Legalising Narcotics – What Might Happen

A response to calls for mephedrone not to be legalised as the impacts may be surprisingly negative.










A blog post by Duncan Stott at Split Horizons is garnering some interest today. It suggests that there may be some unwanted consequences of criminalising mephedrone, or as it is more commonly known here in Angus, bubbles.

Duncan suggests that:

Mephedrone users will continue to use mephedrone. They like the feeling that the drug provides, and will continue to seek (and may be addicted) to the high it provides. Instead of suppliers who were complying with the law, mephedrone will now be provided to them by criminal gangs, who will command an inflated, untaxed premium for the drug. Some addicts will turn to crime to fund their habit. The strength and purity of mephedrone will greatly vary, to the detriment of the health of users. Rivalry between the drug gangs will bring violence and weapons to inner-city streets.

Duncan is wrong on several counts. Speaking to Fiona Walsh of the Volunteer Centre Angus, I discovered that mephedrone is cheaper than booze. If mephedrone develops quality issues and becomes more expensive, kids will switch back to drinking alcohol. Secondly, addicts turn to crime when they cannot afford their drug of choice. Given how cheap mephedrone is, this is unlikely. He is also wrong to assume that the legal suppliers of mephedrone are not just a front for the criminal gangs supplying illegal drugs.

Mephedrone users will switch to more familiar highs, such as cocaine or ecstasy, that mephedrone attempted to emulate. They will be supplied by criminal gangs, with all the above problems.

Again, it is more likely that users will switch to alcohol or other cheap drugs such as cannabis, rather than more expensive, harder to come by drugs. Also, it might surprise Duncan, but being illegal does actually sometimes work as a deterrent for young people, who do not want to fall foul of the law.

Previously legitimate businesses that supplied mephedrone will be forced to close, with subsequent job losses. This is at odds with Gordon Brown’s statement that “every redundancy is a personal tragedy. Every lost job is an aspiration destroyed. Every business closure is someone’s dream in ruins.”

I do not count companies selling mephedrone, that has been specifically developed as a legal high as “legitimate businesses”. Duncan is being extremely naive if he thinks that the same criminal gangs that sell illegal drugs are not behind the legal ones that sell mephedrone. I doubt that you will find mephedrone on sale at your local garden centre.

Mephedrone users will switch to some of the many other legal highs on the market. Like mephedrone, the effects of these new drugs will not be known by science, and may be more dangerous than mephedrone, causing a new wave of deaths, and a new wave of calls for government action.

Here Duncan may be right. However leaving mephedrone legal will not stop new, more dangerous drugs being developed.

If we were to follow Duncan’s logic through for other narcotics and legalise them, we can look to our two legal drugs, alcohol and nicotine to see what the impacts on our society would be:

  • Charity Turning Point claims that there are 1m children living with alcoholic parents. We would condemn how many more kids to a such an upbringing?
  • Driving under the influence is a major issue across the country. There is no equivalent to a breathalyser for most drugs. How much would it cost to police Drug Driving? How many more police would be needed? More importantly how many innocent people would be killed on our roads?
  • My father died of lung cancer. Seeing the other lung cancer patients on the hospital wards really brought home to me the impact of smoking on families, children and the NHS. Cannabis is primarily smoked, often mixed in with nicotine, in unfiltered joints. Legalising it will only increase the cost of treating lung cancer in this country
  • Lost business hours. Already businesses lose time to workers who are addicted to alcohol or have smoking related illnesses. How much of an impact will legalising drugs have on our businesses and our economy?

Neither banning drugs, nor legalising them answers the fundamental question: why do people turn to drugs? The answers are complicated and the solutions even more so. I discussed this in more detail in my previous blog which you can read by clicking here.

What then is the solution? Well as I wrote in the blog post above:

Instead we must break the cycle of alcohol abuse and demonstrate to these children that there is a positive alternative.

We have to be serious about helping parents overcome their alcohol addiction, provide separate support for the children and then help to rebuild these families.

We need to get young people who have been drug and alcohol abusers themselves, to go and talk to children about their experiences. Just like the excellent Fiona Walsh is doing for the Volunteer Centre Angus, based in Arbroath.

And we must also ensure that children have places to go and things to do, that do not involve alcohol, like the Attic Project in Brechin or the CAFE project in Arbroath.

The problems we need to solve are “social exclusion”, for lack of an equally succinct phrase, a cycle of abuse in families and a lack of positive alternatives and awareness of a different way of living for young people. Criminalising drugs does not solve any of these problems. But nor does legalising drugs, or leaving news one legal and instead will have a massive negative effect on our society. The solutions to these problems are complex, difficult and will take a long time, perhaps generations. There is, unfortunately, no easy, quick fix.

2 thoughts on “Legalising Narcotics – What Might Happen”

  1. Whilst I agree that making this drug illegal will stop some users, it simply won’t stop most of those who were taking it recreationally in clubs.

    The media frenzy surrounding cathinones has led us to believe that most of the country’s children are spending their days passed out in the gutter after a heavy night of furious plant-food snorting, when they should in fact be attending school. As someone who spends a great deal of time working in a number of schools in some very disadvantaged areas, this is something which is yet to come up even anecdotally through conversations with teaching staff.

    It is my firm belief that most users of cathinones take them whilst on a night out. Whilst the legality of drugs like mephedrone has certainly made them more available, there has been no discussion of the notion that their popularity might also be linked to the decreasing purity of MDMA/ecstasy.

    The most convincing argument against the knee-jerk media-induced criminalisation of users of a drug which has (as yet) only been *linked* to a comparatively small number of deaths, surely lies with criminal activity. An unregulated and clandestine trade will undoubtedly lead to the decreased purity of mephedrone too. This could have catastrophic health consequences depending on the substance used to cut the drug. Making the importation of Mephedrone illegal will not stop dealers from trying. Instead, there will be more naive victims of the drugs trade languishing in jail or filling up mortuaries as drugs mules and couriers.

    Until conclusive proof that mephedrone is a very dangerous substance can be provided, I think this is completely the wrong move. Even then, permitting the use of alcohol, such an anti-social drug which as you rightly point out is very dangerous, but prohibiting the use of another arguably less anti-social drug is absurd.

    Stop children from using cathinones the same way we stop them from consuming alcohol, but I do not see how it is the duty of parliament to legislate against the personal use of a substance which to my knowledge creates no anti-social behaviour at all.

  2. Hi Sanjay,

    thanks for taking the time to make such a detailed consideration of my blog post. It would have been nice if you’d let me know that you had done so… I have only just found this post (Googling my own name, yeah I know, how sad!) and it would have been nice to provide my reaction nearer the time.

    There are several points I’d like to raise:

    1. To clarify: my original piece was speculation on what could happen, not prophecy on what would happen. Many of your points are valid reasons why my suggestions may not happen, but the fact is neither of us have a crystal ball.

    2. Mephedrone induces a completely different type of psychoactive response to alcohol or cannabis. In general terms, mephedrone is a stimulant drug, whereas alcohol is a depressant and cannabis is a hallucinogen. I suggested users would switch to cocaine or ecstasy as these are other stimulant drugs (with a cultural precedent). Alcohol isn’t for people who desire stimulation.

    3. I consider any business to be legitimate if they abide by the law. My understanding was that there were two main places consumers could purchase mephedrone when it was legal: so-called “head shops” and Internet retailers. Re head shops, surely these must be considered legitimate? They have been around for decades on physical premises. Internet retailers may seem more covert in their operation, but I’m sure HMRC have ways of checking whether an online business is paying its taxes. I also note that the websites took steps to avoid falling foul of the Medicines Act by describing the drug as “not for human consumption”, “plant food” or similar. That would suggest an intention to abide by the law. Why would a site run by criminals be bothered to take these steps?

    4. If the law acts as a deterrent, why do more (young) people use cannabis in the UK than in the Netherlands where it is effectively legal? Why across the various States of the USA is there no correlation between the severity of their laws towards cannabis and its usage? Why wasn’t there a surge in drug use in Portugal when they decriminalised possession of all drugs in 2002? Why has cocaine trebled in use since 1997, despite being Class A throughout this time? Why has ecstasy use dwindled throughout this same period, again whilst remaining Class A? I see no evidence of a deterrent effect. There are much larger overriding cultural factors involved in drug use.

    5. While I’m sure new drugs will continue to be developed, their commercial potential will be restricted if there are existing legal highs saturating the market.

    6. Alcohol and tobacco are consumed because they are part of our mainstream culture. Other drugs are consumed as part of an alternative counterculture. No alteration to their legal status will change this. Alcohol prohibition didn’t stop alcohol consumption in 1920’s America, the Gin Acts didn’t stop gin consumption in 18th Century London, and (I repeat) Portugal’s drug decriminalisation didn’t encourage drug consumption in Portugal this decade.

    7. You say you want to avoid condemning more children to an upbringing by alcoholic parents, yet earlier you said banning mephedrone would increase alcohol use… your own arguments make a good case for keeping mephedrone legal.

    6. Your points about drug driving are good ones. But drug driving needs to be policed whether or not a drug is legal or not. One other thought, why do we assume driving on mephedrone is automatically a bad thing? I repeat: it is a stimulant drug. The government’s own advice is to use the stimulant caffeine if you are feeling a bit tired behind the wheel. Perhaps other drugs could have an even better effect at improving a driver’s responsiveness?

    7. My grandfather died of lung cancer. But government regulation – health warnings, licensing, tax, age restrictions, NHS help for people who want to quit – has successfully cut the number of people who smoke. These regulations are only possible under a legal framework.

    That’ll do for now 🙂

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