THE BLOG

Why a New UN Resolution on 'Legal Highs' Matters

19/03/2012 15:20 | Updated 18 May 2012
  • Damon Barrett Director of the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy

The Guardian/Mixmag drugs survey, published this week, highlighted the fact that there are many people out there using drugs without significant health harms. Among them are 'legal highs' or, more accurately, 'new psychoactive substances'.

But the risks associated with such substances are very real. Not least of which is that people have little idea of what they are taking. This doesn't prevent anyone taking these drugs, it just increases the risk of doing so. It is of course, is a function of the lack of regulation of new psychoactives, and what blocks regulation here is two-fold: the speed at which new substances emerge, and criminal laws prohibiting sales of known substances. Indeed, these two things are connected.

The Guardian survey followed last Sunday's Observer article which reported that mephedrone is more popular now than when it was banned. Four in ten clubbers said that the formerly 'legal high' was their drug of choice. What is clear and confirmed in the drugs survey, is that banning mephedrone was at best ineffective.

It is therefore heartening that member states at the United Nations appear to have accepted that a different route should at least be on the table.

The failure of criminalising mephedrone was, of course, predicted at the time. We have decades of experience from around the world with such approaches across a number of drugs. Banning mephedrone was yet another example of the ineffectiveness of criminal laws and blunt prohibitionist policies in addressing drug related harms, and evidence that adding more and more chemical compounds to schedules of control is at best a waste of time and at worst harmful.

It was initially cause for some concern that the issue of new psychoactive substances had been tabled as a resolution at the annual UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs which ended on Friday.

Much like UK drug policy, the international system, housed at the UN, is governed by core legislation (three international drugs treaties) and a series of schedules for controlled drugs. Indeed, the UK system, like so many others around the world, has been developed in order to comply with international commitments.

Over time the list of substances under international control has ballooned. There are now hundreds of substances, compounds and a number of well known plants under international control. The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, moreover, is not known for its progressive or imaginative approaches. This is, after all, members states attempting to reach consensus on issues about which there is, really, none. The annual UN drugs meeting is a laborious and tedious affair, restating 'agreed language' on the threat posed by drugs and the need for a 'balanced and integrated' response.

The worry in bringing 'legal highs' to the table at this meeting is that the international community would take the same route that has proven so ineffective at home in the UK and agree to bring more and more substances under international control, thereby requiring that all states do so.

It was therefore heartening that the original draft of the resolution, proposed by Australia, took a different route.

Instead of calling for new psychoactive substances to be banned, criminalised or otherwise brought under international control outright, the resolution instead asked states:

'to consider a wide variety of evidence-based control measures to tackle the emergence of new psychoactive substances, including the use of consumer protection, legislation regarding medicine and legislation regarding hazardous substances'

That, in essence, is recognition that the blunt instrument of criminal law is not the only legal tool available.

Unsurprisingly, the provision raised some eyebrows. Various states were not comfortable with the absence of criminal laws, so the agreed resolution now, in UN style, 'encourages' states:

'to consider a wide variety of responses, such as temporary and emergency drug control measures in response to an imminent threat to public health, the is of consumer protection, medicines legislation and hazardous substances legislation, and, where appropriate, to consider criminal justice measures aimed at preventing the illicit manufacture and trafficking of new psychoactive substances'.

This is clearly not a ringing endorsement of criminal justice responses. References are heavily qualified - 'in response to an imminent threat', 'where appropriate'.

True, this is hardly earth-shattering, but for this regime, it's quite something. UN member states have debated and agreed that all options should be on the table for addressing new psychoactive substances. And that is some distance from knee-jerk reactions such as the UK ban on mephedrone.

In a week when many UN member states and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime worked hard to defend the international drug control system from sustained criticism in recent months by 'celebrating' one hundred years of prohibition, this resolution was a welcome respite. It is an unintended vote of no confidence in the very system the UN drugs commission oversees, or at the very least, a note of caution about bringing more substances within it.