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The government’s drugs strategy is miles behind today’s drug dealers

4 August 2014

4:58 PM

4 August 2014

4:58 PM

New powers to tackle the huge growth in ‘legal’ highs are set to be introduced. Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, is said to be pushing for the most radical move, a blanket ban on all psychoactive substances.

My heart sinks. Do those at the top of government really think that a blanket ban will solve the problem? The evidence doesn’t suggest so: prohibition very rarely reduces drug use. So why do they think that an even more extreme level of prohibition will help?


New varieties of ‘legal’ high will be invented and put on sale on the internet. Many of these drugs are already imported from foreign websites, and it’s hard to see how this ban can stop this from happening.

The emergence of ‘legal’ highs presents a good opportunity for the government to reassess Britain’s creaking drug laws. But no, rather than seize that opportunity, they’ve grabbed the sledgehammer. This unsophisticated approach won’t reduce drug use, and it certainly won’t make ‘legal’ highs any safer.

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Show comments
  • Dale Finn

    here’s the thing… no one bats an eye when you see one person walking out of a store with two cases of 6.2% beer??? but they’re afraid someone’s gonna smoke that joint and chill at home?

  • Dale Finn


  • paulthorgan

    The author of this article misses the point.

    The point of prohibition in this case is not to abolish, but to send a message of discouragement.

    The crucial difference between drugs prohibition and that of alcohol prohibition in the USA in the 1920s is that drug use has not been widespread and culturally significant for a period of centuries. Drinking ‘small beer’ was necessary to avoid ingesting water-borne parasites. Drinking alcohol saved your life.

    Drug use is relatively modern by comparison. Since the taxpayer has to pick up the pieces when drug use goes wrong, the agency of the taxpayer, the state, is trying to lower taxpayer liability by discouraging use. This is, in fact, perfectly rational.

    I would not like to live and work in an environment where a significant proportion of the populace were under the influence of mind-altering substances. It would be frightening to be around people who could not behave rationally. Council sink estates are prime examples of this kind of environment.

    • mattghg

      But what makes you think that you would have to “live and work in an environment where a significant proportion of the
      populace were under the influence of mind-altering substances”? People are already able to legally get drunk, but nearly everyone is sober nearly all of the time. What makes you think it would be different with other substances if they were decriminalized?

      • paulthorgan

        I am afraid you fall into the common fallacy that all drugs are equal.

        They are not.

        Alcohol use has been established in our civilisation for millennia. Injecting heroin has not. Using the argument of equality betrays you as a victim of the liberal propaganda borne of muddled socialist thinking.

        • mattghg

          That’s not actually an answer to my question…

          • paulthorgan

            This is a comments section, not Q&A.

            • mattghg

              What a larf.

    • forumula_freddy

      “The point of prohibition in this case is not to abolish, but to send a message of discouragement.”

      And the point of the law is not to send public health messages or be used as an instrument of moral persecution.

      • paulthorgan

        That is actually part of the function of law. Use of the law to criminalise incest is not ‘moral persecution’ but is in fact for public health, just as is the illegality of selling alcohol and tobacco to minors.

        Try harder. Read the Guardian less.

        • forumula_freddy

          We are not talking about incest. We are talking about the personal use of recreational drugs other than alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. Also the laws on incest are not there simply to “send a message”. There is also a direct victim of that crime if a child is then born with deformities due to inbreeding.

          • paulthorgan

            If it is okay to extend a discussion away from drugs to alcohol, surely it is okay to extend it again to talk about incest. And children are born with deformities due to drug use.

            My point about drugs stands. You are simply wrong if you cannot make your case without dragging in tobacco and alcohol and caffeine.

            A=A, AB.

  • grasmithy
  • Picquet

    The chief issue with these things isn’t the effect they have on the ill-advised consumer, but the effect on those around him. Anyone operating moving machinery with a ‘legal high’ on, for instance is a clear danger, and sentencing for causing injury while voluntarily under par must take account of the fact.

  • beenzrgud

    Legalise, control, and tax illegal drugs. The “war on drugs” has failed, time for a new strategy.

  • Nick Wallis

    Ireland tried this in 2010. Irish youth are now some of the biggest consumers of NPS (Novel Psychoactive Substances) in the European Union.

    Down here in Australia, three states have introduced similar legislation to Ireland.

    New South Wales defined ‘psychoactive substance’ to refer to any substance (other than those exempted – ie. tobacco, caffeine, alcohol) which stimulates or
    depresses the central nervous system, resulting in hallucination or significant disturbance or change to motor function, thinking, behaviour, perception, awareness or mood, or creates a state of dependence.

    This broad-reaching legislation has not yet been tested in the courts, so it’s hard to tell how well it will hold up, but according to their definitions there are a number of potentially unintended consequences of this legislation, including:

    Banning all plants that contain DMT or other similar tryptamines, which includes Australia’s native wattle which can be seen on our national emblem. Avocado (among other things) contain cannabinoids that appear to be banned under the legislation. Many cheeses also contain cannabinoids and opioid-like substances that are technically banned under a broad reading of the legislation.

    The other part of this legislation is that: Direct or indirect advertisement or promotion of a psychoactive substance for consumption, supply, sale or on how to acquire one is considered an offence.

    This is broadest in South Australia, where it is illegal to promote something with words that MAY give another person the idea that it might get them high (So… what of Red Bull’s “Gives You Wings” campaign???).

    This legislation is usually touted as a ‘reversal of the onus of proof’ by legislators.

    To be clear: Reversing the ‘onus of proof’ requires that there must be a possibility to prove that something is of a certain level of safety. This is IMPOSSIBLE under this kind of legislation, because it ASSUMES that any psychoactive effect (other than those randomly exempted) is a moral, social a health/welfare evil that must be stopped AT ALL COST.

    This is the presumption of prohibition. It is a MORAL one, not a scientific one. And it sits on VERY shaky moral grounds that have very, very few valid propositions backing it up.

    Shift the psychoactive paradigm.

    • forumula_freddy

      You hit the nail on the head regarding drug prohibition being based on moral rather than science. It is, and always has been, a persecution on anyone who has anything to do with any recreational or inspirational drug that isn’t alcohol, tobacco or caffeine. Nothing to do with science or safety.

      I would like to see some stats to show how many “legal highs” are being sold in the UK. My guess is that only a small number would be sold in these rare shops that NIMBYs jump up and down to get closed. It’s easier, cheaper and more reliable to get legal highs from reputable Internet vendors; vendors with a reputation for selling pure “research chemicals” without the mystery ingredients or illegal content.

      I predict that if the government takes that away then the falling illegal drug use figures they are so smug about will sharply reverse.

      • andagain

        You hit the nail on the head regarding drug prohibition being based on moral

        Which moral principles, exactly?

        Reactionary hysteria would seem to have more effect than moral principles…

        • Nick Wallis

          The moral idea in question is the idea that pleasure or the altering of consciousness is an inherently evil/bad thing.

          This is the assumption that prohibitionists aiming for absolute abstinence make.

          I disagree with it.

    • post_x_it

      Another example is the fact that you’re not allowed to bring coca tea into this country. I got used to drinking it on an extended stay in the Andes, and I can assure you that it’s nothing more than a pleasant herbal brew that does not get you ‘high’ in any conceivable sense of the word – significantly less so in fact than English breakfast tea or coffee!
      The relationship between coca tea and cocaine is the same as between fresh grape juice and brandy.
      I wanted to bring a box of coca tea bags home with me but was warned off it as it’s illegal to bring them into the UK. WHY?????

      • Nick Wallis

        If you want to know why… Go check out the United Nations conventions on psychotropic drugs. Specifically the 1961 one.

        This treaty focused primarily on three plants: Cannabis, coca and poppies.

        • post_x_it

          That doesn’t mean it makes sense.

          • Nick Wallis

            The UK is a signatory to that treaty and are required by international conventions to prohibit those plants and products derived from them. It doesn’t make logical sense… it only makes this weird kind of legal-precedent, arbitrary evaluative-statements sense…

  • Lemniscate

    Not sure how you are supposed to write a law banning all psychoactive substances without running into absurdity. Are we going to ban gingko and nutmeg?

    • WillyTheFish

      Or even coffee!

    • post_x_it

      In the War on Drugs the absurdity threshold was passed a very, very long time ago.

  • andagain

    New powers to tackle the huge growth in ‘legal’ highs are set to be introduced.

    Well, they can hardly allow people to go around obeying the law, can they?

  • In2minds

    Government strategy, what is working?

  • dado_trunking

    Move drug sales online. Then, when all the punters have moved to buying their British beers and cigs on the interweb, close them down like a cargill55.

  • ButcombeMan

    Get your criticism in early eh Lara? Before you know exactly what is proposed.

    The open sale of so called “legal highs” unsuitable for human consumption should not be dealt with, as far as it can be?

    Although drugs use legal or illegal seems to be drifting downwards in the UK, the sales of these various substances is causing havoc in the lives of some young people ( and some deaths). It is causing a serious problem in schools.

    We use consumer protection laws in respect of many other activities. It takes a special sort of muddled mind to suggest such laws should not be used in this arena.

    Some countries have banned the “Headshops”, among them Portugal and the Republic of Ireland.

    Norman Baker has taken far too long to get to grips with this.