Legal Highs: One of Prohibition’s Deadly Consequences

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Nearly a century ago, politicians here in the United States learned the hard way that making something illegal will in no way undermine the market for said illegal item. In fact, once alcohol had been made illegal, there is little documentation that either supply or demand decreased. Instead, supply became more dangerous (run by organized criminals and made in unregulated facilities) and demand became something edgy or trendy, as you had to know someone cool to even get your hands on a little gin or find your way to a speakeasy.  After alcohol prohibition was finally repealed, all those criminals involved in its production and distribution lost their major source of income. Sadly, our government was only too willing to quickly relegate a similar high-demand market to back alleys and basements.

After over three-quarters of a century of cannabis prohibition, it is obvious to even the most casual observer that the War on Drugs has been an utter failure. During that time, cannabis has evolved from a dirt weed used by musicians and guerillas into a significant part of our culture. The plant itself has been selectively bred to allow for easier indoor growing, faster flowering, and more potent cannabis overall. In every sense, cannabis prohibition has done the opposite of what it set out to do (which was to decrease use or access to the prohibited plant).

Few things highlight this failure as brilliantly as the modern legal highs market. As drug testing technology improved and became more culturally acceptable, even those working in fast food restaurants became subject to random or regular drug testing to obtain or maintain their employment.  Although huge portions of the population have a demand for a safe product to help them relax after a hard day at work, cannabis remains unavailable to them. And some savvy businesspeople, seeing the regular lamentation of workplace drug testing referred to in online forums, began to cater quietly to this market online.

For more than ten years beginning in 2002, companies around the world sold synthetic compounds that mimic the effects of cannabinoids to consumers by misbranding it as “herbal incense.” Other products, meant to mimic the effects of other popular illegal drugs, were also developed, misbranded, and sold as a variety of strangely expensive watch or glass cleaners, plant food capsules, collectible (but not intended for human consumption) novelty pills, and a host of other products. People may recognize some of the more famous brands, such as Molly, Spice, Sextacy, and K2, but many remain in the dark about what these products really are, where they came from, and who is taking them.

These products were marketed to unsuspecting consumers who believed that they were purchasing something legal, safe, and subject to quality-control procedures. Nothing could have been further from the truth, as evidence time and again showed that the products were anything but safe and pure. Still, the fact that they were sold as “legal” and didn’t show up on drug tests was enough for some consumers.

The irony here, of course, is that there is no such thing as legal highs. The Federal Analog Act, which has been in place since 1986, makes any substance illegal if it is very chemically similar to or meant to duplicate the effects of of Schedule I or Schedule II substance. The second consumers began considering consuming legal high products to produce the same effects as banned substances, those legal high products were no longer legal. Consumers, not understanding this nuance, were delirious with excitement at the prospect of being able to buy what they thought was a legal, safer version of their street drug of choice.

To avoid being implicated in drug analog sales, those making, packaging, or peddling legal high products marketed their goodies as “Not For Human Consumption” and as a general business practice refused to acknowledge that there was an off-label use inducing people to pay street-drug prices for products sold as novelties.  This meant that all the risk was being assumed by the consumer, as the products were not tested for purity as food and drugs are required to be.  At the peak of the industry, before multiple Federal raids and operations, these products were being advertised all over the internet: on Facebook, Twitter, and even on blogs, sending customers to websites that offered Cash On Delivery legal highs sales and completely unregulated products.

During their heyday, the shady sites selling and discussing legal highs developed a culture and jargon all their own, not unlike cannabis culture. While some terms, like the use of the brand name “Molly” to describe all legal high products intended to replicate the effects of ecstasy, have made their way into mainstream culture, most people have no idea what you mean if you start waxing poetic about plant food (though they’re likely to take a step back out of fear of cannibalism if you mention bath salts, an issue we’ll revisit in a later piece).

Although the Federal crackdown last summer has definitely put an end to overt legal high sales on the internet, there are still uncounted Americans addicted to these substances, many of which were not tested for human consumption. In some cases, the legal high analogs turned out to be even more addictive and more dangerous than the drugs they were replacing/mimicking. Instead of looking at the development of this market as a clear indication that the War on Drugs has inherently failed to curtail demand for mind-altering substances, the government is simply expanding the list of chemicals and substances that it prohibits. This, in turn, results in legal high producers using even newer, less-understood chemicals in their products, a dangerous and vicious cycle.

Feature Photo: Tomas Castelazo/Wikipedia