EU doubles down on drug war failure

Guy Bentley
Follow Guy

The European Parliament has voted for a host of new laws and regulations governing so called "legal highs."

The time taken to ban psychoactive substances deemed to be harmful has been slashed from two years to ten months. If there is perceived to be an immediate risk, a substance can be placed under a one year ban within weeks.

The new rules are supposed to ensure the substances in question will no longer be available for recreational use, whilst the EU Drugs Agency conducts a risk assessment. Those who continue to produce, supply and distribute these substances may now find themselves facing a 10 year prison sentence.

However, national drug warriors who find the measures too timid need not fear. MEPs were keen to stress that the regulations were passed “without prejudice to the right of member states to criminalise the possession of drugs for personal use at national level”.

Unfortunately for drug prohibitionists of both a national and supranational stripe, the market for such substances has grown and is continuing to grow at a pace that neither will be able to control effectively.

In 2011, a Eurobarometer survey found that five per cent of EU 15-24 years olds had used such substances at least once, with a peak of 16 per cent in Ireland, and close to 10 per cent in Poland, Latvia and the UK.

It is not just the number of people taking legal highs that has been on the up, but the number of particular substances available to consumers. The United Nations found that between 2000 and 2005 the number of legal highs being produced was roughly five a year, by 2011 this had rocketed to close to one a week.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, commenting on the explosion of legal highs, said:

Although it is impossible to know the exact number of new psychoactive substances on the market experts have advanced estimates running well into the thousands

In fact, at the tail end of 2013, the International Narcotics Control Board reported there had been a 300 per cent increase in internet sites providing these substances to Europe in just two years.

The concentration of sites providing legal highs is particularly striking in the UK, with 150 new substances entering the UK market in the three years up to 2013, according to the Centre for Social Justice. The number of UK based websites selling such substances stood at 130 at the end of 2013.

Attempts by EU regulators to crack down on the fast growing production of legal highs not only carries a very small chance of success, but may stand a considerable chance of causing active harm.

Substances currently available legally, if not advertised for human consumption, can be sold in an environment not controlled by criminal gangs and cartels, who appeal to violence instead of the law when disputes arise.

However, if the European Parliament believes the solution to legal highs is the one in place for cannabis and cocaine, EU citizens will not need a crystal ball to forecast the failure of the supranational government's approach to drug policy.