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A New Government But No New Approach to Drugs - It's Groundhog Day

28/05/2015 11:02 BST | Updated 28/05/2016 10:59 BST

Well here we are again! A new Government - albeit one that has the remnants of the previous - but nothing new in the UK's drug policy, at least in terms of what can be deemed progress by any rational measure.

No, instead we have full blown regression, encompassed now in "New legislation [that] will ... ban the new generation of psychoactive drugs," it was announced Wednesday in the Queen's speech.

The alleged purpose of the Bill is to "protect hard-working citizens from the risks posed by untested, unknown and potential harmful drugs." How noble of the Government. Does this mean, therefore, that there is an exemption in the legislation so that those who aren't in work, or those who aren't that "hard-working," will be able to be involved in the trade without fear of prosecution?

In the wake of this announcement the Release team feared how far reaching the definition of "new psychoactive substances" could be. What would happen to chocolate or alcohol, for example? Thankfully, we can still eat chocolate and have a glass of wine. The Government has clarified that the Bill would essentially create a number of offences related to "any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect" excluding "alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, food and medicinal products." So, tobacco is fine but e-cigarettes possibly not, marking a perhaps not insignificant blow to this harm reduction measure. There is potential difficulties in relation to nitrous oxide or 'laughing gas' which has a number of legitimate purposes within the exceptions. There is no doubt that this will be a technical nightmare for those drafting the Bill.

Facetiousness and finer points aside, the proposed legislation is simply another example of why we need an overhaul of our drugs policy. New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) is in itself an unhelpful term, but if we take it as new powders and substances that are produced to mimic the effects of traditional illegal drugs, then we must recognise that these drugs have not appeared in a vacuum; rather, they are a response to the current system of prohibition.

Decades of outlawing illicit narcotics - a measure which has little effect on prevalence - should be proof enough that a blanket ban will solve nothing. This is why we need an approach that reflects the reality of the market, realising that different products emerge as a result of developments or trends in the current established trade, not as a result of their legality or otherwise. To use just one case study, the rise of mephedrone use in the late 2000s was mainly as a result of low MDMA and cocaine purity levels and the unprecedented "advertising" campaign by the media highlighting this new "drug scourge."

Ultimately, if we really want to reduce the harms of drugs we need to look at all drugs separately and not as a homogenous group. The proposed legislation is the complete antithesis to that approach.

Take cannabis, for example. As most people know the Netherlands has permitted legal use of cannabis through the coffee shops since the 1980s and has little recorded use of synthetic cannabinoids. Indeed why would people access something synthetic when they can get the real thing? Conversely, synthetic cannabis use is on the rise in the UK especially amongst young people and certain vulnerable groups including prisoners. This group of substances is thought to be much more dangerous than the home grown variety, with some manufacturers claiming that the potency is 20 - 30 times higher than cannabis.

It is our current drug policy that has resulted in this situation occurring. We know that continuously banning drugs rarely diminishes use and never makes the problem go away - ketamine use in the UK has doubled since it was made illegal in 2006.

As well as considering how the market interacts in relation to the available products, it is also worth thinking about what happens when we make a substance illegal. We hand that substance over to the illicit market, where there are no product or purity controls, no age controls, where drugs are adulterated and the risk associated with their use increases. People are put at a greater risk of harm as a result of prohibition.

The reality is that people want to use drugs; many people enjoy the pleasure associated with specific substances, something we cannot ignore. A small percentage - about 10% - use drugs problematically but that is a more complicated situation, where people who have often suffered trauma or have mental health problems are self-medicating.

One in three adults have used a drug at least once in their lifetime, including, funnily enough, a number of politicians. The current Prime Minister won't answer the question on his drug use but we can assume; many Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet members have admitted to their past use, the current US President and the last two all admitted to using cannabis, with Obama admitting to using cocaine when at college. Prohibition did not prevent their drug use, they were just lucky/privileged enough not to get caught and end up with a criminal record like so many millions of others, but they are an example of the reality of the situation. Lots of people use drugs and the criminal justice approach does not deter use.

What we at Release would like to see is a new approach to drugs. Let's start with the end of criminal sanctions for possession of all drugs - it is welcomed that this Bill will not criminalise people caught in possession of NPS, but why not all currently illicit substances?

The Home Office's own report of October 2014 highlighted that, based on the evidence, tough sanctions does not deter use. It would be good if Ministers finally followed the evidence produced by their own departments instead of opting for an ideologically driven, myopic approach. Once decriminalised we take a step by step approach to each drug, starting with cannabis, and work out the best and safest way to regulate these substances so as to mitigate their harms. To be frank if we start with cannabis and MDMA we would undermine the whole NPS market immediately!

Niamh Eastwood is the executive director of Release, the UK centre of expertise on drugs and drug laws