It’s fashionable nowadays to claim that young people in Britain don’t know how to have a good time. There’s certainly plenty of evidence to suggest we’re avoiding the drugs our parents’ generation got their kicks from. Fraser Nelson discussed this in The Spectator last November, arguing that Britain’s youth were becoming more abstemious:

‘Marijuana, LSD, speed, cocaine — surveys show that every drug you can think of is plunging in popularity amongst the young. The proportion of under-20s who say they have taken drugs in the past month has halved over the last decade. Only two drugs are on the up and both are legal: Ritalin and Modafinil, stimulants that can power students through ten-hour study sessions.

‘It’s a long way from Woodstock. Whereas older generations took drugs to party (and still do), Britain’s young are now popping pills that help them work harder.

‘Shunned by the youth, Britain’s drug dealers are watching their market collapse. Over the past two decades, the street price of cannabis, cocaine and Ecstasy has fallen by at least two-thirds. A tab of LSD is now cheaper than a half pint of cider. Never have illegal drugs been more affordable — but never have young people shown less interest.’

Fraser is in some ways right. The popularity of ‘every drug you can think of’ may be plunging. But what about the ones you can’t think of? What about the 97 so-called ‘legal highs’ that have emerged onto the market in the last year? And how to explain the 670,000 young people in the UK between the ages of 15 -24 who say they have taken a legal high at least once, according to a UN report published last year? Young people may not be taking cocaine, cannabis and LSD as much as they used to, but let’s not play dumb here – they are still taking drugs (and not just ones to make them study harder).

These new drugs are hitting the market at a remarkable and unprecedented rate. Since 2008, 348 new types of synthetic drugs have appeared in more than 90 countries around the world. The list of substances controlled by the UK Misuse of Drugs Act may be long, but you can guarantee the list of drugs not yet classified is even longer.

Fraser points to the fact that the street market for drugs has begun to collapse. But what he fails to mention is the rise of internet drug emporiums. Legal highs (and illegal ones) can be bought from efficient retailers, who will zip them to your house via the Royal Mail – the oblivious drug mule. The UK now has the largest market for legal highs in the EU. These types of substances are particularly easy to flog via the internet, because they don’t fall foul of the law.

But a drug that has evaded criminal classification is no safer than one that hasn’t. Both can be dangerous. In 2011-2012, 6,486 people in England were treated for abusing legal highs, an increase of 39% compared with five years previously.

In the face of this, the law has been playing catch up. But given the almost infinite scope to alter the chemical structure of these new drugs, new formulations are outpacing efforts to impose control.

Legislation is occasionally updated, as was the case with mephedrone, a drug that was popular (and legal) during some of my time at university. Like many legal highs, it mimicked the effect of an illegal drug – in this case, speed and ecstasy. In 2010, it was made illegal in the UK, and became a class B substance.

But mephedrone is an exception to the rule. Last year, the Centre for Social Justice criticised the government’s response to the ever-expanding range of legal highs, saying it had only used temporary banning orders three times to control approximately 15 substances since 2010. More than 150 new substances have gone on sale since then.

The law simply cannot cope with this new era of drug use. The intensely prescriptive approach – whereby drugs can be legal or illegal simply through a small change in molecular structure – is unhelpful, creating the illusion that legal highs are ‘low risk’ in comparison with illegal drugs. When coupled with the fact that illegal drug use is in decline, this illusion fuels the mistaken impression that the ‘war on drugs’ is won.

But drug use hasn’t died; it has mutated. We now have two competitive markets for unregulated drugs – one illegal, one ‘legal’. Why not use the surge in the growth of legal highs as a chance to address this? Nixon’s rhetoric about the ‘war on drugs’ dates from 1971 – the same year Britain established the Misuse of Drugs Act. Both are archaic. Both are failing. We should push for a sensible discussion on drug use in Britain that may bring with it the possibility of legalisation and regulation of certain drugs. We shouldn’t be so scared of this; the current situation is far murkier.

Tags: Centre for Social Justice, Drugs, ecstasy, Illegal drugs, Legal highs, LSD, Marijuana, mephedrone, Silk road, Speed, UN, UN Office on Drugs and Crime, war on drugs