Drugs 'exacerbate' social and health problems for young people

National and supranational policies should be 'complementary' in order to combat the problem of new 'legal highs' entering the EU market, writes Timothy Kirkhope.

By Timothy Kirkhope

17 Mar 2014

In September last year, I welcomed the European commission’s announcement of new measures to tackle the threat of new psychoactive substances (NPS). The call for a coordinated response had been growing for a number of years, due mainly to a number of deaths across Europe.

While saving lives is a moral duty, I was also persuaded by the practical argument: a patchwork of control methods across Europe is detrimental to the proper functioning of the single market.

Therefore, the introduction of a faster and more efficient system of information exchange between member states on new substances entering the market is a positive step. The system of risk assessments conducted by independent scientists in conjunction with the commission, Europol and the European medicines agency has been tightened. It will provide the evidence necessary to ban substances outright, but also introduces temporary market restrictions.

"There is growing evidence that while they are still favoured by an older generation of drug users, young people tend to search for new highs"

I believe it is important that we have the ability to react swiftly as new substances enter the market on a weekly basis. The challenge is to make sure that tests are carried out before any dangerous drugs get a foothold. While we call them 'legal highs', the term is confusing, as many are made up of illegal substances.

The European parliament tasked the environment, public health and food safety and civil liberties, and justice and home affairs committees to draw up reports and I welcomed most of the additional input from the rapporteurs. It was important to give member states more flexibility in dealing with NPS, and the ability to introduce more stringent measures in law to tackle such substances. But national and supranational policies should be complementary, and we will watch closely to make sure that the new system is exactly that.

While the EU outlined its new measures, the British government is also looking at the problem and has set up a taskforce on NPS. Last month, Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat home office minister responsible for the UK’s drug policy, said that he is considering licensing the sale of 'legal highs' to over 18s. But the idea drew sharp criticism and it is not at all clear whether this will ever become policy.

It highlights the challenge that governments face when dealing with the problem, as the debate over legalisation rumbles on. The wider aspect of this is interesting in the context of traditional class A drug use, such as heroin, which has actually fallen steadily in the UK in recent years. There is growing evidence that while they are still favoured by an older generation of drug users, young people tend to search for new highs.

This explains why it is so important that we tackle dangerous and sometimes untested drugs as soon as they appear. The production of such synthetic drugs is marketed to a new generation and is attractive simply because they are new. The problem is that once a drug is banned a replacement will quickly pop up on the market.

There are young people who are struggling to find a direction for their lives who unfortunately turn to drugs. Drugs are not necessarily the cause, but they further exacerbate the social and health problems which can have a devastating effect on their lives. It's important that NPS aren't allowed to cut a swathe through our society like more traditional drugs have done in the past.

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