Legal highs blow yet another hole in our drugs policy

As soon as one pharmaceutical compound is identified and placed on a schedule of banned drugs, the makeshift labs create another, barely altered but strictly legal
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Professor David Nutt is rocking the boat once again. The former chief drugs adviser to the Government, who was sacked in 2009 after saying that tobacco and alcohol are more harmful than some illicit substances, has now added his name to a letter to The Lancet raising questions about the perceived dangers of so-called legal highs. In fact, many of the recorded fatalities were caused by substances that were already illegal, Professor Nutt and Dr Leslie King claim.

All of this only re-emphasises the confusion at the heart of the “war on drugs”, and the extent to which it is failing. In this case it might be more accurately called the “war on legal drugs”, as these synthetic substances, mimicking the effects of proscribed drugs, lie outside the law. There is a cat-and-mouse game being played here. As soon as one pharmaceutical compound is identified, catalogued and placed on a schedule of banned drugs, the makeshift labs create another, barely altered but strictly legal. Such activities only make a further mockery of a system already long since discredited.

As recent experiences in Colorado demonstrate in the case of marijuana, a sane and gradual process of legalisation does not trigger a collapse in civilised behaviour. It also, as it happens, creates a handy yield in tax revenue – not to mention the undoubted benefits from drug use being treated as a health issue, rather than as a simple criminal offence.

Legalised drugs would be far less adulterated, of consistent quality and subject to the kind of rational risk assessment that we apply to tobacco and alcohol. The result of the prohibition is criminalisation and a net increase in the harm done to individuals and society, both here and often in the poor countries where the drugs are produced. Meanwhile, in a spectacular illustration of the law of unintended consequences, the profits from this illicit trade fund all manner of terrorism and organised crime.

The war on drugs is being lost; the choice is only when we move to a more effective regulatory system. It should be guided by the conclusions of a royal commission. Sad to say, for all the contributions from experts such as Professor Nutt, there is little sign of progress.