actual pot—including one in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
These laws assume unearned pleasure is harmful in and of itself—not a position often voiced by secular officials in a capitalist society.
Let's just hope they don't use the new UK law as their model: As British psychologist Vaughn Bell put it, the government "is pretending that one of the most difficult problems in neuroscience—and one of the deep mysteries of consciousness—doesn't apply to them."
The problem is that it's extremely tricky to delineate what "getting high" actually means—which is to say whether a substance is actually "psychoactive." When you try to get precise, it rapidly becomes obvious that the nature of "highs" is a matter of values and culture, not hard science. Stoners' apparently silly musings about their mental state and the nature of reality actually reflect a surprisingly intractable philosophical problem.
The new British law defines a substance as psychoactive if "by stimulating or depressing the person's central nervous system, it affects the person's mental functioning or emotional state." And prosecutions are supposed to be based on whether, as in the US, the drugs are pharmacologically similar to illegal substances, and traditional foods are exempted.
But the broad definition arguably leaves even florists and vendors of incense at potential risk: Scent can certainly change mood, and can only do so by affecting the brain. Now, British supermarkets are essentially supposed to discriminate against scruffy young men buying only whipped cream who might be using its nitrous oxide to get high, while letting more innocent geezers do their thing, according to guidance recently issued by the government.
What's missing here is any attempt to determine whether a substance is actually harmful: Blanket bans on psychoactive drugs simply presume that chemical pleasure is inherently shady, whether or not it has health risks.
Craig Reinarman is a professor of sociology at the University of California in Santa Cruz and the co-author most recently of Expanding Addiction: Critical Essays . Describing how most previous drug laws were introduced after fears were stirred up about particular groups and their use of the demonized substance to harm themselves or others, he tells VICE, "In this case, they're being more explicit than they normally are that, 'We don't want anyone having fun.' In that sense, it's perversely a little more candid than things you hear coming out of [the UN's drug control office] in Vienna, for example."
These laws assume unearned pleasure is harmful in and of itself—not a position often voiced by secular officials in a capitalist society. In every other area, advertisers and marketers constantly urge people to indulge. But unless a psychoactive substance is blessed by a history of being used recreationally by European colonialists, it is typically viewed as dangerous by default.
Reinarman says that if you really took the idea seriously that consciousness alteration is bad, you'd have to ban meditation, music, art, dancing, sex, sports, and amusement parks. From this list—much of which, it's important to note, has been targeted by religious fundamentalists of various types over the years—it is clear that the idea of "psychoactive" is more of a spiritual concept than one that can be quantified.
So what about defining potentially problematic substances by their pharmacological brain activity? Here, too, science is not especially helpful.
David Nichols, emeritus professor of pharmacology at Purdue University, was the first to synthesize some of the chemicals that others have marketed as "legal highs." As he put it in testimony he gave to Congress in May, "No one can predict the potential of a new, untested molecule. It may have effects in humans similar to other structures, it may have completely novel effects, or it could be completely inactive." He adds that changing a single molecule in the structure of LSD can render it inert— and small alterations to the structure of morphine create an antidote to it.
The only way to find out is to try it.
It's time to stop letting hidden moral values determine what people can put into their bodies.
Nichols is most concerned about the effects these bans can have on medicine. "There are often serendipitous discoveries made with "misused" drugs," he tells me. "Psilocybin [best known as the active ingredient in "magic mushrooms"] is now being shown to have efficacy in treating depression, anxiety, and some addictions. There are many other drugs with effects similar to psilocybin, and maybe some of them are better than psilocybin. We may never know."
Nichols says his son, also a professor, accidentally discovered a psychedelic was a potent anti-inflammatory agent and might even block asthma. But he could only work with the compound because it hadn't been made illegal.
The paperwork to research controlled substances is onerous, and sometimes hundreds of drugs need to be screened to find one that works. But for each drug that is illegal under the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)'s "Schedule I" classification (for example, weed), a separate license is required, and the DEA needs to know what the researcher wants to do with it in advance. Since scientists often don't know what they might find, this classification deters them from working with these substances. And that could mean that cures for anything from Alzheimer's to Zika might be delayed or never discovered.
It's time to stop letting hidden moral values determine what people can put into their bodies. People who want to get high will always find a way. Some American teens have apparently taken to playing the potentially deadly "choking game" to alter their consciousness—legal, but way more dangerous than pot.
Drugs should be regulated based on their potential to do harm—not their potential to be fun. Pleasure is not a poison, and what we need to worry about is addiction, organ damage, disease, behavioral dis-inhibition, impaired driving, and other genuine dangers. Politicians can turn their attention to ending excess joy after they solve actual problems, like inequality, poverty, and pain.
Note: For those interested in learning more about this topic, the author is participating in a panel on Friday, June 10, that is part of a free conference in New York City about new psychoactive substances held by the Drug Policy Alliance.
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