At present, numerous ‘head shops’ and on line suppliers are able to offer chemical substances which sit just outside the current legal definition of a controlled substance. They do this by manufacturing a substance subtly different to those already outlined (perhaps one or two molecules different) and in doing so defeat the current legislation.
This cat and mouse creation, classification and banning has been the status quo in the UK for a number of years. As one chemical is being banned chemists are already working on the next two replacements. The Bill proposes a radically different approach to tackling this problem. But can the government expect a rough trip in introducing it ?
The vast majority of these compounds are developed and made in China, their exact content is often unclear and obviously there is no certainly of the quality of the alleged ingredients. They undoubtedly present a risk to some particularly when mixed with other substances, alcohol and/or poor judgement.
The growth in online suppliers and the emergence of ‘head shops’ in the UK specialising in their sale has been remarkable, particularly over the past 5 years. Most of the compounds are clearly marked not for human consumption and are sold as plant foods, household chemicals, fish food or bath salts. The range of potential uses reported is quite remarkable. They have now become so commonplace that most towns have at least one outlet with the alternative of delivery by post available via the internet.
Whilst there have undoubtedly been deaths caused by legal highs, former governmental drugs advisor Prof. David Nutt believes these have been overstated.
His research indicates that recorded figures have erroneously included deaths caused by substances already illegal in the UK as well as compounds such as anabolic steroids which are not psychoactive.
Professor Nutt claims the figures actually indicate deaths from legal highs in the range of 12 to 20 cases per annum. Whilst these are clearly each personal tragedies and a huge waste of life and potential, does this level of fatality justify the change in approach being proposed by the new legislation. Certainly a question worth considering. This is particularly true when these are measured against the estimated 3,000 deaths caused by alcohol and the 20,000 caused by tobacco each year in the UK. Ironically, both alcohol and tobacco have been specifically excluded from the proposed legislation.
So what is so different about the new legislative approach when contrasted to the existing Misuse of Drugs Act 1971? In simple terms this can be summarised in one word – specificity.
At present substances are banned by name or by drug class meaning that anything outside those classifications is lawful. The new approach seeks to turn this model on its head by stating that (in terms) any mind altering or psychoactive substance will be unlawful with certain exclusions.
Chicago in the 1920’s is perhaps the best known example when alcohol prohibition pushed supply into the hands of Al Capone and assorted criminal gangs. The supply was not significantly reduced with the speakeasy being a means of circumnavigating the law and continuing to provide alcohol through a chain of underground ‘coffee shops’.
The government of the time persisted with the total prohibition of alcohol until social pressures and the risk of the government being seen as a laughing stock overtook events and the ban was lifted, replaced instead with a series of legislatively backed licensing approaches.
Medical professionals in the UK have not been slow to spot the parallels, here Dr Christian Jessen debates the likely impact of imposing such a blanket ban in the UK without considering the implications on those drafting and enforcing the law.
Few people would argue that Governments have a legitimate interest and right to protect its citizens (at least its vulnerable citizens) and this legislation could be seen as falling into that category of action. So has Britain any lessons to learn from other countries who have taken this path before them? The answer would appear to be yes, but so far it has chosen to ignore them.
That law criminalised any substance that was ‘substantially similar’ to a controlled drug if it was designed for human consumption. It automatically banned the compound if its effects were ‘similar to or greater than’ a drug that has already been made illegal’.
The issue with the American Act is (I would suggest) the same as this broad brush UK Bill would face. Most half competent lawyers could demolish such imprecise phrasing as ‘substantially similar’ and who is to say whether any drug has a similar or greater effect than another on you, me or anyone else?
Both Poland and Ireland have also introduced similarly prohibitive legislation, although both find themselves fighting cases revolving around the definition of words and re-drafting the legislation – almost as many times as they would keeping up with new named substances.
Finally, the drafting of the final Act will be a poison chalice for some poor group of civil servants. At present the proposal would be to make any psychoactive substance or compound altering brain chemistry unlawful. Tne problem is that definition may simply be too broad to be workable.
Initial responses from the government lawyers is to simply exclude foodstuffs. – Really? How long before those same chemists come up with some ‘foodstuffs’ to circumvent this particular piece of legislation?
Some clinical psychologists also argue that many non-chemical items can be classed as mind altering substances, at least they are designed (and can achieve) a change in brain chemistry.
The whole history or propaganda is based on the aim of changing the mind state. Few would argue that the racier forms of literature or selected DVD’s can also induce similar reactions. Presumably these aren’t included in the same legislation despite probably fitting the rather loose definitions being suggested.
I for one would urge governments and legislators to engage in a long overdue adult and rational debate on drugs policy in the UK. It would appear that it is a topic which cannot be discussed by the political classes.
Far from recommending or proposing any particular act or outcome, I would just like an evidence based assessment of the options looking at the experience of other approaches. I would certainly like to see the Portuguese model examined objectively and compared to our current paradigm.
All in all, whilst supporting the aim of protecting the vulnerable from the unwanted impacts of drug use, I’m uncertain this approach is the best way to achieve that outcome.
One thing I am fairly sure about is that the current position that everything is lawful until it’s made unlawful is all things considered a healthy starting point. It is what our legal system has been based on for centuries and has much to recommend it. I for one would not rush to the legal approach of ancient Rome where all was illegal until it was made legal – something these proposals come perilously close to doing.