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Legal Highs & The 2010 Drug Strategy

By John Clarke

Last week saw the release of the UK Government’s 2010 drug strategy, and so far, this is all I’ve had time to say on the matter:

While I may have spent the time since doing some hardcore diversification (more on that at a later date…), what the government actually proposes sounds more ridiculous as each day passes, so I’ve gone through all the new publications, pulled out everything related to legal highs and displayed them below for your convenience. I’ve also listed a few other choice quotes that stood out at the time (I’m sure there’s more to be found, but I’ve only skimmed it). My comments are in pink.

Drug Strategy 2010 Main Document

Over the last few years, a new trend has emerged. There is emerging evidence that young people are taking new legal chemicals instead of or as well as other drugs. Most of these substances have never been tested for use by humans. The immediate risks they pose or the long term damage they are doing, are often not immediately apparent as their harms are unknown.
  • If the problem is “young people”, why not restrict it like alcohol?
  • Even if legal highs were trialled like pharmaceuticals, they’d still never be approved for consumption because they’re largely recreational
This Government is committed to an evidence-based approach. High quality scientific advice in this complex field is therefore of the utmost importance. This is why we value the work and independent advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which has experts from fields that include science, medicine, law enforcement and social policy. We are committed to both maintaining this expertise and ensuring the ACMD’s membership has the flexibility to respond to the accelerating pace of challenges. The proper consideration of that advice is at the heart of enabling us to deliver this strategy, including the reforms required to tackle the problem of emerging new psychoactive substances (‘legal highs’).
  • There’s plenty of evidence showing prohibition doesn’t work – consumption will stay the same (if not actually increase); sales can’t be taxed, purity will decrease, users are less likely to seek help in an emergency. Actually, here’s some evidence our former MP sent to Alan Johnson last year when he sacked David Nutt.
  • When mephedrone was banned, it was clear the government intended to ban it anyway, pressuring the ACMD to hurry the fuck up while reducing a lot of their hard work to a mere formality.
  • The government wants to scrap the requirement to have scientists on the ACMD. More info on that at The Guardian.

The Government is determined to address the issue of so called ‘legal highs’. We know that these substances can pose a serious threat, especially to the health of young people. We need a swift and effective response and are therefore redesigning the legal framework through the development of temporary class drug orders so we can take immediate action. We will improve the forensic analytical capability for new psychoactive substances and will establish an effective forensic early warning system.

UKBA are undertaking enforcement action at the border to target and intercept consignments of these new substances. The Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) is currently developing approaches to identify importers, distributors and sellers of ‘legal highs’ and disrupt their ventures, including activity against websites. We are also introducing technology at the borders to identify these new types of drugs.

These enforcement activities will be combined with prevention, education and treatment. We will
continue to emphasise that, just because a drug is legal to possess, it does not mean it is safe and it is
likely that drugs sold as ‘legal highs’ may actually contain substances that are illegal to possess.

Legal means safe!

  • First paragraph suggests more powers to ban stuff is the only possible way of “addressing” the “issue”. Very much shoot first, ask questions later…
  • Activities against websites, which aren’t actually breaking the laws? Hmm.
  • Of course legal doesn’t mean safe – alcohol and tobacco are legal, after all. Do kids think it acceptable enjoy their Frosties with a splash of ice cold ethanol every morning?
  • Also, banning something because sellers might sell an illegal substitute instead is mental. If I went to the supermarket and cheekily sprinkled cocaine on the doughnuts, would doughnuts be banned? Obviously the best way to tackle this fairly serious issue would be through regulation. Obviously.

Strategy Impact Assessment

Description and scale of key monetised costs by ‘main affected groups’

The temporary banning power for so-called “legal highs” is an enabling power and therefore has no direct impact. There will be some limited additional economic and financial costs incurred by Government as a result of the introduction of the Drug Strategy; however we have not included the value of these monetised costs owing to the early phase of development and the potential commercial sensitivity of such analysis.
  • Costs will surely be massive, as my next comment suggests

Rationale

There has also been the emergence of “legal highs” as a new trend with young people taking new legal chemicals instead of or as well as other drugs. Most of these substances have never been tested for use on humans and the immediate risks they pose or the long term damage they cause are often not immediately apparent as the harms are unknown.
Legislation is required to introduce a new system of temporary bans on new “legal highs” while health issues are considered by independent experts.
  • How much time and money will it cost to fully analyse a substance? If 10 new substances emerge around the same time, that cost increases tenfold, along with the pressure to complete each analysis within the allotted timeframe (which isn’t specified anywhere in these documents – more on that later).
  • A great deal of the evidence considered by the ACMD comes from users, such as forum posts, hospital visits or amnesty bins outside nightclubs, for example. How will they pick up on idiosyncrasies affecting say one in 1000 people? I somehow doubt that a rushed report based on poor evidence will be particularly thorough.
  • How dangerous does something have to be to earn itself a ban? Anything psychoactive is potentially dangerous, as an altered mental state could lead to an accident or something; driving while tired is dangerous enough to warrant loads of signs along the motorway but we’re not banning tiredness (although, that would be awesome if it were somehow possible!). I just can’t imagine a report concluding “Naw, it’s totally fine!” about anything that isn’t completely inert.
  • The ACMD have reported before about what a stupid idea it was to upgrade cannabis to class B, but the government went ahead anyway. What’s stopping them from doing the same in these situations? This whole idea looks like an underhand way of introducing a new supercharged banning stick, like using anti-terror legislation to silence protesters or harass minorities.

Reducing Supply

Reduce the risk of harm from new psychoactive substances, so called “legal highs”: by introducing a system of temporary bans while the health issues are considered by independent experts

We will establish an effective forensic early warning system

We will introduce technology at the borders to assist with the identification of new drugs

Work with UK based internet providers to ensure they comply with the letter and spirit of UK law

Cost / Benefit

PolicySummary of Costs / Benefits
Reduce the risk of harm from new psychoactive substances, so called “legal highs”: by introducing a system of temporary bans while the health issues are considered by independent expertsCostsIt is not possible to quantify the costs of these provisions. As the provisions introduce an enabling power for temporary bans, rather than controlling any specific substance, it has not been possible to quantify the costs. The use of this provision will depend on the rate at which new potentially harmful “legal highs” are introduced to the UK market. A full Regulatory Impact Assessment will be completed on each occasion that the power is used, taking into account any evidence on prevalence of availability and use, in the same way when a drug is brought under permanent control under 1971 Act.BenefitsFor the reasons given, it is not possible to quantify the benefits of these provisions. The overarching benefit of a faster legislative response is to reduce the likelihood of a criminal market developing with associated enforcement costs as well as limiting both potential harm to individual users health, including dependency, with associated treatment costs and wider societal harms.
We will establish an effective forensic early warning systemCostsThere will be forensic and general administrative costs incurred by Government as a result of this policy. However, we cannot monetise these costs owing to the early phase of development of this policy option and the potential commercial sensitivity of such analysis.BenefitsThere will be non-monetised benefits incurred by Government as a result of this policy. The use of this provision will depend on the rate at which new harmful ‘legal highs’ are introduced to the market. We can expect the societal benefits of reduced harm from new ‘legal highs’ through the ability to identify and therefore ban them more quickly.
We will introduce technology at the borders to assist with the identification of new drugs.CostsThere will be forensic and technological costs incurred by Government as a result of this policy. However, we cannot monetise these costs owing to the early phase of development of this policy option and the potential commercial sensitivity of such analysis.BenefitsIt is not possible to quantify the benefits of these provisions. The use of this provision will depend on the rate at which new harmful ‘legal highs’ are introduced to the market. We can expect the societal benefits of reduced harm from new ‘legal highs’ through the ability to identify and therefore ban them more quickly.
  • No estimate of the cost for even a single analysis. This bit also points out that these analyses are identical to those already performed before a regular ban, so you’d think they’d include an estimate at least.
  • The overall tone suggests, once again, that these analyses are no more than a formality. They don’t even consider what might happen should an analysis conclude something’s not that bad after all.

The ACMD’s Response

What else do you think we can do to keep one step ahead of the changing drugs markets?

Changing drug trends can be identified at many levels, all of which should be monitored and information gathered so as to be aware of changing drug markets and ultimately, harms to users. Reports may be gathered from the National / European level to local level concerning initially, (among others), seizures, forensics, accident and emergency admissions, internet based sales, service users etc. Such evidence should be used to inform drugs that are to be considered.

The internet has become a critical vector in the development of drug markets for novel / legal highs. Monitoring sales sites and conducting test purchasing (with forensic examination of the products) provides key information on emerging trends and markets. At present this is an occasional academic activity but there is a strong case for this to be routine.

  • So, the best way to “keep ahead” of the changing market is by seeing what happens when people actually use something, which, as I mentioned before, will be much less effective with a temporary ban in place.

Do you have a view on what factors the government should take into consideration when deciding to invoke a temporary ban on a new substance?

The ACMD are responding separately to the Minister for Crime Prevention on this issue. The ACMD’s consideration of the ‘trigger point’ for a Temporary Banning Power (i.e. factors), as sent to the Minister is:

The ACMD does not believe the point at which consideration is given to invoking a Temporary Banning Power should be too prescriptive. The purpose of the temporary banning power should be the prevention of harms. Therefore, the ACMD considers that the trigger point should be ‘[on the available evidence] there are reasonable grounds for considering that a substance does, or has, the potential to cause harm’. As part of the ACMD’s initial consideration as to whether a temporary banning power should be invoked it will look to understand the identity of the substance, consider related substances, consider any legitimate uses and gather evidence internationally and locally regarding the substance and its harms (including, for example, A&E admissions, known pharmacology, dependency and social harms etc.). However, it is not possible to detail the ‘level’ of evidence that would be required, nor what that evidence would be – evidence, and the relative importance of each type of evidence, will depend on the substance being considered.

  • The key phrase here is “[we can temp ban shit if] a substance does, or has, the potential to cause harm” – as I mentioned before, anything has the potential to cause harm. ANYTHING.

Should there be a greater focus on treating people who use substances other than heroin or crack cocaine, such as powder cocaine and so called legal highs?

See earlier answer regarding prevention. Service needs should be delivered based on the harms experienced by each individual drug (although a full service for all drugs would be the ideal). This principle is even more important during a period of austerity. It would be difficult to ask for a widening of remit whilst reducing available resources. The ideal answer to this question is different from the pragmatic one. Reduce the risk of harm from new psychoactive substances, so called “legal highs”: by introducing a system of temporary bans while the health issues are considered by independent experts.

Legal Highs Section on the Home Office Website

Action on stopping ‘legal highs’ coming on to the market is a priority for the government. The coalition agreement states, ‘We will introduce a system of temporary bans on new “legal highs” while health issues are considered by independent experts. We will not permanently ban a substance without receiving full advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.’

‘Legal highs’ pose a significant health risk, so banning is a public health measure. A ban sends a clear message to users of ‘legal highs’ (including young people who may be considering trying them), and to those selling them. Young people in particular may equate legal with safe and do not always understand that these drugs carry real risks.

Mephedrone (often referred to as ‘meow meow’), an earlier legal high, was made a class B drug in April 2010, while Naphyrone (often sold as ‘NRG-1’) was made a class B drug on 23 July 2010. Both these drugs are now illegal to have, sell or give away.

  • What happened following the mephedrone ban (catalysed by the media’s undue hype)? Ivory Wave.

TalkToFrank Website

This is the only place with any specifics about the banning process.

The Government have announced that they will introduce a new system of one-year temporary bans on new ‘legal highs’ while the health issues can be considered by an independent group of experts, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD).  This new system is likely to be introduced in autumn 2011
  • The media keep saying “with immediate effect” – August 2011 is hardly immediate
  • The bans are in place for the maximum of a year, while proper clinical trials take several years – also, trialling a new potentially life-saving drug doesn’t bring up anywhere near the amount of ethical issues as testing a recreational substance under the assumption it’s probably harmful

Interesting Bits & Pieces

The UK is of course not unique in having to confront drug misuse. So, as we build upon this strategy, we are committed to continuing to review new evidence on what works in other countries and what we can learn from it.
  • Lol.
The estimated £18-25 billion a year cost of alcohol misuse spans alcohol related disorders and diseases, crime, loss of productivity in the workplace and health and social problems experienced by those who misuse alcohol and the impact this has on their families. For the NHS alone, the estimated financial burden of the harmful use of alcohol (regularly drinking at increasing or higher risk levels) is around £2.7 billion.
  • All of the sciences get £3 billion between them. Just sayin’.

It is estimated that 1.6 million people have mild, moderate or severe alcohol dependence. About a third of these will face some challenges that are similar to those dependent on drugs in needing support to help them recover. It is specialist alcohol treatment, for those in this group who would benefit from treatment, that this strategy aims to improve.

The illicit drug market in the UK is worth an estimated £4-6 billion per year.

Should we be making more of the potential to use the benefit system to offer claimants a choice between;

  1. some form of financial benefit sanction, if they do not to take action to address their drug or alcohol dependency; or
  2. additional support to take such steps, by tailoring the requirements placed upon them as a condition of benefit receipt to assist their recovery (for example temporarily removing the need to seek employment whilst undergoing treatment).

Treatment should not be linked to financial sanctions. In this scenario a few may benefit, however the majority may not as it does not take into account the genesis of the addiction.

Defining drug and alcohol dependency may cause some problems – even though there are clear definitions there may still be differing opinion. Sharing information also presents the ACMD with some concerns.

  • When we first read about this, Jo & I came to the same conclusion immediately: the government has no idea what addiction is or what it means to be addicted. Nice to know the experts agree – we can’t be going too far wrong!

***

Well, that’s the lot, but you might be interested in my Top 10 Reasons Why Legal Highs Should Stay Legal..

3 Responses to Legal Highs & The 2010 Drug Strategy

  1. Steve Chapman says:

    A joy to read, as usual. I wish one of our pundits or profs would take a similar scathe to Canada’s broken, arbitrary and directionless drug law, which is defined by three unspoken axioms:

    1) Our UN commitments leave us no choice.
    2) We are scared shit-less of pissing off the ‘Mer’cans.
    3) It’s in the public interest.

    Actually, that last one is spoken, usually accompanied by a vast amount of verbal histrionics and zero hard evidence. Why bother with evidence when a Minister’s signature is all that’s required?

    If the UK’s politicians are hypocrites, Canada’s skirt it only by having to follow no procedure at all.

  2. klaus says:

    The whole problem is availability to adolescents who do not recognise the risk, the British media are most at fault
    its a very easy media scandal seed to plant,
    Writing a story about the drug increases awareness around drug users and therefore more stories to write – Lazy journalism
    This idea of temporary bans has some things in its favour, as long as a drug doesn’t become mainstream, nothing will be done about it, unless it proves highly addictive or harmful

  3. Exzanian says:

    It is HUGELY frustrating for me…In a large degree the YouTube kids have been killing stuff like salvia by broadcasting their stupidity and it only takes a couple of incidents like mephedrone and ivory wave for the whole FUCKING deck of cards to come down, because politicians see the value of banning substances in light of the mother grundy value that MAY translate into votes in their favour!

    WRONG!!!! it’s all wrong…

    The market just needs to be regulated for crisakes, but that is just too much work, too much risk, because the minute a politician makes those type of noises they will be BOOED down and lets face it, the current regime is looking for scapegoats left and right…Dammit! Arrrghh!

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