A panel from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform today released its report Towards a Safer Drug Policy: Challenges and Opportunities arising from ‘legal highs’. Legal highs or ‘new psychoactive substances’ (NPS) are substances similar in effect to currently illicit drugs, but with a sufficiently different chemical structure to make them legal. They are commonly sold over the internet and predominantly taken by teenagers and young adults.
A BBC investigation today reports how easy it is to legally order large quantities of NPS over the internet. In this case, 1kg of chemical was imported from China for around £640. This is estimated to have a street value of around £15,000 in London (at £15 per gram).
Currently the government response to NPS is to place temporary banning orders on these substances as they are discovered, but new substances are coming onto the market far faster than the authorities can identify them – let alone place a banning order. Only one NPS (methoxetamine or ‘mexxy’) is currently under a temporary class drug order, pending approval for class B status from government.
Even if a banning order is put in place, it will typically only result in users being diverted to a different substance that has not yet been banned (commonly sold under the same name as the old substance, so users remain unaware of the new danger) and the creation of even more new substances. As the report points out:
Each new substance may be more harmful than the substance it replaces. But more than anything, young people are taking substances whose content and strength are unknown to them.
The greatest risk posed by legal highs, according to the Government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, is the lack of reliable information about the contents, strength or effects of each substance.
Dr John Ramsey, a leading toxicologist, said:
As long as large amounts of money can be made selling untreated chemicals, for which there is a market of largely young people willing to risk using them as drugs, and a chemical industry willing to supply the chemicals, the situation is unlikely to improve.
The report recommends an overhaul of the 40-year- old Misuse of Drugs Act, including a move to the system currently under consideration in New Zealand. Under this scheme, which New Zealand’s Cabinet is evaluating, suppliers would be allowed to sell new psychoactives legally, under strict regulation (e.g. with age restrictions, no advertising, labelled with dose and effects, only on licensed premises), but the onus would be on them to prove the drug’s safety to an agreed clinical standard. This regulatory framework for NPS would thus be similar in some respects to that for prescription medicines.
The proposal would create a ‘class D’ in which these drugs can be controlled and risks and harms to users can be minimised. The APPG report recommends that not only legal highs, but all currently illicit drugs with a relatively low risk of harm be assessed for placement in this category. Such a move could lead to drugs like ecstasy and cannabis – which, while not risk-free, pose a lower risk of harm than alcohol or tobacco – being moved into this new ‘class D’.
This would allow law enforcement to concentrate on those who supply the most dangerous and harmful substances, and minimise the harms resulting from prohibition of relatively low-risk substances.
The harms brought about by prohibition and the resulting illicit market include an adulterated product, unpredictable dose, and the criminalisation of young people (according to Release, nearly one million people in the UK have been convicted or cautioned for drug possession). In the case of NPS, we must also consider the displacement effect already discussed, i.e. the movement of users from one unlabelled, unregulated substance to the next.
The report also urges that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) should become a fully independent decision-making body. In recent years, political involvement in classification decisions – with the ACMD only allowed to make recommendations – has resulted in successive Home Secretaries rejecting downgrades even when drugs are clearly misclassified.
The irrationality of the present system is highlighted by the Rational Scale of Harms for all drugs, which Amanda invited Professor Colin Blakemore to develop for Beckley Foundation seminars in 2003 and 2004 , and which was subsequently published in an influential paper in the Lancet. This objective scale, which looks at harms to both the user and society, comes up with a wildly different ranking from the current classification system. For example MDMA, psilocybin and LSD (all class A) rank as less harmful than cannabis (class B), which in turn is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco (legal).
This gap between the evidence and classification has largely arisen from politicians ignoring the recommendations of the ACMD (often in fear of press reaction), but it can also in part be put down to the lack of research into the effects of psychoactive drugs due to the stifling restrictions on using these substances for research.
A further recommendation of the APPG report is that personal drug use be decriminalised, in order to allow a greater focus on health for users , rather than criminalising those with a medical problem.
Dr Owen Bowden Jones here gives his clinical opinion on the current state of affairs:
If someone has an addiction this defines their use and they will use the drug whether it is legal or not, regardless of the consequences. This is the nature of addiction. Criminalising such people is morally wrong.
Portugal has experimented with this policy of decriminalising use, and has largely found it to be a success. While their trend in adult drug use has reflected that in neighbouring countries, the numbers of young people becoming addicted to drugs has fallen, as has the number of drug-related deaths.
This is the third time in as many months that an influential committee has suggested that Britain’s drug laws are not working. The UK Drug Policy Commission released its Final Report in October 2012. The Home Affairs Select Committee published the findings of its Inquiry into Drugs in December 2012. All three reports make a strong case for changing our drug policy to better reduce harms posed by drugs to our population, and to take a greater consideration of evidence in doing so.
Download the All Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform report here
SELECTED COVERAGE (updated)
BBC Investigation Report Legal high deaths ‘tip of iceberg’, says doctor
The Times (Opinion, Baroness Molly Meacher, Chair of APPG) Some less harmful drugs need to be legalised
The Guardian (Opinion, Baroness Molly Meacher, Chair of APPG) Decriminalise drugs – it would reduce the level of harm in Britain
The Times (Editorial) Politicians afraid of being ‘soft’ on drugs
The Independent Call from cross-party peers to legalise ‘low-risk’ drugs
The Guardian From mephedrone to Benzo Fury: the new ‘legal highs’
Guardian Poll: Should legal highs be sold in pharmacies? (closes on 16 Jan)
The Telegraph Downing Street rejects calls to decriminalise drugs