The hype over legal highs

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Five Lancaster University students were recently hospitalized following a suspected overdose of the cannabis substitute Spice. All of the students, who were members of Grizedale College, have since made a full recovery and have been discharged from hospital. But now there is talk from MPs of enforcing a blanket ban of all legal highs in the country, a move which has been warmly welcomed by local MPs Cat Smith and David Morris.

What would a blanket ban mean, exactly? Well, there would be a maximum prison sentence of seven years for possession, supply, intent to supply, and production. And this is where I would like to make my first point: I have always thought that prosecuting someone for possession of any drug is completely ridiculous, because it doesn’t deal with the problem. Putting something like that on record means that it is much harder for the person to get a job and restart their life once they leave prison, which usually ends up with them turning back to drugs. That’s one thing this blanket ban fails to see – that rehabilitation would be a far better solution for those people who do take drugs.

Something else that struck me when reading the MPs’ comments was how they viewed drug use. Morris recalled how during his time in the music industry, he had seen people progress from “pot to injecting heroin in the space of six months”. This seems a pretty big generalization to make, implying that occasional recreational drug use is going to lead to a serious addiction. I’m not condoning drug use at all, but I think we have to be careful not to put every drug in the same category and start to demonize it. Morris also pointed out that if the Grizedale boys were clever enough to get into university, they should have been clever enough to not touch Spice. This seems to me the wrong way to look at recreational drug use, particularly when alcohol is often used in the same way but is still very much within the law.

By branding drug users with blanket terms such as “addicts” and “stupid”, we just make it harder for people who need help to come forward. Shaming somebody for their problem is not the way to help them; in fact it usually pushes them to continue using the drugs because they have no one to offer them support, which can lead to serious addictions forming.

Cat Smith was quick to add that the ban needed to come alongside an increased focus on drugs education, so that young people can make informed choices about what they’re doing. From my own experience at school, drugs were often only talked about in the most extreme cases. I was well aware of the dangers of something like cocaine or heroin, but the potentially harmful effects of legal highs were never fully outlined. In these sorts of situations, it’s more likely that students will avoid illegal drugs but think that the legal highs are okay to take, because they haven’t been told much different. It’s also worth pointing out that any sort of education on drugs begins to fade out the older you get. In reality, we should be taught about these sorts of drugs when we are readying ourselves to leave education or continue to university, because those are the times when students are more likely to want to experiment.

Overall, I think it’s probably a good idea to make it harder for students to get their hands on substances such as Spice, because we just don’t know what its short and long term effects are. But criminalizing the students who take them is not the way forward, because no one wants to admit they’ve done something wrong if the first thing they get is a slap on the wrist. We need a more substantial education on drugs to be put in place, so young people can make informed decisions to stay away from drugs that aren’t safe.