Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Small credit where it's due on mephedrone, but should we not have a public inquiry

Okay, let's be clear. I am not a fan of the government's drug policy. I believe Gordon Brown's refusal to consider other regulatory approaches endangers this nation's health, our security, our economy and any ambitions he might have for a better society.

But I do think that some of my drug policy reform colleagues have misjudged both public opinion and the interests of public safety on the mephedrone issue. I have no reason to assume that Alan Johnson has done anything but follow the advice given to him by Les Iversen, the current chair of the ACMD. Teenagers have been taking mephedrone in alarming numbers. Whether this is due to misplaced confidence in the drug's safety due to its legality, or whether they were excited about the prospect of doing something they knew to be bad with no risk of punishment, it was essential for the government to intervene to restrict access and take action that they hope will cause these teenagers to return to drug-free lives.

And the government has got many aspects of the action right. The action to ensure destruction of any detected mephedrone imports is a strong signal that importation is now no longer viable. While traders may object on the grounds that it was legal when they ordered it, I am in no doubt that their contentment with their requirement to sell the drug without any health advice to buyers of any age could in no way be regarded as ethical. Had they been able to provide health and consumption advice and been able to do all they could to ensure their customers' safety then their trade could very well have been considered ethical. But the lack of such safety advice meant the dealers were ethically no better than the illegal dealers dealing similar illegal drugs. I would be delighted to see the expression on the faces of the dealers trying to stockpile as much mephedrone as possible before its prohibition when they learn of the destruction of their newly priceless shipment.

The government has also taken the right action (once prohibition was the decision) in banning all cathinones. Just banning mephedrone would quickly have resulted in the market shifting to any of a large number of other cathinones with a myriad of unknown effects to investigate and for society to deal with. I am unsure where drugs like butylone and the cathinone-containing plant "khat" are left by this action, but the blanket ban on cathinones seems like a wise decision at this stage.

Having said all this, I have great concern about the role the ACMD has played in this decision. The ACMD made the extremely sensible "Class D" recommendation when it was asked for advice on BZP and Spice. A "D" class would have allowed legal, regulated sale of the drug to over 18s and with the best advice available on safe use while the effects of the drug were investigated thoroughly. The recommendation was rejected for BZP and Spice. Was it offered as a solution to the mephedrone situation? If it was not then I would assert that the ACMD has lost its spine and can no longer be relied upon to stick to its guns on these important issues in the interests of public safety. To not offer the "Class D" solution is to pass responsibility for mephedrone from unregulated legal dealers to unregulated illegal dealers. Any teenager who still fancies getting hold of the mephedrone they have developed a taste for, will now have to find an illegal dealer. That dealer might just have a financial interest in introducing them to heroin or crack.

This entire episode which may become known as "the mephedrone bubble" should be seen as a disastrous warning on the failings of the Labour party's "head-in-the-sand" approach to drugs policy. All the illegal drugs consumed in this country are being consumed in an environment of government-mandated ignorance. Any new legal highs which emerge will - like mephedrone - again have to be consumed from bags marked "not for human consumption". It is time the politicians and the media in this country grew up and realised that it is ignorance and lack of regulation that makes drugs dangerous. We need to take this opportunity to learn from the mephedrone bubble and look again at what can be done to safeguard our population from the harms of drugs.

Surely it would be appropriate to call for a broad-ranging public inquiry into the drug policy disaster that is "the mephedrone bubble".


Duncan Stott said...

I don't agree that legal mephedrone traders acted just as unethically as illegal drug dealers.

They couldn't legally sell mephedrone as fit for human consumption. Providing health advice would mean acknowledging that it will be consumed, and therefore be breaking the law. The law forced them to act unethically.

So perhaps they shouldn't have sold it at all?

Well first lets acknowledge that the market for getting high exists, and people will buy psycoactive drugs whether they are legal or illegal. The question is which is better?

I would argue providing a legal high is better than users having no access to a legal high and being forced into the black market, bringing with it all the well-rehearsed unintended consequences of prohibition.

I do of course agree that a sensible legal framework needs to be established for the sale of these drugs. I also suspect that legal high traders would be happy to comply with government regulations. It is the government's negligence that is stopping this from happening, not the legal traders.

Ewan Hoyle said...

While it's true that it's the government's fault for having stupid guidelines on legal highs, I still think anyone selling legal highs in accordance with these guidelines is showing reckless disregard for the health of their customers in a similar way that illegal dealers do. Traders in legal highs are utter d*cks in my view.

Illegal traders and legal traders are on equally undesirable ends of the regulation spectrum. In both instances short-sighted legal regulations are making the product more dangerous to consume by encouraging consumer ignorance.