Tackling legal highs is not a sufficient reform

It is, sadly, blatantly clear that Theresa May’s new Psychoactive Substances bill is does not aim to target harm, but pleasure. It outlaws ‘any substance… which, by acting on the central nervous system, affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state’. There is no mention made anywhere in the bill of the dangers of so-called legal highs; in a somewhat disturbing move, the proposed bill identifies its targets by the psychoactive effects they generate, and not the dangers they might pose.

The vague wording of the bill, with its references to ‘emotional state’, has led some commentators to point out that almost anything we ‘consume’ or ‘ingest’ could fall under its scope in some way or another. Some possible examples could include the smell of a perfume worn by someone you love (which creates an emotional effect), flowers (because they smell nice and this makes us happy), and eye drops (by moisturising your eyes, they make you feel better and temporarily relieve allergies or itching). Of course, fairly harmless highs, which are currently still legal, such as nitrous oxide and poppers will also be banned, along with the manufactured cocaine and ecstasy substitutes that the government was presumably trying to tackle with the ban.

Putting aside the amusingly poor wording of the legislation, the Psychoactive Substances Bill is another sad indication of the incredibly poorly focused attitude that the United Kingdom takes toward drugs. Yes, drugs can cause immense harm, but the vast majority of this harm is caused by drugs which are perfectly legal, namely alcohol and tobacco, both of which are specifically exempt from the bill and both of which would unquestionably be illegal if they were discovered today. The government wants to ban laughing gas, but refuses even to introduce a minimum price for alcohol; it will throw you into jail for selling non-addictive cannabis, but continues to allow the tobacco industry to make vast profits by encouraging millions to try and subsequently become addicted to cigarettes.

The Home Office’s own research, published in October 2014, found that ‘there is no apparent correlation between the “toughness” of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use’. Our often unjustified aversion to recreational drugs is so entrenched that it has even led to legal difficulties researching their potential medical benefits, such as the reported ability of MDMA to help with treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the benefits that certain types of cannabis can have for those with epilepsy. Dozens of people still die every year from tskinh contaminated batches of drugs or unintentionally overdosing, simply because when the drugs trade is driven underground, people don’t really know what they’re buying.

In fact, most of the damage and deaths caused by drug use are due to the fact that, in the absence of legal regulation, there is no way of knowing the purity of the drugs you are taking; four people died in January this year from contaminated ecstasy tablets, and an accidental overdose is far easier when you don’t know the strength of what you’ve just bought. Putting aside safety concerns for a second, by driving the drugs trade under ground, the government is effectively handing control of a multibillion pound industry over to criminal gangs who have no legal incentives to ensure that their product is what they say it is, that they sell only to adults, or that their customers are informed of the risks of taking drugs.

Drug use would be far safer and, crucially, infinitely easier to control, if all drugs were declared legal, and their sale controlled by the government through the use of appropriate health warnings and age restrictions, similarly to the way in which the sale of tobacco has been controlled; rates of smoking have more than halved since the 1970s. Legalising recreational drugs doesn’t mean that they would be handed out to kids in Boots; they could only be sold in shops which were run by the government and which would require customers to show their ID at the door, and public information campaigns could be run to warn potential users off away from drugs.

If adults, fully informed of the risks and benefits of recreational drug use, decide nevertheless to take drugs in private, it is not the government’s place to punish them for that decision. State intervention in actions that purely affect ourselves smacks of overzealous paternalism and hypocrisy; David Cameron was almost expelled from Eton for smoking cannabis and has consistently refused to deny taking cocaine. If the state wants to protect us from ourselves, it might as well ban extreme sports; if it wants to reduce the damage and deaths caused by drugs, it should do more to reduce alcohol and tobacco consumption.

Taking aim at laughing gas and poppers whilst allowing alcohol abuse to continue unfettered in public and in private is spectacularly misguided, and shows once again that our drugs policy is based on emotion instead of on evidence. As David Nutt, the former government drugs advisor sacked for pointing out the horse riding is more dangerous than ecstasy, said, the proposed legislation is ‘pathetic’. The government is not the mother of everyone in the country; if people want to take legal highs, or any other drug for that matter, they should be allowed to make that decision themselves.


PHOTO/Erich Ferdinand