Will changes to the law banning legal highs really solve the problem? Jack Welch from Young NCB considers the temptations of new psychoactive substances.
Young NCB members are campaigning to raise awareness about the dangers of legal highs. Add to the debate online using #High2Low and to get involved in Young NCB’s work visit: http://youngncb.org.uk/
Experimentation with drugs is often accepted as a rite of passage that many teenagers will pass through.
Whether it is an act of rebellion, or due to peer pressure or boredom, many young people succumb to the temptation. Until recently, they were aided by loopholes in the law which allowed legal highs – substances that mimic the effects of banned substances like cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy – to be sold openly in high street shops.
The problem was that the producers of these often formidably potent drugs, linked with a number of deaths, were highly resilient to government attempts to shut them down. Every time a particular substance was banned, another variation of the chemical was quickly available on the market: untested, unregulated and potentially lethal.
A blanket ban on legal highs (often now referred to as ‘new psychoactive substances’) was introduced in May this year and supplying these drugs is now punishable by a prison sentence of up to seven years.
Home Office figures reveal 300 street retailers have since stopped selling the now illegal products and 24 shops have been closed altogether.
This feels like a significant step in discouraging young people from trying these drugs but have the measures merely pushed the trade underground?
The success of the ‘War on Drugs’ is often hotly debated, with a question mark hanging over whether harsh punitive measures result in drug sales moving to the streets, with supply controlled by criminal gangs. In the case of new psychoactive substances, the changes to the law have also shifted sales to unscrupulous online retailers based abroad.
Statistics released by the Home Office found that during the previous year 160,000 young people aged 16-24 had taken a legal high in the previous year.
It seems highly unlikely that all these young people, either at risk of trying out legal highs for the first time or who take them on a regular basis, will be deterred by the prospect of arrest or from having to obtain the drugs illegally.
Prior to the ban coming into force, Europol, the police force within the European Union, identified an increase of legal high varieties making their way to the continent. A report described how it would be ‘unfeasible’ for complete control, not least because it would mean banning chemicals which are needed in more conventional products. By most standards of the justice system in any developed country, they would face great strain if they were to prosecute all people who possess legal highs.
Ultimately, the answer lies in education and better Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE). But the variable quality in PSHE means that many young people will have not benefited from understanding the risks of consuming these substances or the repercussions if they are caught by the police.
A comprehensive YMCA investigation, the ‘Big Bang Theory’, showed 57% of those who took a drug for the first time started young, commonly between 16-18 and often taking them with associated substances, alcohol being the most common.
The YMCA also found peer-to-peer support can help young people to share first-hand experiences themselves and support each other to understand the dangers and resist social pressures to experiment.
While the death toll remains relatively low at the moment, there is no excuse for decision makers to dismiss the impact that these formerly legal drugs are creating in society. Crime and punishment alone will provide no immediate cures.