Drugs are not the problem

Prohibiting legal highs marks an escalation in the crazy ‘war on drugs’, says Eddie Ford

In a welcome move, Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats - or what is left of them - has called for the legalisation of cannabis (currently classified as a ‘class B’ drug) and a cessation of the ‘war on drugs’, or at the very least a ceasefire. At the upcoming Lib Dem spring conference, he will endorse a motion which calls on the party to extend its existing support for the legalisation of cannabis for medicinal use, to include recreational use as well.

The motion has been prompted by the release of a report from a panel commissioned by the Lib Dems to examine the financial implications of legalising cannabis. Looking at evidence from US states like Colorado and Washington, where cannabis use has now been legal for several years, the panel estimated that legalisation would save the criminal justice system between £200 million and £300 million - not something to be sniffed at. One of those consulted was professor David Nutt, one of the world’s leading neuropsychopharmacologists and a former chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. He famously got the sack for doing his job and presenting the government with facts, as opposed to propaganda, pointing out that statistically ecstasy was no more dangerous than an addiction to horse-riding.1 In 2009 he published a pamphlet highlighting how the perfectly legal drug, alcohol, was more harmful than the entirely illegal LSD, ecstasy and cannabis.2

Anyhow, Farron urged David Cameron to rediscover his “backbone” and make the case again for “drugs reform” - a reference to his previous support for the ‘medical’ prescribing of heroin and the provision of safe injecting rooms. In December 2002 he told MPs that such places “at least get heroin users to a place where they can be contacted by the treatment agencies, so that the work of trying to get them off drugs can start”. Yes, it was the same David Cameron who is now prime minister - one of the generals conducting the unwinnable ‘war on drugs’.

Farron’s ‘pro-cannabis’ stance puts him in the same company as the “really boring” non-user, Jeremy Corbyn, who in 2000 backed an early day motion in the Commons declaring that the “cannabis battle in the war against drugs is being lost”. Corbyn added that cannabis is “neither more damaging than tobacco, nor more addictive than alcohol, and … it is no more the portal to harder drugs than a half of bitter to rampant alcoholism”. Apart from that, it should be “decoupled” from hard drugs in the public mind, because it has “therapeutic value” (MS sufferers, Parkinson’s Disease, Crohn’s disease, glaucoma treatment, epileptic control, PTSD, asthma, etc).3 The motion stated that councils should be allowed to hand out Amsterdam-style licences to cannabis growers and people who wanted to open cannabis cafes.

More recently, in last year’s Labour leadership debates, ‘historic’ users Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall said they would “consider” decriminalising cannabis, but Corbyn went one stage further - “we should be adult and grown up”: ie, decriminalise cannabis. Interestingly, in 1989 he backed the introduction of a smoking ban in public venues, 17 years before it was finally introduced. There is nothing inconsistent or hypocritical about Corbyn’s position, as some stupidly allege - quite the opposite, if anything. Both are matters concerning public health and general societal well-being.

Illegal highs

However, we have to say to both Farron and Corbyn - what about the other drugs that are presently illegal? Should they not be legalised too? In that way, just as with alcohol or food products, quality control can be introduced - such as clear labelling, which would detail the composition of the drug concerned and provide guidelines about its use. That is the logical and rational thing to do.

Meanwhile, totally bypassing logic, the government is very near to banning all legal highs - significantly escalating the ‘war on drugs’ and guaranteeing more casualties. Previously, there had been a legislative loophole enabling ingenuous chemists in ‘grey market’ labs to create substances that produce very similar effects to popular street drugs like cannabis, ketamine and ecstasy - but with a different chemical signature, meaning they can be openly sold in ‘head shops’ (and on the internet, of course).

Two weeks ago the Psychoactive Substances Bill passed its final stages in parliament and is expected to become law by April. The new legislation outlaws the supply and production of legal highs, or novel psychoactive substances (NPSs), but not those who buy or consume it - thereby creating yet more contradictions and anomalies in the law, not to mention more police work.

Those defending the move cite evidence that some cannabinoids synthesised in chemical labs are 100 times more powerful than traditional strains - like methoxetamine (MXE), trading under various names, including ‘Black Mamba’ and ‘Pandora’. They refer to the 2013 death of two party-goers - supposedly after taking the then legal stimulant, mephedrone (‘bubble’).4 Research carried out by Northumbria University found that the main market for legal highs were disadvantaged young people, prisoners and the homeless - hardly a blinding discovery perhaps, but still indicative.

Naturally enough, the legislation has been criticised for containing too broad a definition of psychoactive substances - described as something “capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it” by “stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, affecting the person’s mental functioning or emotional state”. Readers may think this is a pretty accurate description of alcohol, nicotine or caffeine - all of which, strangely enough, are exempt from the bill, alongside “any substance which is ordinarily consumed as food”. Somewhat amusingly, at the end of October Theresa May wrote to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs informing them that homeopathy - a practice based entirely on pseudoscience, involving sugar pills with no active ingredient - would be specifically excluded from any ban. Talk about wanting your psychoactive cake and eating it. But the ineluctable problem is that there is no direct mapping between molecular structure and mental experience, which no amount of chemical testing - no matter how well intended or rigorous - can definitely ascertain or quantify. Ultimately, the only way of knowing if a substance ‘alters the mind’ is by trying it.

Scrutinising the bill, the home affairs select committee recommended that nitrous oxide (‘laughing gas’) should be “reviewed” by the ACMD to consider whether it should come under the remit of the new bill, and also concluded that poppers (alkyl nitrates) should not be banned, since their misuse was “not seen to be capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a societal problem”. Poppers are widely used by gay men to relax muscles, making sex easier and more pleasurable - whilst others just enjoy the brief high they give. Making the headlines, Crispin Blunt, the Tory MP for Reigate, ‘outed’ himself as a regular poppers user and attacked the government’s “fantastically stupid” plan to ban the drug - in this he agreed with the view of the Gay Men’s Health Collective that a ban on poppers could increase the use of ‘class A’ and ‘class B’ drugs as well as the transmission of sexually transmitted infections. Stonewall, the gay equality campaign, has also spoken out against the move, saying it could put the health of gay and bisexual men “at risk”. Yet the government still insists on a ban, irrespective of the evidence or facts. The war must go on.

Michael Linnell, founder of DrugWatch - a forum for drugs workers and professionals - expected legitimate retailers to start selling off their remaining stocks of NPSs at “big discounts” ahead of the ban. After that, obviously, the trade will continue underground. After all, as Linnell says, “it’s important to remember it’s a market, so for a lot of people it doesn’t really matter whether it’s illegal or not”. All that matters is the desire for the drug and how to get hold of it: someone, somewhere, somehow will always be willing to supply it.

Crazily, we now have a situation where some of the most dangerous drugs are legal, whilst some of the least harmful are banned, and where many of the most acute dangers from drug use arise from their very illegality. Illogical, captain. At least if you buy your legal high from a shop you have some sort of comeback - unlike with a black market dealer, who might well tell you anything to get you to buy the stuff. Legal highs should remain … legal - and be properly regulated.


Recently the BBC featured a report about an unemployed young man on a rundown council estate, who took legal highs in an attempt to stave off depression - and unfortunately died, possibly as a direct result of the drugs. Apparently, if you take away his drugs he will become happy about being unemployed and having a generally shit life.

This is an utterly inhuman approach - and, what is more, one that can never work. No, we remember Marx’s famous phrase about religion being the “opium of the masses”. What he meant, of course, despite the many deliberate attempts to misunderstand him, is that when you are living under conditions that make you suffer you turn to something - or anything - that will make the pain go away, even if only temporarily: ie, religion. Therefore the very last thing Marxists propose, apart from the authoritarian likes of the Blanquists or Enver Hoxha, is to declare war on religion - to take away people’s opium and then expect them to be happy. We fight to change the conditions that lead to suffering and misery, and only then will religion begin to wither away. From this rational perspective, religion is most certainly not the main problem or the cause of all evil in the world - the tiresome accusation of bar-room liberals or Richard Dawkins on a bad day.

The same goes for drugs. Many of us regularly take a certain drug - ie, alcohol - occasionally to regretful excess. Not necessarily because we are unhappy, but because we enjoy it, and what is wrong with that? We want people to take drugs because they are happy or satisfied, not because they are miserable or cannot get a job. Drugs should be socialised, not further restricted or criminalised. Communists are not so naive, it goes without saying, to think that legalisation would instantly solve all our drugs problems or magically usher in nirvana - a perfect society of blissfully happy, non-alienated, individuals. But all the evidence tells us that harmful drug-taking, of whatever nature, is best dealt with on the non-punitive societal level rather than treated as a matter of criminal pathology or individual moral failure deserving of punishment.


1 . http://jop.sagepub.com/content/23/1/3.

2 . www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/sites/crimeandjustice.org.uk/files/Estimating%20drug%20harms.pdf.

3 . www.parliament.uk/edm/2000-01/12.

4  . www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2316621/Mephedrone-deaths-Emma-Johnston-Chris-Goodwin-die-taking-lethal-cocktail-bubble.html.