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My septuagenarian mother is a hardened, habitual, drug-using criminal, who uses illicit substances on a daily basis.

Or at least she would be if a proposal by the Local Government Association (LGA) was introduced. They are advocating a change to UK Law in order to stop ‘legal highs’ being sold in shops. Making all psychoactive (brain chemistry altering) substances illegal; with some, such as alcohol and tobacco, being made exempt from the legislation. The LGA, which represents 400 councils nationwide, want to replicate the system already in operation in Ireland.

So my mum’s bath salts, plant foods, carpet, floor and other chemical cleaners; many of which contain ingredients that can be used in other ways, could become illegal.

Hence my mum and the vast majority of the population’s potential criminality.

This is, of course, a flippant statement but it’s a fact that everyday products are being sold and used for reasons other than that for which they were intended.

More and more ‘head shops’, as they are known, are springing up selling these ‘legal highs’. And every one of them stresses their products are ‘not for human consumption’, despite being able to buy all sorts of other drug-taking paraphernalia inside their stores.

So, where would the line be drawn if the LGA proposal became law? Would chain-stores such as Lush be forced out of business?

I could foresee an interesting court case where cigarettes and alcohol (exempt ‘legal highs’) were cited as being more harmful, dangerous and bigger killers than substances sold under the guise of ‘not for human consumption’. Don’t worry, I won’t start a tirade about smokers.

Deaths attributed to legal highs have more than doubled since 2009; from 26 to 60 last year. University of London National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths.

And with more shops selling them, and new varieties constantly filling their shelves the situation is likely to get worse.

And this doesn’t even start to address the buying from the internet issue.

Human beings, by their very nature like to feel good; to seek thrills, pleasure and escapism from themselves and their surroundings; and if they can’t find it naturally will turn to other means to get their fix of dopamine, risk or no risk, ban or no ban.

At present the UK deals with ‘legal highs’ on a case-by-case basis. If a substance is banned then by making a slight change to its chemical composition it can legally be sold again. So no matter what is made illegal, potentially more dangerous ways will be found to circumvent the legislation of the day.

The actions of the LGA is a typical knee-jerk reaction to a growing social issue; a headline grabbing proposal that fails to deal with the underlying root cause of the problem. But the LGA’s reaction to this blight isn’t new.

Criminalising legal highs won’t make the problem go away; all it will do is drive it underground and into the hands of the gang and crime lords. Just as the drugs on the present illegal substances list have been. If we are to tackle these problems such action isn’t the way. We already know it doesn’t work.

Perhaps it’s time for a new attack; something from a different angle. Every recent Government has pledged (no pun intended) to wage war on drugs; to rid the country from the social insurgent and its mass destruction. Yet despite the rhetoric; billions of pounds spent, despite offenses, counter-offenses and a host of new weapons in its arsenal the frontline hasn’t changed; unilateral strikes have been tried time and time again; each one proving futile, staying bogged down in a no-man’s land quagmire of bureaucracy.

No winners, just a growing, endless list of casualties.

It’s time to face facts: The war has been lost. And, if we are to seek to protect our communities from the impact of ‘legal highs’ something new must be done.

How then to break the stalemate?

We know the harms, risks and long-term damage of the illegal drugs. So rather than just parking drug users in an already over-crowded, expensive, punitive judicial system with high re-offending rates, why couldn’t we see a symbiotic coalition of medical, judicial and educational forces?

I am not advocating drug use. But we must acknowledge that it exists; the enormity of the problem; and that so far, little progress has been made.

The drug business is creative and innovative; it laughs at our efforts to halt it; the majority of its culture is shrouded by shadows; kept out-of-sight in a murky underworld controlled by the various nefarious organisations.

And for them it is a multi-billion pound business.

The attitude of society and the stigma attached to addiction means that it is easy for them to keep it that way.

This in itself has huge cost implications to every community; higher crime rates, more policing, more emergency and medical interventions, anti-social behaviour, lower quality of life for residents living in the affected areas… I could go on.

Bringing the problem out into the open could go a way to addressing some of these issues.

It is our communities that drive substance misuse. That’s not easy to hear, but an acceptance of the fact that intervention to reduce demand is the only thing that will affect supply.

We need creative solutions to our problems, where people have other support systems, and better things to do than use illegal drugs or ‘legal highs’.

Criminalisation is clearly not the answer.

We need a new broom to sweep away the cobwebs of traditional bureaucratic  ‘solutions’; and just like my mum, we have to refuse to sweep anything under the carpet.


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