10:00 Monday 10 February 2014

The War on Drugs 40 years on: Legalisation, cannabis and the rise of legal highs

Written byMARK MCKAY

ON July 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon announced to Congress that drug abuse had become ‘public enemy number one’ - the ‘War on Drugs’ had been declared.

Where the US led, the United Nations and Britain soon followed. In that same year, the UN passed its Convention on Psychotropic Substances and Britain enacted the Misuse of Drugs Act, which effectively criminalised those caught in possession of banned substances.

Since then, drug policy has aroused fearsome debate from reformists as well as those who want more stringent controls.

Some researchers have denounced the war as a disaster in which an unregulated industry has led to the deaths of thousands and pushed revenue into a gangster-run ‘mob-economy’.

Others say that to relax drugs law would broadcast the wrong message about drug use and lead to more harm.

Even getting authority figures to speak on the issue can be problematic.

Derbyshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Charles told Mail there were strong arguments on both sides. But he stressed he was not pushing for the law to be changed.

Stringent regulation, Mr Charles said, would guarantee the quality of drugs and control who could buy them, just like it does for alcohol and tobacco.

He said: “If you take drugs out of their hands of criminals we would not have people on the streets stealing to pay for their drugs because they would be able to get them legitimately through licensed premises.

“But why would we want to introduce another piece of legislation that allows people to damage themselves?”

Mr Charles said the solution could result from a ‘grown up and adult debate’ about drug use.

He said: “It’s for some really excellent quality research that would come out with the answers.

“People and communities abhor drugs, not everyone, but they don’t like what it does in the community.”

According to 24-year-old Ben, of Burton, Britain could learn from the US, which has fully legalised cannabis in Colorado and Washington State.

Ben, who the Mail has not fully identified, said he smoked his home-grown supply of the class-B drug most nights of the week.

He said: “I grow my own personal supply, so why is the Government calling me a criminal?

“What’s the point in allowing the criminal market to take all the money? There are thousands of people buying from drug dealers who are violence and sell harder drugs.

“It’s less harmful than alcohol and tobacco but they are legal.”

Some could argue Ben has a point. A 2010 study by the former government drug advisor David Nutt and published in the Lancet ranked alcohol as the most harmful drug based on the damage it causes to the user and to society.

Tobacco ranked sixth, behind cocaine, methamphetamine, crack cocaine and heroin. Cannabis was ranked eighth.

The criminalisation of illicit drugs and the rise of the internet has led to the emergence of another market – that of legal highs.

Legal highs are drugs which mimic the effects of drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis but exploit legal loopholes by being marketed online and in head shops as research chemicals and marked ‘not for human consumption’.

Most are just a few molecular tweaks away from banned substances which mean they are not outlawed under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

The use of legal highs had largely been an underground scene until 2009 when the then legal stimulant mephedrone, which mimicked the effects of cocaine and ecstasy, emerged and became immensely popular with clubbers and students.

Although it was made a class-B drug in April 2010, there has since been a proliferation of new substances which are often cooked up in Chinese and Indian laboratories and are available to anyone with a bank card and internet access.

In 2009, 24 new legal highs were discovered on sale in Europe. In 2010 there were 41. In 2011 there were 51, and in 2012 there were 73.

The growth of the market for legal highs mean policy makers are forever playing ‘catch-up’ in attempts to ban new substances, only for a new legal drug to emerge within days.

On June 10, 2013, the legal high 6-apb, or Benzo Fury, was placed on a temporary banning order while the UK Government decided whether it should be outlawed. The same day, a new drug, 5-eapb, was released to replace Benzo Fury.

The contents of some of these new and unregulated substances are tested at the Environmental Scientifics Group’s site in Bretby Business Park on behalf of some UK police forces.

The group’s forensic business manager Fiona Coope told the Mail that despite the supposed ‘legality’ of these drugs, forensic analysis showed some actually contained banned substances.

She said: “People are buying illegal substances thinking they are legal.

“There is a strong desire for people not to break the law. So they are actually searching for things that could give them a good time but which are not illegal.”

But Mrs Coope added: “However, they don’t always know what they are. Not only do they not know what affect it might have short or long term.

“The risk is that they could die, that’s the worst scenario.”

The rise in legal highs means there are now more legal drugs than illegal ones as banned in the 1971 UN convention.

Mike Power, a drugs journalist and author of the book Drugs 2.0, told the Mail the vast majority of these are cannabis replacements, and almost all are more dangerous than cannabis.

He said: “The main finding I have made is that the drug laws themselves have produced this ridiculous scenario whereby you can buy dozens of drugs online and in head shops, legally, that are more dangerous and unknown than most of the drugs they seek to replace.”

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