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Legal Highs: An Impossible Task


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The government’s chief drugs advisor professor Les Iverson has said Britain is 'floundering' in its attempts to control the online ‘legal highs’ market. In a bid to control the market, new 'legal high' drugs will be banned immediately for 12 months under Home Office legislation. Not only is this impractical but also posing a dangerous threat to users.

Naturally, it seems counter intuitive to argue against a ban on substances which pose such apparent danger to users. For example, when looking at the case of the 24 year old man who died after jumping off a cliff following use of the legal high, Ivory Wave. But this is exactly why a total ban on substances like Ivory Wave should not be in place. Substances that pose the most harm to individuals need the most regulation. The law is helpless in the face of demand and it is oversimplistic to suggest a ban will stop young people using drugs. Drugs have never been cheaper or more available. Rather it encourages young people to find new ways to get the same effects via other means.

The current drugs classification system can only ban substances one chemical component at a time. Banning legal highs does not eradicate the problem, rather it just means that the chemical make up is altered slightly to get round the ban. One change in the compounds used and the substance will be legal again. People will always favour something that is legal over illegal. By removing the prospect of a criminal record, the legal high is almost always going to be favoured by users and dealers alike. Legislation can hardly keep up with chemistry, there are far more chemical compounds than hours to debate new legislation. Ban mepherdrone and it is simply replaced with nepherdrone.

This has implications for not only the user, but also the medical profession whose responsibility is to care for those who overindulge. Rather than limit the harm the drugs are doing, a ban can increase the possible harm. The legal highs available today are just more primitive versions of their former, now illegal, counterparts. A total ban just increases the risks associated with using. It means the market is unregulated, most of the mepherdrone and other formerly ‘legal’ highs available today are mass produced in overseas laboratories, with none of the safeguards that anything designed for human consumption would normally be subject to. This means that drugs can be cut with anything and the user can never be 100% certain on what it is they are taking. Similarly, doctors cannot keep up with the constantly changing market and therefore do not know the best way to care for people who do misuse legal highs.

Additionally, the banning of  ‘meow’ without evidence to show substantial harm and the associated resignation of experts such as Professor Nutt undermines the credibility of the government. After all, you are more likely to die horse riding than after taking ecstasy, yet it remains class A in a classification system apparently based on potential harm. In April, the government called for a ban on mepherdrone, reclassifying it as Class B in response to reports that it had killed two teenagers, It later emerged that neither of the teenagers had even taken the drug. One consequence of the high profile coverage and reclassification of the ban was that mepherdrone became the most popular drug of 2010, just behind alcohol, tobacco and cannabis. The ban of ketamine in 2006 also resulted in an increased popularity of the drug.

The banning of legal highs is another move in the 40 year losing war on drugs. Last year, the drugs market was estimated to have made £10 billion. Money that went untaxed and into the hands of criminals to fund criminality and corruption. 90% of heroin in Britain comes from Afghanistan but only 1% of heroin leaving Afghanistan was seized. The trade is believed to provide nearly 60% of the funding for the Taliban where the war on drugs meets the war on terror. The drugs trade has no regulation or means to settle disputes, consequently half of all murders are drug related. Prohibition is clogging our prison system, 40% of those in prisons are in due to drugs charges. In theory, the current Misuse of Drugs act criminalises over half of all young people who have admitted to using drugs in their lifetimes. Banning more substances will not only exacerbate these already existing problems but also pose potentially fatal danger to users, whose numbers show no sign of decline.

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