Legal highs making the drug war obsolete

If you want any evidence that drugs have won the drug war, you just need to read the scientific studies on legal highs.

If you’re not keeping track of the ‘legal high’ scene it’s important to remember that the first examples, synthetic cannabinoids sold as ‘Spice’ and ‘K2’ incense, were only detected in 2009.

Shortly after amphetamine-a-like stimulant drugs, largely based on variations on pipradrol and the cathinones appeared, and now ketamine-like drugs such as methoxetamine have become widespread.

Since 1997, 150 new psychoactive substances were reported. Almost a third of those appeared in 2010.

Last year, the US government banned several of these drugs although the effect has been minimal as the legal high laboratories have over-run the trenches of the drug warriors.

A new study just published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology tracked the chemical composition of legal highs as the bans were introduced.

A key question was whether the legal high firms would just try and use the same banned chemicals and sell them under a different name.

The research team found that since the ban only 4.9% of the products contained any trace of the recently banned drugs. The remaining 95.1% of products contained drugs not covered by the law.

The chemicals in legal highs have fundamentally changed since the 2011 ban and the labs have outrun the authorities in less than a year.

Another new study has looked at legal highs derived from pipradrol – a drug developed in 1940s for treating obesity, depression, ADHD and narcolepsy.

It was made illegal in many countries during the 70s due to its potential for abuse because it gives an amphetamine-like high.

The study found that legal high labs have just been running through variations of the banned drug using simple modifications of the original molecule to make new unregulated versions.

The following paragraph is from this study and even if you’re not a chemist, you can get an impression of how the drug is been tweaked in the most minor ways to create new legal versions.

Modifications include: addition of halogen, alkyl or alkoxy groups on one or both of the phenyl rings or addition of alkyl, alkenyl, haloalkyl and hydroxyalkyl groups on the nitrogen atom. Other modifications that have been reported include the substitution of a piperidine ring with an azepane ring (7-membered ring), a morpholine ring or a pyridine ring or the fusion of a piperidine ring with a benzene ring. These molecules, producing amphetamine-like effects, increase the choice of new stimulants to be used as legal highs in the coming years.

New, unknown and poorly understood psychoactive chemicals are appearing faster than they can be regulated.

The market is being driven by a demand for drugs that have the same effects as existing legal highs but won’t get you thrown in prison.

The drug war isn’t only being lost, it’s being made obsolete.

34 thoughts on “Legal highs making the drug war obsolete”

  1. “The market is being driven by a demand for drugs that have the same effects as existing legal highs but won’t get you thrown in prison.”

    I want to believe, but I’m pretty sure when it comes down to it in the American criminal justice system, it’s easy enough to abuse the Federal Analog Act and the public’s ignorance of chemistry to make anything that has any noteworthy effects on one’s perceptual reality count as illegal.

  2. Now what will happen to the busy-bee privatised prison industry, which needs the input of counless thousands of drug “offences” to make ends meet – and overlap a bit….?

  3. And this is just the synthetic aspect of the situation. Many international herbs that the fda hasn’t gotten around to be annoyed with yet are in the mix. Many, as it happens that were made illegal where they are indigenous are readily available online.

    ‘The state does not own my body, what i do without hurting another is not the nanny state’s concern.’ N. Chomsky

  4. Although the small error with vocabulary did not defract from the meaning of Sentence 1 of Paragraph 11, here’s the correction:

    “It was made illegal in made countries…”
    “It was made illegal in many countries…”

  5. Well, here’s a thought to consider?
    End the drug war and make them legal!

    The addicts would die off quicker as they eventually would anyway only they wouldn’t be ripping off people to get drug money cause they would be affordable along with clean disposable needles.

    You can’t have it both ways! Alcohol is one of the worst drugs and it’s legal?

    A DUI is still a DUI!

    Tax the crap out of it so instead of the Cartels making all the money the government does! It would still be cheaper!

    I belong to L.E.A.P I wish more cops did!

    1. The assertion that drug legalization/regulation would bring higher usage rates ignores what has occurred since the early 1970s. The percentage of Americans who have used an illegal drug has gone from less than 5% to about 40%. The cost of one dose of street heroin has gone from $6 to 80 cents while average purity has also increased. The only drug that has decreased in use during this time is tobacco which has plummeted from about 65% during World War II to about 20% today. Tobacco, one of the most addictive substances known to man, has never been illegal but many Americans have quit using it for personal reasons that clearly have not been influenced by it’s legal availability. They will decide whether or not to use other drugs for the same reasons.

      Prohibition continues unabated for shameful political reasons. It cannot, and never will, reduce drug use or addiction.

    2. Transform’s outstanding book titled, After the War on Drugs: Blueprints for Regulation, provides specific proposals for how drugs could be regulated in the real world. The book is available for free online. If you would like to read it then here it is:

      And here’s some info on Swiss Heroin-assisted treatment (HAT).

      At the end of 2009, 1356 patients were undergoing HAT at 21 outpatient centers and in 2 prisons.

      HAT is now being carried out at centres in Basle, Bern, Biel, Brugg, Burgdorf, Chur, Geneva, Horgen, Lucerne, Olten, Reinach, Schaffhausen, Solothurn, St. Gallen, Thun, Winterthur, Wetzikon, Zug, Zürich and in two prisons Oberschöngrün (canton Solthurn) and Realtà (canton Graubünden).


      In many cases, patients’ physical and mental health has improved, their housing situation has become considerably more stable, and they have gradually managed to find employment. Numerous participants have managed to reduce their debts. In most cases, contacts with addicts and the drug scene have decreased. Consumption of non-prescribed substances declined significantly in the course of treatment.

      Dramatic changes have been seen in the situation regarding crime. While the proportion of patients who obtained their income from illegal or borderline activities at the time of enrollment was 70%, the figure after 18 months of HAT was only 10%.

      Each year, between 180 and 200 patients discontinue HAT. Of these patients, 35-45% are transferred to methadone maintenance, and 23-27% to abstinence-based treatment.

      The average costs per patient-day at outpatient treatment centers in 1998 came to CHF 51. The overall economic benefit – based on savings in criminal investigations and prison terms and on improvements in health – was calculated to be CHF 96. After deduction of costs, the net benefit is CHF 45 per patient-day.

  6. Ultimately, those who wield power will manage to get what they really want by putting a blanket criminal penalty on anything that makes you feel good. Then they will have won.

  7. we need to decriminalize drugs. let people get high. I’m a professional and like to smoke herb. every now and then at a party i like to have a good healthy dose of MDMA(ecstasy) and even have an acid or shroom trip every now and then. You know what I’ve gained from recreational drug use? I got smart as fuck and understand myself and my place in the world far more than you can imagine. The gov’t has no right to tell us what we can and can not do with our bodies, and wether something is good or horrible for you, it is your own choice.

    1. How does taking recreational drugs such as MDMA and Cannabis make you ‘smarter?’ Or is that just a fiction you like to believe to justify your drug use to yourself and/or others?

      Are people really trying to use alcohol and tobacco consumption as why legalising other drugs would be a good idea? E.g. 1 in 5 people smoking despite the severe impact on health is supposed to reassure us that legalising addictive drugs such as benzos, heroin and cocaine would not cause major public health problems both for users and non-users?

      Personally I favour the approach used in Portugal (from Wikipedia):

      In July 2001 in Portugal a new law maintained the status of illegality for using or possessing any drug for personal use without authorization. The offense was changed from a criminal one, with prison a possible punishment, to an administrative one if the possessing was no more than up to ten days’ supply of that substance. This was in line with the de facto Portuguese drug policy before the reform. Drug addicts were then to be aggressively targeted with therapy or community service rather than fines or waivers. Even if there are no criminal penalties, these changes did not legalize drug use in Portugal. Possession has remained prohibited by Portuguese law, and criminal penalties are still applied to drug growers, dealers and traffickers.

      1. Robert, the problem with decriminalization vs. legalization is the drug cartels. While decriminalized, treated with therapy and what not, the street price of the still illegal drugs remains high, thus providing money and power to the cartels. With legalization more reputable providers could take over the supply market, providing safer more consistent product, while taking money away from the criminals.

      2. first off, numerous studies have shown cannabis to be completely harmless, as it is a natural drug. certain drugs which work on your serotonin and dopamine receptors open you to new ideas and emotions, experiences you can learn from. now look buddy, you may think I’m a junkie of sorts, but the truth is I just enjoy life. I paid 21k in federal taxes last year, and I hate the face that so much of that is going to the war on drugs. I’d much rather buy from fda approved companies, something that very well may happen in our lifetime.

      3. Ron,

        Natural does not equal safe and very much doubt there are _any_ reputable studies that show cannabis to be completely safe. Use of MDMA in therapeutic conditions appears to affect the emotional component of traumatic memories in people with PTSD, but that’s somewhat different to popping a few pills willy-nilly at a weekend to make the music and/or people around you seem better.


        Would the world be a better place if more people around you now were either on strongly psychoactive drugs or craving them? In general legalising illicit drugs _would_ increase usage, which will lead to more people having problems either directly or indirectly caused by their use.

        However, I’m all for social experiments and would like to see trials with well defined measures and end points performed on recreational drugs such as MDMA to observe the effects of legalisation.

      4. Robert,

        Why don’t we educate people on the true dangers and effects of the chemicals they wish to ingest instead of using propaganda and hyperbole. Just about everything people can do will lead to problems in they over indulge. Who are we to decide what is allowed or isn’t allowed. Especially when there are other legal mind altering chemicals available.

        What are known as research chemicals are being sold just about anywhere. I can walk into just about any convenience store and buy powders that emulate cocaine, herbs to mimic pot, and pills that are similar to opiates. You can buy them in bulk online if you wish. Now these chemicals are unstudied, no one knows what health effects they will have or how dangerous they can be. Children can buy these “fake” drugs as easy as buying candy. I would rather people be able to buy a controlled, regulated, and sale restricted substance of known strength and origin then have them play Russian roulette with the crap being sold now.

        Are there dangers to others? Sure! I put my life into the hands of others every time I leave my house anyway.


      5. Les,

        You point out that there are are people who will ingest chemicals they know nothing about the origin or purity of, other than what their mates or drug dealer tell them. I’m not particularly motivated to help people who are so profoundly and willfully stupid.

        Would a regulated drug market be enough or too much of a safety net for them? I.e. Once pharmaceutical grade MDMA, Cocaine, Heroin, Benzos, Ketamine etc. was provided, will people want to ingest something novel not regulated by the state? Would people stick to safe levels of consumption in a suitable environment? They certainly don’t with nicotine or alcohol.

        People discount the future consequences of their actions, think they know more than they actually do and believe they are more in control of their behaviour than they actually are. Because of these characteristics I don’t believe legalising illicit drugs and creating a regulated market would result in better outcomes than we have at the moment.

      6. Robert,

        You can believe whatever you wish. All you need to do is look toward Portugal, Spain, Australia, Great Britain, or The Netherlands to get FACTS about what has happened after allowing drug use. No its not all gum drops and rainbows, but over all consumption is down.

        Its already easy to find pharmaceutical grade anything. Stupid people have always and will always do stupid things. Why do you or anyone else feel the need/right to protect people from themselves.

        As long as we allow the sale of alcohol, and tobacco, not to forget sugar, salt, and fatty foods we have no right to tell other what they can and cannot put in their bodies for their own safety.


      7. Here is how I got smarter. First grapple with your poverty of experience. If I never went to Barcelona I would not know what it is like to be in Barcelona. I might know facts about Barcelona and some of these facts might be relevant but the ‘what-ness’ and the ‘where-ness’ of the totality of being on a street corner looking at Gaudi’s architectural master works (for example) would stand outside of my frame of reference.

        With THC and MDMA I have been to Barcelona. You haven’t. I could give you facts but you couldn’t access them.

  8. Is anybody concerned about the fact that the government is just making these things illegal out-of-hand, with no regard for personal liberty and choice?

    Under what authority does the government get to regulate personal behavior with no evidence of danger to the individual?

    All while maintaining the illegality of marijuana despite science and math that show minimal danger and great economic benefit.

    Oops, forgot… lobbying.

    What a sick nation we live in where the people at the top get to dictate how and when we alter our perception.

    1. There is so much money to be made by Law Enforcement, it really is a conflict of intrest! Especially when you see the wives and family of those same LE officers smoking the best pot? Very disappointing!

  9. I find it somewhat ironic that the majority of “anti-drug” use or prevention commercial ads are funded by the new, “Big Three”. That is, Tobacco, Alcohol & Pharmaceutical Organizations; thus, replacing the NRA as far as the Ad campaigns go. I do not have the source at hand, where I discovered this; however it makes perfect sense that these organizations have an invested interest’s with keeping people thinking their products are “normal”, safe & “acceptable”. I speak about this from my own feelings on the matter, towards legalization of all of the above. As stated & cited above, our society would benefit more than suffer. I also speak to this from my studies as a graduate in Criminology/Criminal Justice from a reputable school in this area of study. All the country needs to do is at least try it out and if they see more good than bad in the outcome congress can choose to amend the law or whatever the people decide (if in fact, the people even decided the law in the first place, lol). In summary, skeptics will never know unless it’s enacted.
    Note: More often than not, when a loved one becomes addicted, in my observations, it’s usually because they “choose to” (should still be one’s right) or their family/friends remained naive &/or emotionally neglectful in the life of that person. Sometimes, Ignorance is Truly Bliss. In any case, who are “we” to tell someone that the “pain” they suffer from in their mind (emotions), is no less debilitating than a physical ailment that we visibly see?

  10. Wow, for a bunch of druggies you folks sure are good at proofreading!

    And +1 for legalize.

    thats all.

  11. At the end of the day for me it’s simply an issue of personal liberty.

    Coming from someone who at worst drinks sake and beer socially about once a month, no government should ever have the right to tell me what I decide to ingest into my own body. I consider this a fundamental human right.

    Current drug laws are arbitrary and focus on entirely the wrong problem, unless of course you’re in the business of telling other people what to do. 😛

  12. This article is pretty much spot on. I run a drug crisis support service at music festivals and we have seen a sea change in both the types of drugs people are using and also the negative effects.

    New research chemicals are ubiquitous and the problems associated with them are growing. From the front lines we see the situation getting worse rather than better. The new compounds are poorly understood and have little or no history of human use and therefore the problems we see are harder to characterize and therefore treat.

    The classic psychedelics are actually quite safe in comparison to the new largely stimulant based compounds. Thus today instead of dealing with existential psychological issues we see seizures, delirium, combative intoxication and even deaths. Even discounting the hyperbolic news coverage of face eating zombies the real situation is substantially worse with legal research chemicals than it ever was before.

    It is sad that what is currently legal is substantially more dangerous than what is illegal.

  13. The problem facing the US is the level of stupidity of the general population. Very few people here understand even the most basic chemistry or biology.
    We go to war overseas and allow our drug war to decimate Mexico when so many of our citizens cannot even find these “evil” countries on a map!
    Sure, I use cannabis, tryptamines, phenethylamines, B-carbolines, and many other compounds. That makes me a criminal? Am I a strain on the economy of this country? We have become the largest fat-farm(!!!) on the planet with obesity replacing tobacco use as the largest killer of Americans. Why dont we send Mr. and Mrs. Thunderthighs to prison?
    War and the worship of money as God are the real American “family values.” Our country is living on borrowed time…

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