It is no secret that the use of ‘legal highs’ over traditional, illegal drugs has been steadily increasing over recent years. The effects of these substances both on individuals and on society as a whole have also been increasing at a similar rate and recently the Centre for Social Justice published a report claiming that deaths related to legal highs could exceed those related to heroin use within the next two years.
As the law currently stands, new drugs must each be outlawed on an individual basis, with a new law being passed for each new drug. This has led to the banning of drugs such as meow meow and benzo fury but with every drug that is successfully outlawed, many more are created and put to market. The only real solution to this is to adopt a more U.S. Style approach to drugs. Over there, all new drugs must be approved as being safe before they can be legally sold or prescribed under federal law. If this were also the case over here, it is true that many lives may be saved through having far less untested drugs available to buy, but is that really a road we want to go down?
Under Labour this country saw more laws created each year than ever before, and many of these laws were arguably unnecessary and worse, many were ineffective in any event. This trend has declined under the current government, but not all that significantly. So yes, passing a single law to outlaw psychoactive substances which have not been approved by parliament on consideration of all the relevant advice may well save lives, but it may also lead to even more unnecessary control over the people. It has to be asked, if those legal highs which are entirely safe were to be put forward for consideration, would the government be more likely to approve it for sale and consumption if it were put forward by individual scientists and small labs, or if it comes from the giant multinational pharmaceutical companies who, invariably, would charge exorbitant prices? I suspect it would be the latter, whilst the former would be unlikely even to have their creations looked at.
The question arises then, are we willing to subject ourselves to increased levels of government interference in personal choice if it means saving lives? Or do we, as a society, believe that individual choice should be paramount, even if that means people being free to take their own lives – either by intention or by misadventure?
Anecdotal evidence suggests that a significant proportion of people in Britain believe that assisted suicide is something which should be permitted, or at least not interfered with by law. The argument behind this is one of compassion and free choice, but does the same apply to fit, young, and healthy people who, rather than deliberately ending their life, choose to take legal highs in the full knowledge of all the relevant risks?
Morally I am, by default, pro choice and anti interference. However, the problem comes that not everyone is aware of the possible consequences of taking these substances. Many people don’t even know what they are taking at all, and even if they did, how widely are the effects of them really being publicised? Perhaps more to the point, how many young people actually take any notice of such publicity when it is put out?
As far as I can see, the complexity of the problem dictates the complexity of the solution. To find a balance between person choice and government interference it would be necessary to pass a single law stating that all new psychoactive substances are, by default, illegal to sell (but not necessarily to use) unless they have been independently tested and the research has been peer reviewed, in which case they may be sold only if they are accompanied at the point of sale with full details of any side effects and dangers of use. That way, there is no government interference with which drugs eventually make it to market, that is dictated by which ones pass the relevant tests. Small labs would be as able to put a product to market as large pharmaceuticals. Everyone who buys a substance would receive at least the opportunity to read and consider the relevant risks. And parliament hours would not be wasted by having to consider each and every new substance on an individual basis, often long after the risks of using them have been realised by the general public.