Is there a solution to the UK's 'legal high' drugs problem?

Image caption,
Michael Bishton died after taking a legal high

For the mother of Michael Bishton, who died after taking the "legal high" Ivory Wave, banning such drugs is the only solution to the UK's problem.

"How can you just go and buy these things that do these things to families?

"It's an insult to the memory of my son", Tamsin Owen said at his inquest.

Legal highs are "far from harmless", the Home Office says. They are easy to purchase over the internet and the effects are largely unknown.

Although substances can be banned, new compounds are developed. They remain legal as a variant is technically a different drug.

The UK's Misuse of Drugs Act now covers over 600 drugs and the number is growing.

In the year the 1961 Act turns 40, critics are concerned whether "the existing framework is fit for purpose in the 21st Century".

Traces of alcohol and Ivory Wave were found in 24-year-old Mr Bishton's bloodstream after he fell off an Isle of Wight cliff.

At Tuesday's inquest, the coroner recorded an open verdict but said the combination "may have been a very strong contributory factor to his behaviour".

Meow meow

Ivory Wave is a drug brand name, which can contain different substance variants.

Traces of banned 2-DPMP have sometimes been found in Ivory Wave.

It has also contained mephedrone.

This drug, dubbed meow meow by the tabloid press, was a legal high that caused a media frenzy in 2009 and 2010.

After multiple deaths were claimed to be linked to the drug, then Home Secretary Alan Johnson passed emergency legislation classifying the substance as a Class B drug.

Last week, Home Office minister Baroness Browning wrote to festival organisers warning them about people claiming to be selling legal highs.

"While people selling these products may give the impression they are legal and safe, they are more than likely not legal, and are certainly not safe."

The government's solution, currently going through parliament, is a temporary 12-month ban for new substances.

This criminalises dealing and gives authorities time to research the effects of drugs.

Minister for crime prevention James Brokenshire said: "The drugs market is changing and we need to adapt current laws to allow us to act more quickly

"The temporary ban allows us to act straight away to stop new substances gaining a foothold in the market."

'Paradoxical situation'

However the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs (ISCD) does not believe the government has time to research the growing number of drugs.

Data presented to the ISCD showed 40 new synthetic substances were identified last year. In 2009, 24 new substances were identified.

Professor David Nutt, from the ISCD, said: "One of the dangers of so-called legal highs is that it is impossible for consumers to know what it is they are taking.

"This also makes it difficult for legislation banning them to be effective.

"The unknown nature of these substances puts us in a paradoxical situation where legal highs might be more dangerous to take than already classified drugs."

A report published this month by think-tank Demos, "Taking Drugs Seriously", was also critical of the government's approach. It questioned whether law "is fit for purpose in the 21st Century".

Image caption,
Legal highs are sold over the counter at some High Street stores

The authors believe temporary bans will become permanent, as any removal could be seen as labelling the substance safe.

They argue maintaining separate "drugs" law from substances such as alcohol or tobacco is misguided.

"Some suggest that this has led to confusing public health messages, for example, suggesting that alcohol and tobacco are not as harmful as illicit substances," the report said.

The UK's consumption of alcohol has increased by 19% over 30 years, an NHS report found last year.

Legal highs fit into a wider and politically charged debate.

Responses to drug regulation have tended to fall into binary choices of strict drug control or legalisation.

Professor Nutt's own career demonstrates the political stakes.

In 2009 he was sacked as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for saying alcohol was more dangerous than cannabis.

For a grieving mother, the need to criminalise legal highs is clear. It will take a brave scientist or politician to persuade Ms Owen otherwise.

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