Legal highs give a snapshot of drug decriminalisation. And it's not all that pretty

University students of the class of 2011 were privy to the rise of mephedrone

Share

I am about to break a rule of thumb. Along with my dreams (spooky), my favourite supermarket (Waitrose) and my going bald (yuck!), I promised myself I wouldn’t resort to regaling strangers with tales of “my university days” and “the drugs we did” in this column. So I’m sorry.

But it seems relevant today. Last week it was announced that the UK has the largest market for legal highs in the EU; nearly 700,000 Britons aged 16-24 have experimented (in their bloodstream) with one form or another. It’s a common line, repeated with varying levels of menace, but the new synthetically produced legal highs – like the just-banned N-Bomb – bear roughly the same relationship to vintage predecessors –herbs like Salvia – as a bungee jump does to a mild bout of trampolining.

For six months, my time at university crossed over with the arrival of mephedrone, a legal MDMA substitute. Things got zanier in a number of ways. But what was most noteworthy, if we’re being sociological, was the almost total disappearance of any taboo over drug-taking. The fact that mephedrone looked quite a lot like cocaine, and seemed to produce a similar effect (down to the facial calisthenics), didn’t appear to put a whole lot of people off. Instead, an entire cross-section of university life – bookish types, jocks, David Guetta fans – could suddenly be found of an early AM having similarly inane conversations about how much they just adored poetry, each other, or David Guetta.

Other people will no doubt remember things differently. But thinking back on it, these six months - before the drug was banned – rattled my identikit liberal mindset.

For one, I did a double-take on legalisation. While tabloid coverage of the mephedrone craze focused mainly on the risk of death, the less extreme side of the story – that people who wouldn’t have touched illicit chemicals began hoovering up legal ones with gusto – went largely unreported. (In Bristol, the drug was so mainstream a tall man wearing a large cardboard sign saying “mephedrone dealer” wandered into local folklore).

It’s true that the hothouse lifestyle of university campuses is hardly the wisest place to conduct experiments with legalisation. Nor is it the most representative.  Nonetheless, after the radical unwiring of one or two people I care about, and the widespread normalisation of drug culture, I’d be wary of any attempt to decriminalise our current crop of so-called ‘psychoactive substances’.

The “war on drugs” has failed, and cataclysmically. Perhaps legalisation remains the best solution for society as a whole – but, at least through my anecdotal periscope, it won’t result in nirvana. British people like to boogie, and aren’t too good at stopping.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Our exclusive client in St Albans Hertfords...

Tradewind Recruitment: KS2 Primary Teachers

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 Teachers needed in Hertfordshir...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ACCA/CIMA - St Albans, Hertfordshire

£55000 - £58000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A truly exciting opportunity has ari...

Ashdown Group: Credit Controller - London, Old Street

£25000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Credit Controller - Londo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million  

The Archers: how many sensational plot twists can it get away with?

Simon Kelner
 

Daily catch-up: winter crisis for the NHS – Miliband and Burnham don’t know how to fix it

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness