A blanket ban on legal highs due to come into force this week will lead to more deaths and only benefit drug dealers and politicians, critics have claimed.
The substances, which mimic the effects of already banned drugs, are being outlawed on Thursday due to concerns their potency is fuelling health problems and anti-social behaviour.
But critics have said that the law will simply force users, who are often among the most vulnerable in society, to turn to street dealers and the criminal underworld, leading to more drug-related deaths.
Professor David Nutt, the former Government drugs tsar, told The Independent: “It is a completely nonsense piece of legislation. It is purely politics.
“The only people who will benefit will be the drug dealers. They’ll have a monopoly.”
The popularity of legal highs has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2013, according to the United Nations’ World Drug Report, 670,000 British 15- to 24-year-olds had tried legal highs at least once. The death toll rose from 10 legal high-related deaths in England and Northern Ireland in 2009 to 68 in 2012.
Often compared to cannabis, the potency and addictiveness of legal highs can vary significantly. In a special report for The Independent, some users in Newcastle spoke of the substance as having the “effect of heroin”.
In fact, heroin addicts who switched to legal highs as a cheaper alternative have been known to return to the Class A drug in the belief it is less damaging.
The Government has claimed that by imposing prison sentences of up to seven years on those making or supplying drugs capable of producing a psychoactive effect, the new law will clearly signal the dangers of legal highs, which have been sold in head shops, convenience stores and online.
Harry Shapiro, the chief executive of the drugs information charity DrugWise, said the new law will make legal highs harder to obtain, but warned: “The problem will almost certainly be that legal highs will just become street drugs.
“The same people selling heroin and crack will simply add this to their repertoire.”
He added: “Politically, they [legal highs] are low-hanging fruit. The easiest thing for any Government to do is to stop people buying these things from shops next to Mothercare, but don’t imagine that is going to solve the problem.”
Prof Nutt said that while some head shops have exercised quality control and showed a degree of responsibility towards users, street dealers would be totally unscrupulous. He claimed that they would use the internet to source legal highs made in India and China, with no regard for quality, and would aim to get legal high users on to heroin and crack.
“It will be a scary market,” he said. “And there will be much less safety. Deaths will increase.
“There will be no quality control – people won’t stop using legal highs, they will just use more dangerous ones.
“And street dealers want to get you on heroin and crack, because they are more addictive. More people will be dying from more dangerous drugs.”
The effects of the UK law, he added, would mirror those seen in Ireland, which banned legal highs in 2010.
“There was a transient reduction in use,” he said. “But now usage has gone back to where it was before, if not higher. Deaths have gone up.”
In December, Ireland’s National Drug-Related Deaths Index showed drug poisoning deaths involving legal highs increased from six in 2010 to 28 in 2013.
The European Commission has said that between 2011 and 2014, Ireland experienced Europe’s second largest increase in legal high use among 15- to 24-year-olds. One Irish user told the BBC that after the ban closed head shops: “People started selling it on every street. It was even easier to get.”
Critics have also pointed to the fact that drug makers have allegedly proved adept at producing slightly different new substances so quickly that it has been hard for scientists and the law to keep up.
A spokesman for the Irish Justice Department insisted the legislation was enforceable, and that one study had shown a drop in legal high use immediately after the ban was introduced, but acknowledged: “The emergence of new psychoactive substances happens at a pace that presents a challenge in the context of law enforcement [and] for the scientific and health authorities.”
Karen Bradley, the UK Home Office Minister for Preventing Abuse, Exploitation and Crime, said: “We owe it to all those who have lost loved ones to do everything we can to eradicate this abhorrent trade.
“This Act will end the open sale on our high streets and deliver new powers for law enforcement to tackle this issue at every level in communities, at our borders, on UK websites and in prisons.
“Allowing these substances to remain legal would not prevent crime committed by the illicit trade; nor would it address the harms associated with drug dependence.
“But we know legislation is not the silver bullet, and we continue to take action across education, prevention, treatment and recovery in order to reduce harmful drug use.”
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