The political classes of the UK, Europe and the USA continue to leave their heads firmly embedded in the sand over drug policy. As if further evidence were needed that the current policy is simply not working in a practical sense, a recent study has shown that 280 new legal highs have emerged in Europe in recent years, including 73 in the last year.
Even if banning drugs were effective, which it clearly is not, I would be against it. However, the proliferation of legal highs is extremely worrying. By criminalising and restricting the “established” drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, MDMA and many others we directly create the demand for legal substitutes. Were these drugs legal it would be very unlikely that discovering legal alternatives for them would be profitable.
Some illegal drugs can be dangerous, though in many cases their danger is exacerbated by their illegality. Illegality means that substances are likely to be less pure, there is more risk of contamination, consumption may be done in less safe manners and people are discouraged from seeking the appropriate medical help if and when things do go awry.
Another factor which makes drugs much safer is knowing the risks you are dealing with – knowing that ecstasy will make you grind your teeth and bite your lips means that you can take gum or lollies with you to stop you grinding your molars to stubs or shredding your lips. In other words, “better the devil you know”. It is preferable to have a slightly dangerous substance where the risks and how to minimise and manage them are well documented than a proliferation of similarly dangerous but less well understood substances.
We should take the huge number of legal highs on the market as an indicator of huge demand for mind-altering substances. The “drug problem” is not going to go away – only by realising that it doesn’t have to be a problem can we deal with it. Many of the ways in which drugs are problematic are artificially and unnecessarily constructed by draconian drug policies. The only real answer is an end to this pointless prohibition.