EU-MADNESS? Questioning current research and policy agendas on ‘legal highs’

There are few things that shock me in relation to the world of drugs research, policy and practice. I have heard young adults’ accounts of the indignities of being strip-searched at festivals. I have witnessed a complete lack of regard for the health and wellbeing of those experiencing dependency difficulties with GHB/GBL. And I have heard, like a repeat drum loop, the “drugs are bad” message from otherwise highly intelligent individuals who would normally question such deterministic and overly simplistic statements.

However, today I was shocked. Every morning I read Drugscope’s fantastic news feed which pops up like an old friend in my university email account inbox. Some stories are interesting and well sourced, others less so, but remain readable nonetheless. Today there was a story about and a link to the new website of the EUropean-wide, Monitoring, Analysis and knowledge Dissemination on Novel/Emerging pSychoactiveS or EU-Madness project, led by a UK university and spanning five countries with multiple partners. 


This is why I am shocked. How might an organisation such as the EU, employing the best of European talent in the drugs research field, arrive at the decision to call a wide-ranging project on emergent drugs/novel psychoactive substances(NPS)/’legal highs’ the EU-Madness project? And yes, that is a rhetorical question.

“So what?” What is in a name? To be fair it is quite catchy! However, it is worth reflecting on how this project acts as an exemplar of an ongoing and seemingly willful disregard for the wider geopolitical contexts (War on Drugs anyone?) and the social worlds (consumer capitalist culture anyone?) in which NPS or ‘legal highs’ emerge, are consumed, demand attention, are researched, and ultimately regulated.

Is using the word ‘Madness’ (even as a laboured acronym) really appropriate in our supposedly enlightened and progressive contemporary society? It is as if in the world of drugs research (notably in neuroscience), the last 30 years of sociological questioning of deleterious stereotypes about ‘drugs’ and their users, and the contestation of moralising myths about mental disorders, never happened (see Rogers and Pilgrim 2010 for an excellent introduction to these issues).

Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly (why am I shocked then? Too idealistic as usual!) taking any ‘drugs’ is framed yet again as ‘mad’, and users are positioned as troublesome subjects who disrupt the ‘civilised’ social order in the misguided pursuit of pleasure. And so on and so forth.

No doubt new knowledge about novel drugs which pose fresh risks to us will be generated by the EU-Madness team. They are a nice bunch. Yet I reserve the right to retain my reservations. The familiar emphasis on ‘risks’ as out there, just waiting to be discovered, is typical of official responses to psychoactive substances, legal or otherwise, popular or not. Yet, as eminent drug researchers Ross Coomber and Nigel South recently argued “an informed statement on drug risks (just like drug effects more widely) has to go “beyond” the drug” (2014: 240).

It is a shame they didn’t think of a more appropriate name. The popular Southpark saying “DRUGS ARE BAD” may have been more aligned with the stated project aims and objectives perhaps?

Stay safe,


R. Coomber, and N. South. (2014) “Fear and Loathing in Drugs Policy: Risk, Rights and Approaches to Drug Policy and Practice” in B.C. Labate and C. Cavnar (eds.) Prohibition, Religious Freedom, and Human Rights: Regulating Traditional Drug Use, DOI 10.1007/978-3-642-40957-8_12, Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

Rogers, A. and Pilgrim, D. (2010) A Sociology of Mental Health and Illness, 4th Ed. Maidenhead: Open University Press. Winner of the BMA Medical Book Award.