Towards a Safer Drug Policy

Challenges and Opportunities arising from ‘legal highs’
14 January 2013

 For forty years the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 has formed the corner stone of drug policy in Britain. The emergence of new psychoactive substances (‘legal highs’) during the past fifteen years or so has challenged the drug control system. The arrival in 2012 of a new psychoactive substance on the market, on average, every six days raises questions about how best to protect young people from unknown and unsafe drugs. The Government is considering this challenge and we hope this Inquiry report will make a helpful contribution to their deliberations.

The Inquiry began in 2011 and was initiated in response to the rapid development of new and unknown psychoactive substances and to examine whether alternative forms of regulation could prove more effective in minimising the potential harms of such substances than the current system of drug control. The Group has received evidence from the Chairman of the Advisory Council for the >Misuse of Drugs, Association of Chief Police Officers, the Home Office, The Trading Standards Institute, the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs – in all, 31 government departments, organisations and experts. It has also examined in detail initiatives from abroad which seek to regulate new substances particular the system of regulation for 'low risk' substances being planned in New Zealand.

The Report recommends that there is a system of regulated supply of those new drugs which are the least harmful and further recomments the decriminalising the possession and use of all drugs. The report concludes that a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is now necessary.

The Report also recommends that politics be taken out of decisions on the classification of drugs, as it has been with respect to the setting of interest rates by the Monetary Policy Committee, and in determining which pharmaceutical drugs may be provided through the NHS. All these issues involve scientific judgements and are too sensitive for politicians to handle directly.

For forty years drug policy has been driven by the Misuse of Drugs Act. Possession, use and supply of cannabis, ecstasy, amphetamines, cocaine and heroin are criminal offences, all potentially carrying lengthy prison sentences. There was a consensus amongst many of the experts presenting evidence to the Inquiry that the Misuse of Drugs Act is urgently in need of reform. Of its 40 sections, only 10 remain in use, but those ten are causing serious risks to the many young people, (though not only young people) who are determined to experiment with drugs. Almost all the rest of us depend upon our own drugs of choice, whether alcohol or tobacco, both of which are far more dangerous than ecstasy.

The high risk adulteration of ecstasy, and the risks associated with strong cannabis varieties have driven large numbers of young people to purchase on the web ‘legal high’ substitutes for these favoured drugs produced mainly in China and elsewhere. Because a new legal high can appear on the UK market every week and the authorities do not have the resources or systems to test them, the risks to users are greater than for the better known substances.

In all countries the supply of the most dangerous drugs should remain illegal, and only available in a highly controlled treatment setting. But some young people will always want to experiment and they are at real risk if they can only buy the less harmful drugs from the same dealers who are trying to push the most harmful ones. The illegal dealers also have a clear incentive to adulterate their product to increase their profits.

The Report therefore recommends allowing the supply of the least harmful new drugs under strict regulatory controls with an enhanced role for Trading Standards Services. Under these controls suppliers would, as is planned in New Zealand, be limited to certain outlets and required to label their product with a clear description of its contents, its risks and the maximum advisable dose. The supplier would also be responsible for assuring that their product causes an agreed level of limited harm. Such an approach would need to be backed by better resourced systems to detect and analyse the effects of new substances as they appear.

In Portugal there is no evidence that the decriminalisation of all drug use has increased the general use of drugs but it has reduced the levels of use and addiction amongst young people. Similar results were found in Western Australia where cannabis consumption was decriminalised.

The Government has decriminalised the possession and use of ‘legal highs’ for 12 months following the imposition of a Temporary Control Drug Order banning the supply of a drug. The Group recommends that this principle be extended beyond the 12 month period. The panel also recommend that work should begin, on a cross party basis, to establish a system for decriminalising the possession and use of small quantities of drugs.

As far as prevention and treatment are concerned the report recommends that programmes should incorporate measures that are appropriate to New Psychoactive substances and that more generall; preventive programmes with a strong evidence base should be promoted much more widely within schools and the community and that resources should be made available for robust evaluation in the UK of preventive programmes.

It also recommends that that a minimum of £1.5m be made available for a targeted pilot of Club Drug Clinics in ten major hot spots across the UK with a duty to train front line A&E and GP staff, as well as treat those suffering persistent harms of NPS use.

January 2013
All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Drug Policy Reform

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