The Hungarian government banned 42 new psychoactive substances this year – but some of them are not new at all, for example Ibogaine. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union is suing a government agency for not providing access to the assessment reports on the risks of these drugs.
This January, the Hungarian government added 42 new psychoactive substances to the schedule of illicit drugs. Most of these substances are produced in Chinese laboratories and transported to Europe to provide legal substitutes – such as amphetamine-type stimulants and synthetic cannabinoids – for currently illegal drugs. There are some odd substances, however, among those banned, which do not meet the definition of new psychoactive substances – for the simple reason that they are not new psychoactive substances. One example is salvinorin-A, the active psychoactive ingredient found in the plant salvia divinorum. This plant is native to the Sierra Mazateca in Oaxaca, Mexico, where it has been used by the Mazatec for centuries, primarily to procure shamanic visions, in the context of healing or divination. The use of salvia has been documented in Hungary since at least the 90s, though mainly restricted to a small group of psychonauts. Its use is not without risk: it’s a powerful plant, and if you use it in an inappropriate context (set and setting), it can lead to bad trips. There is no proof of its addictive potential or long-term harms; what is more, there is research to suggest that it has therapeutic value in the treatment of addiction.
Another odd-one-out in the list is ibogaine, the substance found in plants of the apocynaceae family, such as tabernanthe iboga. Another psychedelic drug that has been used for centuries – in this case, by tribes in Gabon, Africa, where the Bwiti religion regard it as a sacrament. During the colonial era, French colonists and their Catholic missionaries persecuted all forms of traditional ibogaine use, but now it is regarded as part of Gabon’s cultural heritage. It also has therapeutic potential in the treatment of drug addiction: it’s not a miracle drug, but a number of heroin users have kicked their habit with the help of ibogaine-assisted psychotherapy (learn more!). One of the best-known activists advocating for the legal use of ibogaine in addiction treatment, is Dimitri Mugianis, who was a heroin user himself but stopped use after being treated in an ibogaine clinic in the Netherlands. Ibogaine is clearly not a drug of abuse: no recreational user would have fun with, and get addicted to, a drug which can induce severe vomiting lasting for 24 hours.
I am dangerous with love (excerpts from the movie on Dimitri and Ibogaine)
How, and why, have these drugs come to be listed as new psychoactive substances? The government created a temporary list of new psychoactive substances in 2012, in order to speed up and simplify the process of bringing drugs under control. The Minister of Human Resources (this is the ministry of labour, welfare and health in Hungary) updates this so called Schedule-C every three to four months. The National Addiction Centre (OAC) is charged with producing a risk assessment report for each individual substance on Schedule-C, with the help of professional advisers. Based on this risk assesment, the government decided to classify these 42 substances as illicit drugs. In the course of the risk assesement process, the professionals are supposed to observe whether the drug has any therapeutic potential, and whether it poses a public health threat comparable to that posed by illegal drugs. But the risk-assessment documents have not been published, so we cannot know what arguments and literature were used to substantiate the claim that substances such as salvinorin-A or ibogaine have no medical value and high potential for abuse.
The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union submitted a Freedom of Information request to the National Addiction Centre, in order to obtain the risk-assessment documents, but the Centre refused access, claiming that any publicity would endanger the professional quality of work. We are now suing the Centre for a violation of the constitutional right to freedom of information, arguing that these documents are public data, because they serve as the basis for criminal sanctions, and their publication is therefore in the public interest. The Hungarian Constitutional Court has previously made it clear that "the convenience of persons and agencies serving a public interest does not override the fundamental right to information" – that is to say, authorities should provide access to public data even when this is inconvenient for public servants. It may take a year or two, but we are confident that the justice system will ultimately decide in our favour.
Greater knowledge of the risk assessment procedure is also important because we would like to know more about the country's policy responses to new psychoactive substances. Two years ago, we produced a survey of professionals in a number of European countries, which showed that the majority of respondents were very sceptical about the current "ban-as-much-as-possible-as-fast-as-possible" approach to new drugs. When Schedule-C was first introduced, in 2012, the government heralded it as a 'silver bullet' solution to the problem of 'legal highs'. Now, three years later, it is clear that the process has failed to reduce the availability of new drugs – on the contrary, it has made the drug market even more dangerous than before! Banning new drugs keeps the drug market in a state of permanent change: substances are replaced, within a few months, by new substances with unknown psychoactive effects and dosage, giving rise to a constant stream of overdoses and hospitalisations. In many parts of the country, synthetic cannabinoid products have supplanted natural cannabis, because they are cheaper to produce and (until they are banned) it is legal to sell them. Drug designers are always a step ahead of policy-makers. Instead of pursuing the unachievable utopia of a drug-free society, we should be considering market regulation, and alternatives to punitive drug policies.