Rupert Oldham-Reid is a senior researcher at the Centre for Social Justice and author of two books on counter-addiction policy.
Tomorrow the Queen’s Speech will commit to end a deadly trade that has been thriving, not in dark alleys, but openly in Britain’s high streets.
Known as ‘legal highs’, these drugs are designed to mimic the effects of illegal drugs like cannabis, cocaine, LSD and even heroin. However, provided they are marked ‘not for human consumption’ they can be sold openly as, for example, ‘balt salts’ or ‘research chemicals’.
After a two-year review, last summer the CSJ called for a ban on the sale of these drugs having been shocked by the rising level of misery they were causing. Since then when have continued to press and were please when the main parties included it in their manifestos.
During our research we spoke to young people who had lost their bladders, suffered hearts attacks, respiratory failure and psychotic episodes – all as a result of buying something in a high street shop. Many told us how they thought that, because they were available in shops, they were somehow safe.
We also heard from families who had been devastated by this rising trend – many struggling to understand why shops were allowed to sell substances described as ‘more dangerous than class As’ to children.
Any trip into a high street ‘head shop’ (otherwise known for selling cannabis paraphernalia) reveals the intention of the sellers – these drugs are package like sweets, given names like Gogaine, Clockwork Orange and Blow, then sold at pocket-money prices.
One estimate put the number of these shops in the UK at 250 but there are also reports of petrol stations, newsagents and takeaways selling these dangerous and addictive drugs.
Gary, a street user from Edinburgh suffering from injecting wounds, told the CSJ how his ‘legal high’ of choice was a better feeling than heroin or cocaine – he also said it was more addictive and that it was much easier to get hold of.
Initially these drugs were associated with music festivals but they have also been taking an increasing toll in poorer communities, and the effect of this trade is also hitting public services. The number of police incidents involving ‘legal highs’ rose 150 per cent last year and there is also an increasing burden on hospitals and addiction services.
Most tragically, in the last Parliament, the number of deaths associated with ‘legal highs’ has gone from one per month to over two per week.
So why is a general ban needed? The Government’s current approach has the ring of sense and proportion: it waits for a new drug to be detected, tests it, sends the results to a committee and then decides to ban or not.
The problem is this process is always one step behind the chemists (often based in India or China) who produce these drugs. They have thousands of potential chemical variations, as one is banned, they introduce another and continue to evade legislation.
In searching for an answer we spoke to doctors across the Republic of Ireland, which introduced a blanket ban on the sale of ‘legal highs’ in 2010. The difference before and after the ban, they told us, was like night and day, with admissions falling dramatically – particularly among young people who, without access to credit cards, could not turn to internet dealers.
A general ban, appropriately drafted, gets ahead of these chemists and their high-street based dealers and serves to protect those vulnerable groups from whom they have been making a living. In Ireland, the number of ‘head shops’ went from over 100 to fewer than 10.
A ban is only part of the solution, and we must ensure that addiction treatment services, historically designed around heroin and crack, can assist those who’ve become dependent on these new drugs. At the same time, schools should implement those programmes, such as the Good Behaviour Game, which build resilience and lead to less drug abuse.
In the meantime, this measure, which enjoys cross-party support, will go some way to clarifying the law and protecting young people.