It’s been three months since the Psychoactive Substances Act was passed into law in the UK. It effectively banned every substance that wasn’t food, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or prescription medication. Despite the immense, sweeping power this act has given police, so far they’ve only targeted head shops; stores selling ‘legal highs’. This was the main aim of the PSAct from the outset – shut down the high street vendors that were successfully bypassing UK drug policy. Since the end of May, 24 head shops have been shut down, and over 300 non-specialist stores have stopped selling legal highs. The Home Office estimates this will cost the economy £32 million annually… and that’s probably a fairly conservative estimate.
In addition, 186 people have been arrested for selling legal highs. One representative example is a man selling canisters of harmless laughing gas at a festival. He could face a lifetime in jail for carrying a gas used to whip cream.
So the PSAct has achieved its main goal – but at the cost of our freedom. This is the first time in our history that instead of declaring what is illegal, an Act has listed what is legal. And it’s a very small list. It sets a scary precedent for future policies.
Shutting down the legal highs drug market in the UK has just sent vendors underground. We are still faced with the same drug problems; addiction, overdoses, adulterated products, and violence. Only a healthcare-focused drug policy will address these problems.
While the UK is still stuck on a backwards course towards harm and suffering, other countries are making headway. Recently, Denmark has opened the world’s largest supervised drug consumption room. Places like these allow people to take drugs in a safe place, with healthcare and welfare professionals on hand to provide medical care and counselling. Although critics of these facilities say they encourage drug use, injection centres will absolutely save lives that would otherwise have been lost to overdoses. These facilities are becoming more common worldwide; Denmark now have six, and there are established facilities in Australia, the Netherlands and Canada. The future looks promising in traditionally more conservative countries, with one opening in Dublin this year, plans for a facility to be opened in Glasgow, and talks for an injection centre in Seattle are ongoing.
This sort of harm reduction is exactly what will save lives. Admitting that the war on drugs has failed is the first step – people will always use drugs, and we need to take control away from criminal markets. The priority should then be to ensure the welfare of people who choose to use drugs.
Harm reduction is not on the mind of Philippines president Duterte, who has recently prompted an ongoing massacre of literally thousands of people (and counting) with suspected links to drugs. His endorsement of vigilante justice has left many innocents dead, and has left humanitarians astonished that the country has not faced any serious repercussions from the UN.
In the same region, Thailand has taken a big step forward in drug policy, with Justice Minister Koomchaya stating that methamphetamine should be decriminalised to make any progress in reducing drug-related harm. Another typically prohibitionist country, Malaysia, has made progress recently by moving towards abolishing the death penalty for drug offences.
Coming back across the Pacific, the US has often been in the media over the past few years for progressive cannabis decriminalisation in several states. This November, five more states will be voting to legalise cannabis – with the biggest being California – and at least two are expected to pass. However, despite the promising steps in cannabis legalisation that we’re seeing in the US, harm reduction is not on the forefront of US drug policy. The DEA still fights a war on drugs that is causing death, destruction and suffering on a horrifying scale.
A worrying recent development in the US is the announcement that Kratom, a plant from Southeast Asia that is used as a painkiller and sedative, will be added to the Schedule I list of prohibited drugs at the end of September. This will certainly cause harm to many people in the US, mostly because Kratom is used by sufferers of chronic pain to help avoid dangerous prescription opiates. Prescription drugs are a huge killer in the US, and addiction is a core problem when it comes to opiates – something that Kratom could help with.
We’re still living in a self-destructive world. Governments are harming their own people by perpetuating an unwinnable war. The only way we can possibly see a reduction in drug-related harm is to decriminalise their use, and regulate production and sale. Health and welfare should be a priority – educating, treating and rehabilitating drug users will save lives.
With one step forward, it seems we take another back. One day we’ll have to be able to move on from a culture of hatred and suffering.