Legal and illegal highs – more twists and turns on drug policy in the UK

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in the UK has been busy again.  In the last four weeks, they have issued a long report on “New Psychoactive Substances” (NPS), the so-called “legal highs”, and another on desoxypipradrol (2-DPMP), one of the stimulant drugs that had been found in the product marketed as ”Ivory Wave”.  For the New Psychoactive Substances, they have recommended an analogue ban, where a new drug can be banned if it is substantially similar to an existing controlled drug.  Substantial similarity refers to both the chemical structure and the psychoactive effects and the ACMD recognise that this could be difficult to establish and might lead to battles in the courts.  They also recommended a ban on desoxypipradrol and analogues; given that this looks like a nasty substance, some kind of control is necessary but whether banning it will make any difference to usage, I don’t know. 

The case of mephedrone is instructive here.  It is now more than 18 months since mephedrone was banned but it is still widely used.  The principal effect of the ban seems to have been to double the price and to shift supply to dealers whereas, before the ban, people were obtaining the drug via the internet.   There is now some suggestion that mephedrone may be addictive.  A rather small study of clubbers carried out by telephone found that 30% of those questioned showed some limited signs of addiction; substantially more work will be required to be sure about these observations.  The ACMD report on NPS also cites statistics from the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths showing 42 cases recorded by October 2011 where “mephedrone caused or contributed to death”.  We cannot conclude from this that mephedrone caused all these deaths as we don’t know about use of other drugs by these people but the statistics are beginning to show some of the dangers of the drug.

Although the ACMD has been taking a hard line on banning new drugs, it seems to be taking quite a different line on how to deal with those found in possession of a controlled drug.  In a submission to the Sentencing Council on Drug Offences in 2011 they proposed that those found in possession of drugs should be diverted in to drug education/awareness courses rather than being processed through the criminal justice system.   This is effectively a call for decriminalisation of possession and was also given about a year ago by the ACMD in their submission to the Drug Strategy Consultation.  So, the ACMD is taking contrasting lines on drugs, recommending bans on the one hand but a softening of policy on the other hand. 

I don’t suppose the current government will take any notice and in fact a Home Office spokesperson is said to have responded:  ”We have no intention of liberalising our drug laws”.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out as there is much clamour now for some form of decriminalisation. 

It is also worth pointing out that the line suggested by the ACMD is very similar to that adopted over ten years ago by Portugal.  In Portugal, possession of drugs is no longer a crime but rather it is seen as a social issue.  Someone found in possession of a drug must attend a “dissuasion board” where the person’s use of drugs is explored and the outcome tailored to the individual.  Following this radical change in policy, Portugal has not seen increased drug use, the country has not become a haven for drug tourists and the number of drug-related deaths has decreased.

 

So far, so good but one of the big issues that these policies don’t address is the problems associated with supply of the drugs.  Many of the stimulant drugs, especially the newer ones, arriving in Europe are made in labs in the Far East.  We have no idea about the purity of these drugs and no ability to control this.  For the newer drugs and this includes mephedrone, we also have little or no idea about the long term psychological, physiological and toxicological effects.    By allowing young people to take these untested and untried substances, we are effectively treating them as human “guinea pigs”.  Some of these issues could be circumvented by a concerted programme of research on the effects of these drugs as well as a vigorous public education programme aimed at young people.  Ultimately, however, the answer is to take control of supply and here we have the policy suggested by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation.  A framework for decriminalisation of drugs in a tightly controlled legal manner has been proposed by this Bristol-based body.  The proposal (http://www.tdpf.org.uk/blueprint%20download.htm) is full of common sense and seems to me to provide a good alternative to our present confused situation.

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