11 July 2011

European Commission Considers Legally Regulated Supply of New Psychoactive Substances

Here's a statement from a press release from the European Commission (emphasis mine):

The Commission is considering various ways to make the EU rules more effective, such as alternative options to criminal sanctions, new ways of monitoring substances that cause concern, and aligning drugs control measures with those for food and product safety. In the autumn, the Commission will present a series of options in this respect.

These words are music to this drug policy reformer's ears. What is being actively considered here is a legal framework for the supply of new recreational drugs that spring up.

The problem of 'legal highs' is growing, with 115 new substances being identified in the EU over the last 5 years. Our hopeless drug laws can't keep up with criminalising more and more chemical compounds at an ever increasing rate. The drugs are typically sold as 'not for human consumption', even though they are produced with human consumption in mind. Clearly the current legislation is farcical.

No one denies that drugs can be dangerous, and each drug brings its own unique set of challenges for the health of the user and the wider effect on society. When talking of 'food safety' regulations, I hope the EC mean tighter rules than those covering, say, tinned tomatoes. The regulations should be modelled on those covering alcohol and tobacco as a bare minimum, to reflect the dangers of a drug.

The EC report also fails to consider what is causing the big increase in new pschoactive substances entering the market. The demand for legal highs is created by the illegality of more 'traditional' recreational drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine. The scientific understanding of traditional drugs is also stronger, at least when compared to a brand new legal high substance. We therefore could have a situation where there is a proper legal framework for supplying less well understood recreational drugs, whilst well-known drugs remain criminalised. It would be more successful if legislation were designed to fit around the best understood recreational drugs.

If the EC successfully produces legal high supply regulations, I would expect that some of the first drugs to make use of the regulations will see a reasonable number of users, which could steal the recreational drug market away from both criminal dealers and the unregulated legal high traders.

It is also interesting to note the language used by the EC in its press release. It promotes a non-criminal justice approach with the familiar rhetoric of populist drug policy: "tougher action", "protect our children", "rules must be strengthened", "make sure young people do not fall into the trap" etc. The communications staff at the EC may well have figured that the "tough" rhetoric will be needed to sell what is actually a pragmatic policy approach which faces up to the reality of a demand for recreational drugs. As long as the legislative outcomes are to be a success, I'm happy for the politicians to sell it to the press and public however they can.

Finally, it must be said that there's a long way to go with this yet. This is a highly emotive topic, and EC has many political hurdles to jump. I can imagine the Daily Mail having kittens over this - EU SECRET PLOT TO PEDAL KILLER DRUGS TO OUR CHILDREN seems an inevitability. Nevertheless, we are seeing pragmatic, non-dogmatic drug policy being actively considered by governments at all levels. Reformers are slowly winning the War on Drugs Policy.

P.S. This autumn's Lib Dem Conference will see a motion debated on the party's drug policy. Please urge your local party's conference representatives to attend the debate and vote for the motion, and if you're a
conference rep, make sure you urge yourself!


Adam said...

Damn those liberal, europhilic elites with their plots to poison OUR children.

I trust the Daily Express will, as ever, come to BRITAIN's rescue.


But, really, this is an encouraging development. It's difficult however to see how the vastly different timescales of current 'legal high' invention/distribution vs trials & approval etc. can be reconciled. As you suggest, it might be better to legalise better-understood drugs whilst encouraging the development and trialling of new, safer (& better?) drugs.

I wonder if David Nutt's 'safe/fake alcohol' would be an interesting test of any new approach.

It also pains me to notice that the Commission and the House of Lords are much more open to discussing reform that their directly elected counterparts...

Anonymous said...

I actually worry this could have a counter-effect. The drugs which will remain illegal are the drugs that have existed for over fifty years; all have gone through decades of - official and unofficial - testing, research and study. The risks involved with cocaine, or LSD or ecstasy are known. These newer drugs have the potential to be more dangerous and have not had decades of popular usage.
The numbers that mephedrone (allegedly) killed seemed* far higher than the number of reported ecstasy deaths for example.

My worry is that if this legal framework would be introduced, the anti-drugs lobbyists would say 'look these legal drugs have killed people in droves' etc etc.

Every new debate on this is good news but half-measures may be worse for the greater cause.

*I haven't counted, but it just seemed that way from memory.

Duncan Stott said...


there were lots of media reports of that the deaths of young people to mephedrone use, but once the toxicology reports and post-mortems were carried out, they were all found to have died of other causes. It didn't fit the media's agenda to report this.


The only death I am aware of that directly implicated mephedrone was that of John Sterling Smith, but he was HIV positive, suffered from chronic renal disease and high blood pressure and was a diabetic, and was found with the second highest dose of mephedrone ever recorded.


There also appears to be a correlation between the emergence of mephedrone and a drop in the number of cocaine related deaths. It may be that some cocaine users switched to mephedrone when it was legal.

I am certainly not saying mephedrone is safe, but we don't know of any dangers, and it could be safer and less addictive than cocaine. Maybe.

Anyway, mephedrone has now been widely criminalised throughout Europe. If these EC policies come to fruition, they will affect different new drugs, that could be more dangerous (or more safe) than better understood drugs.

I agree it would be best if it was more 'traditional' drugs that had a legal supply, but given it is the criminality of the supply of drugs that causes so much of the social consequences, some legal supply is better than nothing. It could also be that once the new regulations are shown to be effective, other drugs are brought within their remit.

Anonymous said...

Not sure why my first comment through as 'openid', hopefully this one will be named properly.
Thanks for the Guardian article, that is very interesting. Although, I understand how the press like to announce deaths as drug-related before toxicology reports come in - its something I've blogged about, annoyed for a long time.

During that period that cocaine-related deaths dropped, wasn't this during the general drop in cocaine use over the past five years? If mephedrone is safer than cocaine, and users were switching, then that is of course better.

I accept that on the other side of my argument, the newer drugs may in fact be safer, but I am still wary of opening the market to all variety of new drugs. With newer drugs I would ask for a lot more regulation and testing before I wanted them on the market, than I would with existing drugs.

Don't get me wrong, ultimately I think this is a good proposal, but it needs to be done perfectly for it to achieve the good results. For every measure that didn't work, it would increase the fervour of the anti-drugs groups and press and set back drugs reform more in the long-term.

I'll be paying close attention to this either way.

Adam Tudor said...

Interesting they don't mention the survey they keep quoting was across 12,000 people from 27 countries. 444 People surveyed in each country give them information from which they draw conclusions and use as ammo for their new policies. I could canvass more in my local town centre on a Saturday afternoon.

Absolutely disgraceful. Even in the survey itself it warns that it is highly unreliable (not in so many words).

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