UK to ban everything - Response from David Nutt

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UK to ban everything - Response from David Nutt

Post by Ric » Mon Jun 01, 2015 4:10 pm

A blanket ban on legal highs in the UK is on the cards. The new government included it in legislative plans unveiled in the Queen's speech this week and published its bill today.

Cue cheers from campaigners who say the new psychoactive substances it targets can be lethal, and that the "head shops" that sell them are disliked by local communities in the same way that sex shops used to be.

At the core of the campaign for a ban is the repeated claim that legal highs killed over 90 people in 2013, the last year for which data is available. DrugScience, an independent committee I set up, showed this to be false over a year ago. We revealed that very few of the drugs involved in this claim were in fact legal.

Ill-considered law

Campaigners are aware of this but continue to use this figure – which makes me parody the quote often attributed to Disraeli : "There are lies, damned lies and legal high statistics." To base a new law on such untruths is unpalatable at best and dishonest at worst. Moreover an ill-considered law could lead to much greater harm to users and to the scientific community.

In any event, bans don't stop deaths. Illegal opioids such as heroin kill around 1200 people in the UK a year, cocaine 200 and other illegal highs around 100. And don't forget that the biggest recreational drug killer is exempted from the new law: alcohol. It causes some 22,000 premature deaths per year in the UK.

How might the proposed ban increase the dangers of legal highs? If head shops are banned people will turn to backstreet dealers and the internet, neither of which have the same relationship with their customers as shopkeepers, so vital education and guidance on harm reduction will diminish.

A blanket ban on new psychoactive substances could also inadvertently prove a serious impediment to UK pharmaceutical research into brain disorder treatments. Such work is already shrinking rapidly, and another regulatory hurdle could run it into the sand: would new antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs be affected by the ban? It is vital that scientific societies fully evaluate the proposed legislation and highlight possible unintended outcomes.

Avoidable harm

All this could be avoided. There is a much simpler solution than a blanket ban - learn from the experience of other more rational countries such as the Netherlands. It has a network of drug testing centres that allow users to find out exactly what they have bought and learn about safe dosing and harm minimisation. Thanks to this, the Dutch have had low death rates from recreational drugs in recent years. Moreover they are able to rapidly identify dangerous new drugs and put out warnings.

They did this in December 2014 when pills bearing a Superman logo and packing a high dose of PMMA were detected; no deaths resulted. They also warned other European countries, including the UK, where PMMA is banned. But no official alert was sounded here and we had three deaths from people using them, presumably thinking they were a form of MDMA (ecstasy). This sad episode rather sums up the UK's unscientific and primitive approach: impose bans knowing that this won't work and will lead to some users dying from ignorance.

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Re: UK to ban everything - Response from David Nutt

Post by EleveneezerGoode » Tue Jun 09, 2015 11:36 am

Some of those legal highs are well nasty. I'm kinda glad.

But the good stuff should be legal, like, under licence from a pharmacy or something.