The Psychoactive Substances Act – a source of perplexed amusement, despair, and endless column inches since its inception – is finally due to go ahead on the 26th of May. But despite all the many thousands of words that have been written about it, there is still one more point (at least) to be covered.
In their unsuccessful attempts to appease reformers by not criminalising the possession and use of ‘legal highs,’ the government have unwittingly ensured that drug users will suffer greater harms than they need to.
Obviously, the creation of a black market for these substances will in itself cause greater harm, as will the newfound stigma and fear of arrest, which will undoubtedly prevent people from seeking help when they need it. But what I’m talking about here is more specifically related to the lack of criminalisation of use.
At first glance, it appears to be a good thing. In fact I myself wrote just a few months ago that it could even be seen as the beginning of the end of drug prohibition. But in the meantime, what the government are actually saying to people is “You can keep using these drugs, despite the lack of research into their properties and potential harms, but you mustn’t use the safer alternatives or you will face arrest.”
The problem is most evident in the case of synthetic cannabinoids or, as the media and government insist on calling it, ‘Spice.’ There are a vast number of different molecules that fall under this category, and whilst not all of them are harmful, a fair few undoubtedly are, and the majority have not been subjected to any kind of meaningful research. By not criminalising the possession and use of these drugs, whilst at the same time upholding the outright prohibition and criminalisation of cannabis (the safety of which is long established, and incredibly well researched), the government are effectively forcing people towards the more harmful substance.
This isn’t exactly a new problem – there have long been reports of people choosing the synthetic versions over the real thing in order to beat workplace drug tests, for example – but it is another in a long list of issues that the government seem to have either not thought about, or have outright ignored.
There may be prohibitionists reading this (I doubt it, but you never know) who will still maintain that the solution to this problem is simply to criminalise the possession and use of everything. It’s a response typical of the attitude which has long governed drug policy – that as long as the government can’t be accused of ‘promoting’ drug use, or in this case of pushing people towards more dangerous drugs, the consequences are not their problem. They’ve done all they can, and drug-related harms are the fault of morally weak drug users.
But even by that clearly flawed logic, there is another solution – decriminalise all drug use. Not just legal highs, not just cannabis, but all of it. It’s not a long-term solution by any means, but it would be a good start, and would at least go some way to fixing at least one of the gigantic flaws in the Psychoactive Substances Act. Given that Mike Penning MP and others have now openly admitted that the criminalisation of drug users is unhelpful and causes more harm than it prevents, you’d think they’d pursue this path as a matter of urgency. But I won’t be holding my breath, and until then, the harms are only going to increase.