Portugal Bans Legal Highs

April 1, 2013

Following the example of many other EU member states, Portugal has recently approved a restrictive law on legal highs – threatening to push the use of new psychoactive substances into the shadows.

Portugal, like other European countries, is having to come to terms with the phenomenon of legal highs. Since the first 'smart shop' opened in 2007, such specialist outlets have proliferated, now numbering more than fifty scattered around the country. The drug-checking service, which is run by APDES and co-funded by the Portuguese High Commissioner for Health, first detected mephedrone in 2009, being sold as plant food, and clearly labelled “not for human consumption”. Alongside mephedrone, the sale of other new psychoactive substances also grew, such as synthetic cannabinoids marketed as incense, or other cathinones like methylone and MDPV. Lately these substances have been gaining prominence due to some incidents reported in the media, mainly involving young people who experienced panic attacks and feelings of discomfort. Some deaths related to the use of these substances have been reported, but no causal link has yet been established.

In 2001, Portugal undertook a reform of its Drug Law, decriminalising the consumption of all illegal substances. After ten years, the balance appears positive: There has been a decrease, both in the number of problematic drug users, and in the prevalence of high-risk behaviours associated with drug use. Legal highs, however, present new challenges for the judicial and medical establishment. The fact that these substances are sold as not being intended for human consumption circumvents the law and allows them to circulate freely. Last year, following a European directive seeking to tackle this problem, Portugal added mephedrone to the schedule of banned substances. Just as in other European countries, the ban has proved ineffective, since the sale of mephedrone simply went underground, taking with it, the users, who had no previous contact with the black market. In the meantime, new substances appeared on the shelves of the smart shops. In respect of legal highs, the law seems to be always a step behind the producers and sellers. The law, prepared by the Portuguese government and approved by Parliament early this year, coming into force on March 7 2013, bans any commercial activity involving these substances through a temporary schedule listing 160 substances.  In due course, if their toxicity is proven, substances will pass into the permanent schedules which formally prohibit their possession and use.  The law is essentially a measure designed to eliminate smart shops. APDES maintains that the approved law won’t be effective in regulating the markets, and substances will continue to circulate in the illegal market. Furthermore, prohibitionist measures merely increase the incentive to develop new substances, in all probability more dangerous than those already on the market.

Last September, APDES attended the Parliamentary Health Commission to make a submission on this issue, having developed a series of recommendations aimed at effectively regulating this market. Our proposal is similar to the “restricted table” model in force in New Zealand.

Watch HCLUs recent movie on the New Zealands approach towards legal highs. Find out more here.

Since a ban is not an effective way to solve the problem of legal highs, this model allows the use of substances that present “less than moderate harm”. Allowing their sale, means they can be regulated: The product is quality-controlled, with labels providing information about content, doses, side-effects, and health education messages, while sales can be restricted to over-18’s. In order to get a license to sell these products, sellers have to follow a strict set of regulations, with any breaches punished as a criminal offence. With a model like this, the government could simultaneously regulate the market, improve public understanding of these types of substances, and protect the health of the users. The advice of APDES was ignored, however, in the process of drawing up the new law.

Daniel Martins, APDES