The law’s drugs problem: the challenge of legal highs

Thursday 15 November, 5.00pm until 7.00pm, Wolfson Lecture Theatre, Institute of Psychiatry, Denmark Hill Campus, King’s College London, 10 Cutcombe Road, London SE5 9RJ

Tickets: FREE; no booking required.

Few would claim existing drug policies have prevented the widespread use of illicit drugs. On the contrary, many believe prohibition has actually encouraged profiteering and increased the harm caused by drug use. Plenty of politicians have openly declared that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has failed, and that policy should be shaped by pragmatic concerns rather than moralistic zeal. Policymakers’ historic failure to manage psychoactive substances is especially troubling because they now face new challenges in the form of so-called legal highs. Drugs with names like Mexxy, Dimethocaine, 5-IAI, Silver Bullet, and many more are not covered by existing legislation, but have similar effects to those that are. The number of legal drugs available seems to be growing rapidly, and the harm caused by them is rising accordingly. The UK government has made it clear that doing nothing is not an option. Simply asking what should be done, however, forces us to confront the failure of policies meant to deal with more familiar substances like cannabis, crack and heroin. If all new highs become are simply banned by being brought under the purview of the ageing Misuse of Drugs Act, will they be controlled any better than they are now? If criminalising drug use has been seen to fail, should the challenge of legal highs be seen as an opportunity rather than a crisis? A chance to make a much-needed distinction between substance abuse and the relatively harmless recreational use of drugs, legal or otherwise?

Tobacco, alcohol, medicines and even food can all cause harm and provide profit for black marketeers, but in none of these cases are consumers automatically at risk of arrest as with cannabis or heroin. This year the All Party Parliamentary Policy Group for Drug Policy Reform launched an inquiry into how alternative methods of regulation might control new drugs, perhaps licensing them on the model of tobacco and alcohol. Nevertheless, there are big fears that letting go of the simple stick of criminal punishment might unleash a popular appetite for drugs, with the implication that the death toll will rise. Is this true, and if so, why are so many people so keen to pop animal tranquilisers and plant food for kicks? If the licensing model is too risky, how can we avoid the failure of our old ‘war on drugs’? Is banning legal highs the only option? Or should the law back off?

Produced in partnership with Maudsley Debates.

Dr Owen Bowden-Jones
consultant psychiatrist and chair, Faculty of Addictions, Royal College of Psychiatrists

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
writer on medicine and politics; author, The Tyranny of Health

Tim Hollis
chief constable, Humberside Police; chair, ACPO Drugs Committee

Molly Meacher
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

Maryon Stewart
author and broadcaster; pioneer in non-drug medicine; Founder, Angelus Foundation; nutritionist, C4's Model Behaviour; presenter, The Really Useful Health Show

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
Dr Jonathan Hurlow psychiatrist and researcher, All Party Parliamentary Group
Recommended readings
Drugs - Without the Hot Air: Minimising the Harms of Legal and Illegal Drugs

Prof Nutt puts the case for an evidence-based scientific approach to drugs. In straightforward languages for the lay person, he explains what drugs are, how they affect the body and the mind, and why people take them and get addicted to them. He shows how we can quantify the overall harms of a drug, addressing issues from direct danger of death, through to environmental, financial and family factors, to obtain a true indication of the overall effect of a drug.

David Nutt, UIT Cambridge, May 2012

The challenge of new psychoactive substances

This paper aims to set out some of the policy and public health issues raised by the appearance of a wide range of emergent psychoactive substances of diverse origin, effect and risk profile (commonly referred to as ‘legal highs’).

Adam Winstock & Chris Wilkins, Drugs and Democracy, 31 October 2011

Taking drugs seriously: a Demos and UKDPC report on legal highs

In 2009, a previous record 24 new synthetic psychoactive substances were identified. There are now over 600 substances controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) in the UK. With the emergence of manufactured ‘legal highs’, this number is set to increase drastically. As the MDA turns 40 years old this year, this report investigates whether twentieth-century drug control legislation is fit for the twenty-first-century drugs market.

UK Drug Policy Commission, 15 May 2011

Why we shouldn't legalise drugs

The harm caused to a minority of users by illegal drugs is not a good reason to relax the law

Alexander Linklater, Prospect, 1 November 2010

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Neil Tweedie, Daily Telegraph, 24 June 2009

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