THE so-called legal highs, otherwise known as New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), have gained in popularity as a direct result of prohibition of the classic 6 drugs of choice; cannabis, MDMA (ecstasy), cocaine, heroin, amphetamine and psychedelics.

All NPS attempt to mimic the effects of these drugs. The reasons people take any psychoactive substance are varied but usually it is to get some form of intoxication and escape from the daily grind of life.

Generally speaking most users of illegal and legal drugs do not experience severe problems with their drug use, except for the usual hangover and comedown that comes with getting drunk or high. However, there are some who take these drugs in order to truly escape reality and provide themselves with a bit of pain relief, and unfortunately the drugs which provide pain relief such heroin, benzodiazepines and cocaine (and their legal equivalents) are arguably more addictive than so called softer drugs such as MDMA, cannabis or psychedelics.

The New Psychoactive Substance Act 2016 was a response to the increase in visibility of NPS users and the moral panic created by the media surrounding alleged drug related deaths, yet often the deaths linked to these drugs are more complex than simply ‘the drugs did it’.

This is why the new Act will not address the underlying causes of drug related death, nor will it stem the appetite for mind altering substances. Another fundamental problem with the Act is that it changes the nature of law in this country.

An Act of Parliament is designed to criminalise or restrict certain defined behaviour, such as making it illegal to possess cocaine etc. The new Act goes beyond this and criminalises any substance that may have a psychoactive effect, and stipulates exceptions.

Until now every psychoactive substance not legislated on was legal, now every psychoactive substance is illegal unless specified by Government.

This fundamentally challenges the concept of cognitive freedom and poses serious questions about how this government deals with complex issues.

Currently the Act is on hold while Ministers work out how they are actually going to implement this complicated beast they have proposed.

But the main point to pull from the rise of NPS and the knee jerk response to them is that we should be trying to create a society where people don’t feel the need to intoxicate themselves to the extent they kill themselves.

As someone with personal and professional experience of problematic and recreational drug use I say with authority that the first step is to recognise and accept that drug use is not going away because people enjoy it.

The second step is to understand that problematic drug use stems from deeper societal and personal issues which can only be helped by providing proper support, among other things. And thirdly, that there will always be people who take things too far, in every direction.

Anna Ross is PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh and co-convener of the Scottish Drugs Policy Conversations

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