Why The British Government Is Going To War With The EU Over Legal Highs
The British government wants to maintain its ability to decide which drugs are illegal. But the European Union wants a final say.
The British government has today said it will defy the European Union over plans to regulate "legal highs".
Part of the problem is that the EU wants to ensure some substances used in legal highs remain... legal.
When Luxembourgish EU politician Viviane Reding unveiled the policy last year she set out a strong anti-drugs stance.
"Do you know what 'spice' or 'meow-meow' are?" she asked at the time. "What might sound like innocent play can end up deadly. I am talking about new psychoactive substances, that imitate the effects of illicit narcotics such as ecstasy or cocaine. Make no mistake. These so-called legal highs should in fact be called lethal highs."
Reding proposed cutting the length of time required before substance can be criminalised by the EU "from 24 to 10 months", while also keeping some legal highs available for commercial purposes. Ministers in individual countries would no longer be consulted on bans, with the European Commission able to act following a warning from Europol and the EU's drug monitoring agency.
But she also said that 20 per cent of new psychoactive substances have a legitimate use and proposed a two-tier series of bans, with some drugs allowed to be sold for industrial use only.
Baker strongly objects to this. He says Britain already has tough measures to deal with new legal highs.
The problem with the EU proposal is that it has a wider definition of what substances count as "legal highs" and includes some substances (or the chemicals that make them up) that might have commercial uses. Therefore the EU wanted to be in a position to determine the level of risk of substances so as not to interfere with commercial use. This could have put the UK government in a position where it had to designate as low risk a substance that was actually causing problems here.
Part of the reason for the EU's intervention is its belief that policy towards legal highs needs to be changed in order to preserve the principle of the single market.
The European Commission believes that if member states ban drugs on a country-by-country basis then it could interrupt the smooth running of the EU's single market for goods – ie, it cannot be a single market if a substance is illegal in Britain but legal in France.
A committee in the British House of Lords looked at the proposed EU regulations and concluded that it is "disproportionate response" because the "legal trade in psychoactive substances is not sufficiently extensive to warrant the Commission's proposed action".
The peers summarised the EU's position as a belief that individual member countries "cannot address effectively and sustainably the rapid emergence and spread of these substances".
But the British politicians said this is rubbish: "The proliferation of new psychoactive substances is influenced by regional, national, and international forces, and these manifest themselves differently in different Member States depending on the speed at which the substances become available and the severity of their impact on public health."
In short, the British government fears that the EU could refuse to ban a legal high that is gaining popularity in the UK. And there would be nothing they could do about it.
At the same time, the EU doesn't believe that most other member states are up to the task of regulating drugs on their own.
The presence of these new drugs is causing problems for the regulatory bodies. Government and EU advisers readily admit that the standard drug control laws are not keeping pace with the rate of change we are seeing in the drug market. The UK government is currently reviewing the options for control that exist. The New Zealand government is experimenting with a system which puts the onus of demonstrating relative safety on the manufacturers. It will be interesting to see how that pans out.