Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches: The Effects of Criminalising a 'Legal High' in Aotearoa New Zealand

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches: The Effects of Criminalising a 'Legal High' in Aotearoa New Zealand

Article excerpt

Abstract

Commonly referred to as 'legal highs', new psychoactive substances (NPS) are synthetic or naturally occurring substances that mimic the effects of illegal drugs such as cannabis, amphetamines, and ecstasy. Through presenting the results of a cohort study with BZP-party pill users in Aotearoa New Zealand, this article considers the evidence for any 'displacement effect' caused by the criminalisation of the drug in 2008. The findings demonstrate that prohibition was only successful insofar as users ceased taking the banned NPS. In contrast to previous research, we found a strong displacement effect following criminalisation with half of the sample increasing their use of other illegal drugs and, for a third, their use of alcohol.

Introduction: the rise of 'legal highs'

While there has been a long and dynamic history of criminological and sociological study on illegal drug taking behaviour (for example Becker, 1963; Parker et al., 1998; Young, 1971), the emergence and increasing global popularity of 'legal highs' as alternatives to illegal drugs has yet to be adequately researched by social science scholars. This situation has become more pressing as media attention surrounding such products has grown (Alexandrescu, 2014) and policy makers have attempted to manage and police the weekly new varieties of drugs which Wincup (2014: 105) has referred to as blurring 'the boundaries between legal and illegal substances.' This article seeks to fill some of th e current knowledge gaps in the meanings given to such substance use for recreational drug users through presenting the results of a cohort study of BZP-party pill users in Aotearoa New Zealand. In doing so, we consider the effects that criminalisation of the drug has had on subsequent drug use as well as general life circumstances of the cohort. In this section we describe what legal highs are and the rapid growth in their popularity in western society. The following section then outlines notable previous social research on legal highs, specifically focusing on studies of mephedrone and BZP-party pills - substances that have been criminalised in the UK and in Aotearoa New Zealand, respectively.

The term 'legal highs' has been commonly used to describe readily available psychoactive substances that mimic the effects of illegal drugs such as cannabis, amphetamines, cocaine, and ecstasy. When legal, the substances can be bought at specialist 'herbal' or 'head' shops, though they have sometimes proved so popular that they can also be found at newsagents, petrol stations and other consumer outlets. Often consumed in tablet form, the products come in colourful packages under names such as 'Meow', 'P.E.P. pills', 'A2', 'Spice', and 'Kronic'. These products are also referred to by consumers under generic names such as 'party pills' or 'herbals' (though often the drug is wholly synthetic). However, a more accurate term that has recently emerged from the scholarship in this area is 'new psychoactive substances' (hereafter, NPS) which the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2014: 27) defines as 'synthetic or naturally occurring substances that are not controlled under international law, and often produced with the intention of mimicking the effects of controlled drugs.'

Some of the major active compounds in NPS include cathinones (or 'M - Cats') such as mephedrone and methylone, piperazines such as benzylpiperazine (BZP) and trifluoromethylphenylpiperazine (TFMPP), as well as cannabinoids and phenethylamines. Consumption of these compounds usually produces either a wakeful, euphoric state, or has a more hallucinogenic effect on the individual. The reasons for the emergence and subsequent popularity of NPS since the beginning of the new century remain unclear, with some scholars suggesting that a reduction in the availability and quality of illegal drugs in some regions may partly explain this (Measham et al., 2010: 15) and others claiming that an increase in drug testing of the public, especially in the US, is responsible (Perrone et al. …

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