So, today’s news tells us that a cross-party group of peers has advised that certain drugs be decriminalised and even sold by the Government. Not that David Cameron will listen, of course. But even so, the report has come as a pleasant surprise. I admit I am pretty jaded when it comes to politics, but this report seems to be me to be research-led instead of media-hysteria-led, and has some pretty good points to make. The idea of avoiding unknown adulterants and even involving Trading Standards by having similar labelling to food and alcohol, and the opportunity of providing harm reduction information at point of sale, all seem like jolly good ideas to me. However, this would presumably still not allow for these products to be taxed, which raises the question of whether the recommendations go far enough.
As regular readers will have realised, my position on this issue has changed since the influx of ‘legal highs’. Whereas peer information about the old faithfuls (heroin, cocaine, cannabis – all of which have been used for thousands of years and about which we have plenty of information) is generally good amongst user groups, almost nothing is known about the new generation of drugs. This makes using these substances dangerous, and means that we as workers have no information about how to make it less so. An obvious example discussed on an earlier blog is MCat (mephedrone) and its sister drugs. It’s rapid introduction into the UK and the panic that followed inverted the relationship between drug users and the public services meant to be protecting them – they had no idea what they were taking, we had no idea how to respond, and the relationship had to be turned on its head as we asked users for information because we had nothing. If health services genuinely want to reduce the harm people choose to cause themselves, the gap between substance users and the authorities needs to be reduced and an honest discourse needs to begin, and the only way to do so is to reduce the risk of criminalisation for those that have first-hand experiences that are vital for gaining much-needed harm reduction information.
There is no doubt that the old Misuse of Drugs Act needs updating, and whilst few people want to see drug use promoted, we need to accept that times have changed – and that drugs are freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. We don’t know what these drugs are or what harm they can cause, but one thing is for sure – if we keep these substances, and the people that use them, on the fringes, there is no way of predicting what this will cost our public health services. The only way to make using such substances safer and less damaging is to not just enable but encourage people speak honestly about their experiences, and to collate and distribute this information as soon as it becomes available. Maybe the reduction in costs from no longer treating the matter as a criminal offence could even help fund research as new drugs come out so that advice and information could be timely, relevant and accurate.
However I am still pleasantly surprised that a group of peers could be so objective and apparently unbiased. Maybe there’s hope for the old country yet…