Joan Smith: For a proper drugs policy, a bit of honesty would be a start

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At the beginning of this year, I hadn't even heard of it. Then mephedrone was linked with a number of deaths among young adults. Newspapers called for it to be banned and the course of events that followed was inevitable: mephedrone has just been classified as a Class B substance and it's now illegal to sell or use it in this country. Two days ago, websites which had been advertising mephedrone had closed down – although at least one promised it would soon be back online, offering new substances. And so the dance goes on.

Drugs policy in this country is a complete mess. Few subjects are so susceptible to the vagaries of public opinion, which can be roused to demand bans even when, as in this case, the degree of harm caused by a new substance has not been established. I feel sorry for parents who believe their children died as a consequence of using mephedrone, but the Government has rushed into a ban. Last week The Lancet criticised the way the decision was made, citing "very scanty evidence... including the absence of a direct causal link between the reported deaths and the drug".

I can't imagine any circumstances in which I'd want to ingest a synthetic stimulant that was designed as a plant food, especially as its adverse reactions include hallucinations, anxiety and psychosis. But plenty of young adults are keen to take drugs that will give them an artificial high. Many have used cannabis or Ecstasy, and they judge the likely effect of drugs by their own experience, rather than taking notice of anti-drugs campaigns conducted in hyperbolic language.

Common sense suggests that both sides in this argument are wrong: on the one hand, government ministers who are terrified of appearing "soft" on drugs, and on the other, dare-devil kids who underestimate the potential harm of what they're taking. To make things worse, the expert body that advises ministers, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, has been embroiled in a series of damaging rows since October, when its chairman was sacked by the Home Secretary. Seven members have resigned, the latest protesting about the mephedrone ban. "We were unduly pressured by media and politicians to make a quick, tough decision to classify," Eric Carlin wrote on his blog.

While ministers still think primarily in terms of prohibition, they can't even begin to address the root of the problem, which is the risky behaviour associated with the human desire for stimulation and experimentation. That applies to alcohol and tobacco as well as substances such as mephedrone; it's clear that we're years away from anything resembling a sensible or consistent drugs policy.

The Government seems to believe there's no connection between liberal licensing laws and binge drinking, yet it accepts the need to limit where and how tobacco can be consumed. That's incoherent, and things get worse when it comes to the mood-altering substances favoured by young adults. A drugs policy that consists of arbitrary bans and dire warnings hasn't stopped kids experimenting with a relatively unknown substance such as mephedrone, but the UK has never had a truthful approach to drugs.

An honest policy would involve telling teenagers that using drugs, tobacco and alcohol can be pleasurable, while being honest about the risks associated with each of them. It would be driven by science, not headlines in the popular press. And in the middle of a general election campaign, that's about as likely as a heatwave in January.

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