EU Legal High Approach Is 'Unhelpful', Says Home Office Minister Norman Baker

A man visits a legal high shop in Dublin, Ireland
A man visits a legal high shop in Dublin, Ireland
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Britain will not sign up to European drugs laws which hamper the Government's ability to crack down on "legal highs", a Home Office minister has said.

Crime prevention minister Norman Baker said the European Union's proposals to regulate new psychoactive substances, known as legal highs, were "unhelpful" and behind the curve.

The minister was speaking ahead of the first meeting of an expert review looking at how the UK's laws and enforcement against legal highs can be improved.

"The EU's rules are unhelpful and less effective than what the UK is doing at the moment. We are not perfect and have some way to go, but the EU answer is even slower," said Baker.

"It's not about saying we have all the best answers but let's not hamper or shackle ourselves by adopting legislation which is unhelpful."

Last month, Baker announced that the coalition Government would be opting out of European Commission regulations on new psychoactive substances that would result in only the most harmful substances being subject to full criminalisation.

The Government has also strongly disputed the EU's claim that 20% of legal highs have "legitimate commercial and industrial uses".

The number of cases in which legal highs were identified as the cause of death in Britain rose from 10 in 2009 to 68 in 2012, according to the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths.

A panel of experts including Government drug tsar Professor Les Iversen and Gordon Meldrum, director of the National Crime Agency's organised crime command, will convene for their first meeting later today.

The review's findings are expected to be completed by the summer.

Baker said the panel would be considering a number of different models such as those adopted in Ireland, New Zealand and the United States.

"A new generation of drugs are being created on a weekly basis in laboratories in China, India and elsewhere. They are designed specifically to be outside existing drug laws," added the MP for Lewes.

"I find it astonishing that someone would take a substance in a nightclub or festival without any basic knowledge of what it is they're taking."

Dr John Ramsey, a toxicologist at St George's, University of London, warned that a "knee-jerk" reaction banning legal highs would place drug users in more danger.

"If we keep changing things through the law, the danger is that you get just another batch of drugs with different chemical structures of which we know nothing about," said Ramsey.

"By continually changing the law, we're exposing people to a continual range of untested chemicals. Let market forces work.

"If drugs are unpleasant, people won't by them. If we rely on that mechanism, as opposed to a knee-jerk reaction to control everything, we would probably serve the drug-using community better."

A total of 27 new psychoactive substances have now been detected by the Home Office's forensic early warning system since it was set up in January 2011.

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