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Gesture Politics

By Sue Pryce 

On June 9th 2015, the House of Lords will have its first opportunity to debate a new set of drugs laws. The Psychoactive Substances Bill, will introduce a ‘blanket’ ban on all legal highs. Legal highs, also referred to as New Psychoactive Substances (NPSs) are legal concoctions of drugs that mimic illegal drugs. Vertex for example is a kind of synthetic cannabis. It is sold widely and cheaply, but in contrast to prohibited cannabis, it appears to be implicated in several health scares. Methedrone became the first of such substances to be banned (2010) after it became a ‘chart buster’ legal alternative to ecstasy in 2007. The media fuss it attracted and its eventual ban did little to curb the market, it simply went underground and on-line.

The government’s proposed ban can be little more than gesture politics – being seen to be doing something, anything, about the growing public fuss about the dangers of these substances. Yes they are dangerous, some more so than others and some more so than those drugs prohibited by the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. But it is prohibition itself that drives the market for legal highs.

So who will gain from the new law?

  • Not Britain’s 250 or so ‘head shops’ currently selling legal highs. They will lose out to a network of less visible dealers on the streets and across the internet.
  • The use of illegal substances will continue. The markets for particular substances will contract and expand more according to fashion than their legal status. The price of New Illegal Psychoactive Substances (NIPS, you read it here first) will rise and will attract more dealers into the market.
  • Some parents who have lost a child to these drugs, and others who fear doing so, may feel some comfort. They may mistakenly believe that through political pressure they have helped to save other families from a similar fate. I am not making light of their genuine desire to protect young people or of the devastation caused by the loss of a loved one. It may deter a few, but experience of over 100 years of prohibition has taught us that markets work prohibition does not.
  • The government will probably appease some of the drug warriors among their own supporters, and indeed those of other parties and no party.
  • The whole drug-prohibition-industrial complex (Pryce 2012 Fixing Drugs, Palgrave) will also benefit. Their employment prospects will flourish alongside those of the dealers and wizards in the labs who create minor tweaks in the chemistry in their race to keep ahead of the law. And the phrase ‘any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect’ will doubtless provide the lawyers plenty of extra work.

Will young people be safer? I don’t think so. It is after all the current drug prohibition regime that has driven your people to the NPSs in the first place. They seek the excitement of ‘getting off their heads’ but not the excitement of a visit to the police station, a criminal record or even a spell in prison and its likely long-term impact on their employment and life chances. The traditionally prohibited drugs are probably less dangerous because their effects are better understood by peer groups, emergency services, and yes, even parents. Drug use as a path to oblivion is endemic in humans (Davenport-Hines, 2001 The Pursuit of Oblivion, Weidenfeld and Nicholson), and even in parts of the animal world (eg cats and catnip). Prohibition makes this activity as dangerous as possible by ensuring that drugs are profitable enough to create a massive criminal industry which enforces contracts by intimidation and violence, and it ensures that drugs are of unknown purity and potency.

Governments do not get elected by admitting they are impotent in the face of a little local difficulty like NPSs. So they do something. But they know that that something can only exacerbate the problem.

Sue Pryce is a Professor of Politics at the School of Politics and International Relations.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

Published inBritish PoliticsPolitics

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