Drugs policy: time to think again
In late 2009 and early 2010, the British public were first collectively introduced to 'meow meow', or mephedrone, via a flurry of high-profile press coverage. The episode crystallised many of the problems facing government policy towards new psychoactive substances or 'legal highs'.
But mephedrone was not an isolated phenomenon. There were many such 'legal highs' before mephedrone (BZP, GBL), and after (Ivory Wave, Benzo Fury, NRG-1). The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction just recently announced an unprecedented 41 new substances emerging in 2010.
As a result, the Misuse of Drugs Act is, in its 40th anniversary year, is under sustained pressure. The MDA now controls over 600 substances, and the ability of traditional approaches to drug control to keep pace with the changes in the landscape heralded by ‘legal highs’ like mephedrone is in question.
As quickly as policy makers make new substances illegal through the MDA, others are being manufactured and put on the market. Since the majority of these drugs are produced in China and sold on the internet, their distribution and manufacture are extremely hard to regulate, and the speed with which they emerge leaves little time for experts to assess their potential harm. In this uncertain environment, our report Taking Drugs Seriously investigates whether twentieth-century drug control legislation is fit for the twenty-first-century drugs market.
The challenges posed by new psychoactive substances provide an opportunity to look afresh at drug control policy without recourse to a rerun of older and redundant debates about whether to be ‘tough’ or ‘soft’ on drugs. The issue is one of framing: If drug policy is cast as ‘a war on drugs’ then it is either won or lost and requires a level of national sacrifice. If it is framed as the ‘drug problem’ then there is an implicit assumption that there is a ‘solution’. Conceptions such as these contribute to the fundamental and growing bias in the political and regulatory system towards prohibition as a default option.
This bias leads to a system that is weighted in favour of a 'precautionary principle'. The precautionary principle is a concept that is usually employed in the environmental policy context to argue for strict environmental restrictions. It says that, in the face of uncertainty and a high potential cost of failure, we should be extremely cautious. The precautionary principle has been criticised by a number of experts, including the US academic Cass Sunstein. And yet, it is currently applied in the area of drugs policy by those on the enforcement side of the debate: in the absence of evidence, a drug could be harmful, so we are better off banning it.
This inherent bias for a new application of the 'precautionary principle' is bad policy-making. Its application closes off proper consideration of the relative harms of particular substances and the harms that arise from banning those substances. It also hinders the consideration of alternative control measures, including the potential benefit of taking a step back and producing a simplified overarching control framework, such as a Harmful Substances Control Act.
Forty years since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 became law, the ‘drug problem’ is no nearer to being solved. The drugs debate is a hotly contested and polarised area and anyone entering it runs the risk of being characterised as being on one side or the other. However, it is clear that the ‘drug problem’ is complex and multi-faceted and there is no simple solution to it. It is time for a new approach that recognises this complexity and seeks to make improvements to policy based on consensus and evidence.