Legal highs have barely been out of the headlines in recent years, with legislation struggling to keep up with the emergence of the latest designer drugs such as mexxy, Benzo Fury and Spice. With the internet opening up ever-more avenues to bypass existing drug laws, the UN’s World Drug Report has announced that the UK is the largest market for such intoxicants in the EU. In response, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform have called for urgent reform of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, arguing that straightforward bans are no longer the most effective and safe way of regulating such drug use. Yet while such calls have been rejected by prime minister David Cameron, who has affirmed the government’s commitment to the current policy of criminalisation, local authorities such as Brighton council have begun to explore the use of ‘drug rooms’ and ‘soft-touch’ policing for tackling the problem of more familiar hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
Does the challenge of legal highs present a ‘game-changer’ in the debate over how society should tackle drug use? Given that existing drug laws have, by common consent, failed to curb their widespread use, should the challenge of legal highs be taken as an opportunity to rethink all drugs policy? Does relativizing their associated harms in relation to legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco offer a more rational understanding of risk, or distract from the principles of personal responsibility? Is it right, as campaigners from both sides seem to assume, that liberalisation of drug laws would lead to a dramatic increase in their consumption? Should society’s attitude to drug use still see it primarily as a moral and political issue, rather than one of pragmatic policy or scientific evidence?
Dr Owen Bowden-Jones
consultant psychiatrist and chair, Faculty of Addictions, Royal College of Psychiatrists
Dr Clare Gerada
GP; chair, Royal College of General Practitioners
member, Maudsley Philosophy group; books editor, Ax:son Johnson Foundation (Sweden); freelance journalist; books reviewer, Observer; scriptwriter
chair, All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform; former Chair, East London NHS Foundation Trust; chair, Clinical Ethics Committee, CNWL NHS Trust, 2004-2009
coordinator, UK Battle Satellites; columnist, spiked