Sensationalist and misleading reporting on NPS ("legal highs") in the Times


Sell danger drugs on the high street, says minister” is the headline on the front page of the Times today (full article is paywalled). The story is about Home Office Minister Norman Baker looking at the possibility of regulating the production and sale of some novel psychoactive substances (NPS) – or, as they’re more commonly, but unhelpfully, called in the media, “legal highs”*.

“Dangerous 'legal highs' that mimic the effects of heroin and other Class A drugs will be sold in licensed high street shops under plans being considered by ministers,” claims the Times. But rather than explain what the government is actually doing or some of the motivations behind this possible move, the Times has chosen to go down a more sensationalist route, deliberately conflating two stories for tabloid-shock effect, and scaremongering by playing on the misconception that the legal, regulated availability of drugs means heroin will be sold in sweet shops or supermarkets.

It’s deliberately provocative to refer to NPS or any other drugs as “danger drugs”. Dangerous as opposed to what? “Safe drugs”? All drugs have risks, but demand for them continues. The very point, therefore, of regulating currently unregulated legal drug markets (and potentially unregulated criminal markets as well) is to pragmatically reduce the risks associated with their use (and the markets that supply them). This is done by ensuring consumers actually know what it is they’re consuming, and by making them aware of the risks via licensed and trained vendors, or via clear information on packaging. Regulation can also function to limit and control availability – specifically for the most vulnerable populations, such as children and young people. The Times could have titled its story “Minister considers pragmatic response to sales of unregulated, unknown substances in attempt to better protect public health”, but that’s obviously not nearly as snappy – or inflammatory. The Government has convened a working group to review policy and look at the various options - there will be a series of monthly meetings between now and June before recommendations are presented that will form the basis of legislation to be passed in July. Norman Baker, infact, said the group should follow the evidence and nothing was off the table; a commendable approach. It was also abundantly clear that he is not advocating any model yet, despite the clearly out-of-context quotes the Times have alighted on, ignoring all the other things he said.   

But the Times also strongly implies that the kind of regulatory system Baker is looking into would mean a particular synthetic opiate NPS, AH-7921 (which “mimic[s] the effects of heroin,” the Times helpfully tells us), would be legally available on UK high streets. Yet there’s been nothing to suggest that this would be the case. The Times seems to have deliberately conflated two separate stories: the discussion about possible regulation of some low-risk NPS – which has happened in New Zealand – and the emergence of a risky, new synthetic opiate on the NPS market. This is deliberately misleading, and in fact, a system of legal regulation could (and should) be used to prevent the sale of risky synthetic opiates like AH-7921.

The reality is that a process is underway looking at various policy options for dealing with NPS, and one of these options is the kind of regulatory model adopted in New Zealand. But the Times doesn’t even mention this model, which by default bans any NPS until their manufacturers have demonstrated that they are sufficiently low-risk. (For more on the New Zealand regulation, see this article in the British Medical Journal, or this briefing by the New Zealand Drug Foundation.)

This is not some wild frontier of drug policy thinking that The Times appears to suggest. The New Zealand regulation model was presented to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna last year, to a very enthusiastic response. Even the historically hard-line Executive Director of the UNODC, Yuri Fedotov, has discussed New Zealand’s approach in rather favourable terms:

"Today, we are staring at a new drug horizon where those willing to take these substances [NPS] have become the participants in a lottery that puts lives at risk. Users are potentially one tweaked molecule away from death … Innovative approaches should be applied. For example, New Zealand has enacted creative legislation that places the onus of proving the substance is safe on the seller."

There’s also a broader point about NPS that the Times misses. This is that permanent bans on NPS will not be effective as long as there is no means by which the pre-existing demand for drugs can be met. There would be no market for synthetic cannabis products such as "Spice" and "K2" if actual cannabis were available (the absence of a market for synthetic cannabis in the Netherlands bears this out). Prohibition (or rather the absence of regulation), as so often, is at the root of the problem here. Without some form of legally regulated drug supply, banning NPS simply results in a game of cat and mouse, whereby once a new drug is discovered and prohibited, manufacturers simply adapt and produce another substance that gets around existing legislation. Accelerated banning processes merely accelerate the arrival of new substances about which we know even less. The effects of such new and increasingly obscure substances are likely to be poorly understood and, as the Times’ mention of the man who died from taking AH-7921 indicates, may in fact be more dangerous than ‘traditional’, illegal drugs.

Finally, this article is all the more disappointing in light of the more sensible commentary that the Times has produced in the recent past. A leader editorial in 2011 titled "Drug Policy Doesn’t Work: Britain has a serious problem with drug abuse and far to go in resolving it" gave a much more measured analysis of the issue of drug policy reform. It said:

“This is a complex issue. If there were an obvious answer it would have been found by now. One thing, though, is clear — a radical rethink is needed. Drug abuse ruins so many lives and a policy based on prohibition, although comprehensible in its own terms, is not succeeding in reducing either usage or harm. There are some examples, in Switzerland, for example, of heroin being offered in a controlled and prescribed way for addicts. There are a number of intermediate points between prohibition and legalisation, and it is time to start exploring them.”

Those intermediate positions include the strictly regulated availability of certain lower-risk substances – which is precisely what has been implemented by New Zealand for NPS, and in Uruguay and the US for cannabis. Judging by its previous comments, the Times should be pleased that such policy options are now being explored – and not just domestically, but at high-level forums around the world, including the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the Organization of American States, and at the upcoming UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs.

Read Transform's briefings on Novel Psychoactive Substances for the Home Affairs Select Committee last year here

* Note: many of the substances referred to as “legal highs” are not legal.