Dealers ‘should prove that legal highs are safe’

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DRUG dealers should be regulated under trading standards laws and be required to prove the safety of so-called legal highs to reduce the risks for young people who wish to experiment, experts are suggesting.

In a report which is set to claim the UK’s hard-line approach to so-called legal highs and other psychoactive substances is making it “more dangerous” for young people, think-tank Demos and the UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) will this week call on the Government to consider the benefits of some drugs, including the possibility the use of less harmful substances can prevent people using those that are more dangerous.

Their advice comes just weeks after the European Union drugs agency found that half of all new drugs found in Europe last year were first reported in the UK or Ireland, with a warning they were becoming available at an “unprecedented pace” and the demand is being exploited by organised criminal gangs.

In 2010 a total of 41 new psychoactive substances were reported to the European Monitoring Centre of Drugs and Drug Addiction and Europol, 16 of which were found in the UK and four in Ireland. In 2009 the bodies were notified of 24 substances, and 13 in 2008.

The UKDPC report, Taking Drugs Seriously, is suggesting the “outdated” Misuse of Drugs Act could be replaced by trading standards laws, requiring those who sell drugs to prove they are safe.

It also calls for the Government to use drugs users and front-line workers to help form “an early warning system” with real-time information on emerging substances.

Demos launched its analysis of legal-highs and policy after the sacking of Prof David Nutt, the country’s former chief drugs advisor, who was dismissed in October 2009 over claims that alcohol and tobacco were more harmful than many illegal drugs, including Ecstasy.

It concludes there is no evidence the “fundamental and growing” bias towards banning drugs in the UK “reduces overall harms and it is possible it can, unintentionally, increase harms”.

Co-author Jonathan Birdwell said: “So-called ‘legal highs’ present an entirely new challenge that needs a more intelligent response. With the aim of being hard-line towards all psychoactive substances, the Government risks making it more, not less, dangerous for young people who want to experiment.”

The chief executive of the UKDPC, Roger Howard, added: “Forty years ago, the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed in a world where new drugs came along every few years, not every few weeks.

“The argument about whether to be tough or soft about drugs is increasingly redundant in the era of the internet and global trade: we have to think differently.

“It might be time to say that those who seek to sell new substances should have to prove their safety, rather than that the Government should have to prove otherwise. Controlling new substances through trading standards legislation offers a new vehicle to achieve this.”

Humberside Police Chief Constable Tim Hollis, the lead on drugs for the Association of Chief Police Officers , said: “Police forces and health professionals across England and Wales are only too aware of the problems that a wave of new drugs can bring.

“A particular challenge is the speed with which news of legal highs can be circulated on social networking sites and made available via the internet.”