The UK has a new drug problem. In all the furore of today’s drug-related coverage you could be forgiven for having missed it but it is taking an increasing toll on young people, their families and communities.
During our two-year review into disadvantage in Britain, set out in No Quick Fix andAmbitious for Recovery , it became clear that ‘legal highs’ are a growing challenge to which we are failing to rise.
Some of these dangerous and often addictive drugs have similar effects to banned substances like cocaine, LSD and even opiates. But thanks to a chemist’s tweak, however, they escape control under the Misuse of Drugs Act. As they are not classified, they can be sold openly on the high street, provided they are marked ‘Not For Human Consumption’. Yet go into any of these stores , so-called ‘head shops’ (and sometimes even newsagents , garages, and take-aways) and you find these harmful drugs packaged like sweets with brand names like ‘Gocaine’ and ‘White China’.
In the course of our review we met people who had suffered severe damage: people like Daniel who, after consuming one of the substances suffered a psychotic episode and wound up in intensive care with respiratory failure. Or there’s 20-year old Craig, who suffered heart failure and sadly passed away.
This problem is sizable and growing. The UK has the highest number of users in Europe (690,000 young people are estimated to have tried them) and the number of related deaths has soared from fewer than one per month to over two a week. Based on current trends, the number of deaths could exceed those linked to heroin by 2016.
Despite government attempts to identify and ban these substances, the authorities are always one step behind the illicit chemists, who are bringing new drugs on to the market at a rate of one per week.
A compounding problem is the bureaucratic obstacles faced by police and local authorities in stopping ‘head shops’ trading in these deadly substances. Investigations have found that some ‘legal high’ products contain illegal drugs, however police and local authorities do not have the resources to test the substances on offer and enforce the law.
This is why we welcome the Government’s Expert Panel endorsement of our recommendation that Britain adopts the approach taken in Ireland. Rather than ban each substance one by one, all psychoactive substances are banned (with exceptions for substances like alcohol, tobacco and medicines).
Anyone caught selling these drugs for human consumption (or being reckless as to whether it’s for consumption) can have their shop closed down. This prevents sellers avoiding responsibility by placing disclaimers on packaging.
In Ireland the result of this legislation have been impressive. In less than a year the number of ‘head shops’ went from over 100 to fewer than 10.
More importantly, doctors in A&E departments across Ireland told the CSJ that after the legislation was passed the number of ‘legal high’-related admissions was slashed. One doctor described the difference as ‘like night and day’ and another said ‘undoubtedly this has saved lives’.
This solution works, it will save lives and help prevent young people experimenting with extremely dangerous substances.