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Due to the use of Spice and similar products comprising herbal mixture sprayed with synthetic cannabinoid agonists [1], the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), following some other countries, is advising that a range of synthetic cannabinoids become controlled drugs [2]. This makes medical sense, because the effects of these chemicals are untested, unknown and some of them may be dangerous. Moreover, banning dangerous pharmaceuticals has sometimes reduced use and harm in the past, for instance with gel formulation temazepam and barbiturates. Will this work when the drugs to be banned are being sold only because the ‘safer’ equivalent—cannabis—is not licensed in the United Kingdom for medical (or recreational) use and was re-classified recently as more dangerous against the advice of the ACMD? Untested pharmaceutical compounds would not be released for human consumption. So far, reported adverse psychological reactions to smoking synthetic cannabinoids [1,2] sound similar to occasional adverse psychological reactions to cannabis. Unfortunately, a generic ban may not make criminological sense, as there is a real risk that it will make the herbal high market more dangerous, not safer:

  • 1
    In the discussions on retailers' websites, Spice smokers compare its effects to cannabis, so presumably many are smoking it as a legal alternative. If the ban were to shift them back to illegal cannabis, then this might harm otherwise law-abiding smokers who have chosen to get out of the illegal market.
  • 2
    There is clearly a big demand for legal highs. This will continue to be satisfied by supplying products that contain chemicals that are not yet banned.
  • 3
    The manufacture of these products remains a mystery, including what, if any, safety and consumer acceptability testing has been conducted. Manufacturers may try their best to produce safe drugs with the desired effects. Perhaps their market research has at least excluded some chemicals with obvious bad effects.
  • 4
    What other legal products would be banned without industry consultation? This is turning down a unique opportunity to regulate the production of ‘herbal highs’ in an ethical and responsible fashion.
  • 5
    Following a ban, the industry will replace the banned chemicals with others; eventually, bans will lead to the use of truly dangerous highs, if that is all that is left legal.

The Pandora's Box of synthetic highs is already open. The ban is the predictable result of a widespread contemporary trend to regulate things that only might be dangerous [3]. Without further research, consultation with manufacturers and other evidence, there is a serious risk of banning relatively less dangerous chemicals, which will be replaced by more dangerous ones. A politically unpalatable alternative would be to regulate the supply of cannabis products, rather than abdicating control of their strength, purity and safety to criminal traffickers.

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