The removal of “legal highs” from shelves in two weeks, and the debate over using animals to test them, has science taking a backseat to politics as political parties line up to score points with the public.
“Legal highs” are being withdrawn from the market because they have never been tested in terms of their toxicity (which begs the question why were they ever made legal?). Politicians from the major parties are now saying they do not support testing of these drugs on animals (with accompanying video footage of them petting a cute furry animal) which leads to a catch 22 situation. How can you effectively test these substances without animal testing?
Several politicians have trotted out the “fact” that drugs can be tested using computer modelling and in test tube tests, however, this does not provide the full story. Even if such tests are carried out, animal testing will still be necessary to see how these drugs affect a living animal. It makes sense that you would need to test psychoactive substances which have the potential to be addictive on something with a nervous system (e.g. a living animal) at some stage during the testing.
Of course, there is an alternative to using animals – if these substances are made illegal they will go underground with people buying and using them most likely with little knowledge of what they are using, how pure it is, and what is a safe dosage. Couldn’t another possibility be to do medically monitored testing on volunteers to see what the effects are? If they are likely to use these substances anyway, why not use them in a controlled way?
One of the reasons legal highs have become popular is because cannabis is illegal. These to me seems rather absurd – people are using untested synthetic substances because they aren’t allowed to legally use a natural substance for which the effects are reasonably well researched. Perhaps if human testing were allowed, then cannabis could be tested along side these “legal highs”.
Personally, I would prefer it if these substances didn’t exist. I think any psychoactive drug must carry dangers with it – you are after all altering the chemistry of the brain when you use them! Unfortunately they do exist and whether legal or illegal people will continue to use them. No politician is brave enough to ban them outright. Instead they have chosen to use this catch 22 around requiring testing but not allowing testing on animals in order to offend the least number of voters.
The removal of these substances in such a short time frame has some mental health organisations concerned about the number of people they may have to deal with as they go through withdrawal from the legal highs. One has to wonder whether public health is also taking a back seat to politics.
Anyone would suspect it is an election year.