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A Blanket Ban Suggests There Is a Simple Answer to Legal Highs - The Truth Is Much Hazier

27/05/2016 16:03 | Updated 27 May 2016

This week the Psychoactive Substances Act came into force, banning the production and distribution of all new psychoactive substances (NPS) in the UK and shrouding the subject of substance use in deeper mystery.

Some of the homeless young people we work with at Centrepoint use drugs, and a small number of them report problems with so-called legal highs. We work with young people to reduce the harm they can cause; sharing information about risk, providing advice about accessing treatment and addressing the underlying reasons for problem use.

There has been a spate of high profile cases of the dangers of using legal highs, each of them echoed by young people in our services who use them. These stories have drawn attention from press and Parliament - causing public alarm and leaving lawmakers with little choice but to act decisively. The Conservatives and Labour both used their general election manifestos to call for prohibition.

Their response meant key questions, about the availability of treatment and the provision of education, were side-stepped with promises of tough legislation. So, following the lead of Ireland and others, where research has shown law-enforcement alone to be ineffective, leading to increased use, the government chose to emphasise policing and criminal prosecutions.

A blanket ban in itself is perhaps not a bad thing. But placing the burden wholly on the police to eradicate NPS use is unlikely to yield results. The government must do better and it could start by increasing the paltry £180,000 it currently spends on educating young people about drugs.

To their credit, some members of Parliament sought to complement the Bill by improving the information communicated about substances whose effects and dangers are still relatively unknown. But parliament voted down amendments to include NPS in personal, social and health education (PSHE), and to make PSHE a core subject in the National Curriculum which would compel the government to report on its quality.

Education and medical support can be no more expensive than condemning vulnerable young users to long sentences in prison. And this is not the binary problem the government's catch-all law suggests. A ban may keep costs off the statute book, but it won't conceal the reasons some of the most vulnerable young people are turning to often dangerous, now illegal highs.

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