12 Dec 2013

Education would allow users rational choice on ‘legal highs’

We should be honest and allow people access to “safe intoxicants” like cannabis, former government drugs adviser Professor David Nutt tells Channel 4 News.

The government has announced that it is to review the regulations that cover so-called “legal highs” – synthetic drugs that can be bought online and over the counter.

But campaigners say banning such drugs is not the way forward.

Maryon Stewart’s daughter, who was a medical student, died after taking a legal high called GBL as well as drinking alcohol. Ms Stewart told Channel 4 News that at the time of her death European nightclubs were running poster campaings warning that GBL plus alcohol equals death, and if her daughter had known the risk she would never have mixed the two: “she was unsuspecting, and so was her friend who gave it to her.”

If people could have access to cannabis like they do in countries like the Netherlands, they wouldn’t be buying all these substances Professor David Nutt

Ms Stewart said her organisation, the Angelus Foundation, had done focus groups and surveys with young people to develop films to educate young people. She described how, on showing the films in schools, 75 per cent of the pupils who saw them said they felt “angry and misled” on discovering that “legal doesn’t mean safe”.

Too much control?

Professor Nutt said the reason there were so many dangerous compounds was because we have stopped access to safer compounds:

“The worst example is these sythetic cannabinoids. If people could have access to cannabis like they do in countries like the Netherlands, they wouldn’t be buying all these substances, and therefore they wouldn’t be subjecting themselves to the randomness of the harms of these new compounds.”

Professor Nutt said that a law created in 1971 when the internet did not exist was no longer fit for purpose:

“We need a different approach now – it should be education. Most people would prefer to know exactly what they are doing and make rational choices about what they use.

“We are increasing the number of new chemicals because we are stopping people accessing the drugs they used to use, like cannabis and ecstasy… even ecstasy is safer than some of these new compounds like PMA.”

Prove it is safe

Ms Stewart said the onus should be on dealers and sellers to prove that legal highs are safe for human consumption: “We can’t have these things on the high street”. If a young person can go “to their local pet shop, newsagent or garage and buy these things, let alone in the head shop – why wouldn’t they think they are safe?”.