Lines blurred by 'legal highs'

Jeremy Browne, the Liberal Democrat Home Office minister, is to be commended for trying to straddle one of the Coalition’s widest ideological divides

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More people have used so-called “legal highs” in Britain than in any other European Union country, according to a United Nations report. This poses an awkward question for the Government, although it is no consolation to critics of conventional drugs policy either. Some of those who argue for the decriminalisation of psychotropic drugs might welcome the fast-growing market for the new substances that are constantly being created and marketed in a legal twilight zone just in front of the advancing edge of prohibition.

Yet there are obvious risks in an unregulated market in which no one knows about the health effects of the new products. In practice, the consequences of this supposedly booming market seem limited. The drugs concerned are often outlawed only because of their chemical resemblance to substances already banned.

But no one can argue that the present state of affairs is satisfactory. Jeremy Browne, the Liberal Democrat Home Office minister, is to be commended for trying to straddle one of the Coalition’s widest ideological divides. As well as trying to make the legal response to the development of new chemical formulae faster and more flexible, he has sought to find out and present the facts of more liberal approaches to drugs in Portugal and other EU countries to his sceptical Conservative colleagues.

This newspaper has long recognised that blanket criminalisation is far from the best drugs policy. Addiction should be treated as a medical problem not a criminal one, and the best protection against the misuse of dance drugs – as it is for cannabis – is information, information and information. The cat-and-mouse game of banning new drugs every few months after they come on to the market makes the provision of timely and accurate information harder. In fact, drug use, including alcohol and tobacco, among young people is actually falling in this country. The focus of public policy should be to promote understanding more and to rely on prohibition less.

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