Are Britain’s high streets really the answer to our lethal highs emergency?

Are Britain’s high streets really the answer to our lethal highs emergency?

28th February 2014

‘Legal highs’ are in the news again today. The front page of the Times quotes Norman Baker, a Home Office Minister, as suggesting that they could be sold over high street counters to try to control them.  Some campaigners rallied against him immediately and a seemingly embarrassed Government had already ruled it out by lunchtime today.

In fairness, the Minister had framed it as only one of a number of options under consideration, but at the Centre for Social Justice we’ve been weighing up how best to respond to these drugs for more than a year.  And from parents and professionals alike, we’ve heard enough to suggest that selling ‘legal highs’ in our town centres could turn an emergency into a crisis.

In 2009 10 people died from using legal drugs. By 2012 the number was 68.  It will only keep rising.

Take Joe by way of example.  He is 33. One of his kidneys doesn’t function and the other only works at 15 per cent. For the rest of his life he will have to use a catheter and he may one day require daily dialysis.

Why? He used ‘legal highs’, some of which claim the lives of more than one person a week.  He started taking them at 24 but soon became hooked.  As a survivor, he says he’s one of the lucky ones.

We’ve spoken to others whose lives have been turned upside down after using the drugs. We have heard how children, some as young as 11, can order them online and have them delivered by postmen days later. All without their families knowing.

So would we really trust Government-licensed shops to keep users like Joe from harm and take control of the trade?

The sad fact is that while a growing number of column inches and parliamentary speeches are devoted to the subject – Britain is no closer to tackling the often tragic effects.

Admittedly, there are no easy solutions. A chemical tweak in a laboratory means these drugs escape the law and they emerge at the rate of one per week.  But allowing more of these drugs onto the high street, licensing people to sell them behind counters and blackened windows, would surely only make things worse.

But there is something quick and easy we could do.  Calling these substances ‘club drugs’ or ‘legal highs’ painfully undersells the impacts they can have on the likes of Joe and many others harmed by them. They can be highly dangerous and, as we have seen, deadly. In the quest for effective responses Norman Baker should call these things what they are: lethal highs.  Send a sensible signal to the young people putting their lives in jeopardy.  And from there, we can begin to work through a very complex problem.

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