"Legal Highs", Testing, & Political Point Scoring

By Michael Edmonds 29/04/2014

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“Legal highs” are being withdrawn from the market because they have never been tested in terms of their toxicity (which begs the question why were they ever made legal?).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.




0 Responses to “"Legal Highs", Testing, & Political Point Scoring”

  • Good thoughts Michael, a couple of my own.

    wrt “why were they made legal”… I think it is just that they were never made “illegal.” This was because those on the shelves had not been shown to be harmful (i.e. innocent until proven guilty). The new law turns the equation around the other way of course.

    I would expect testing on volunteers (a Phase I safety trial) to be a normal part of a testing regime as it is with all drugs. However, it would be unethical to do such testing if, either, there was significant possibility of harm. Given the history of these substances I think that there is significant possibility of harm (with my kidney hat on I am involved in writing up a couple of case studies from the emergency department where these substances almost stopped kidney function). Unfortunately, animal testing is a necessary step in any drug development so as to eliminate those that could cause “significant harm.” Because there are no perfect analogies for humans, human testing comes next – not without risk, but with reduced risk.
    The question the politicians must face is the lesser of two evils – testing a *recreational* product on animals verse having it go underground totally. As they have already overwhelmingly voted for the products to be allowed to be legal if they are proven safe, then to campaign with cuddly animals against such testing displays their cynical vote catching attitudes (or their ignorance).

  • I’m over here in Colorado, USA where we voters just made marijuana legal, not only for medicinal but recreational. Now the new problem is how to spend all the money we will be making in taxes. Only 15% of the population has bought it, so it wasn’t the rush they expected, but taxed at 25% it is bringing in plenty. Not only the taxes from the product itself but vacationers are up.

    Now, what I really wanted to ask is, what is this legal high stuff you talk about? There must be plenty of info already accumulated from the fact it was legal. When they do a study….they should compare it with liquor.

  • Dawna, that is a very interesting question.

    Cannabis use in New Zealand is illegal, however, for a while now it has been possible to buy “legal highs”, synthetic compounds with psychoactive properties. This has always seem ridiculous to me as the government has allowed such compounds to be sold when there is little evidence to show whether they are safe or not. Most recently (in an election year) the govt has decided that these synthetic compounds should not be available unless they have been tested and shown to be safe. Simultaneously most politicians are also saying that animal testing shouldn’t be used to test these compounds, and making some fairly emotive arguments, for example saying that these would be tested on beagles with their ears nailed down. They are even suggesting that rabbits and rats shouldn’t be used for research – I suspect some of those making these claims have probably been hunting, used mousetraps, eat meat etc so the hypocrisy is quite glaring.
    Of course, the hypocrisy does not end there – cannabis is well tested and it could be argued that the effects are mild (though I wouldn’t advise it’s use apart for legitimate medical uses). Also, I am wondering when the govt will withdraw cigarettes from the market until they are proven to be safe to use?
    And your point about liquor also raises some interesting points as well.

  • The previous regulation of synthetic drugs in NZ and elsewhere was based on prohibition of specific chemical structures.

    The synthetic “legal highs” only existed because chemical characterisation and assessment processes were very time consuming and expensive, and manufacturers could easily change their formulations and avoid existing drug regulations by careful marketing.

    It was comparatively easy to ban products that contained prohibited or controlled ingredients, but very difficult to legislate for minor chemical structural changes to active ingredients. Such minor changes were intended to bypass regulations. This is a global problem as much of the research in now conducted in Asia. NZ’s new approach is being watched by several other countries.

    The issue of animal testing is not that animals die, but that the proposed testing inflicts pain and suffering before death. Given that many of the potential adverse effects of these drugs are from long term use, animal models are unlikely to replicate that harm.

    I don’t think wanting to reduce animal suffering before death is hypocritical. Where possible, I choose mousetraps that kill quickly, rather than toxic chemicals that kill slowly.