The real drug zombies are politicians

Published by The ipaper (17th April, 2017)

Reefer madness is back. Only this time, it has been rebranded. Now it is Spice Nightmare that is stalking our nation, as a sinister new drug turns poor and homeless people into zombies who stumble along streets with arms outstretched or slump upright like mannequins. Experts warn of an epidemic, police officers struggle to cope and emergency services are becoming overwhelmed.

Pictures of tragic users acting like cinematic undead in busy urban areas are the perfect clickbait story. Predictably, there are instant knee-jerk calls from crass politicians to reclassify this evil drug and ramp up penalties for use. But consider the facts. Perhaps symbolically for our age, Spice is man-made, a synthetic alternative to the natural cannabis that grows so widely across the world, and comes mostly from clandestine factories in China.

Certainly, Spice can be a nasty method of self-medication, significantly riskier than most traditional drugs. It may be 30 times stronger than skunk, and is more likely to lead to emergency hospital treatment than other drugs. These synthetic cannabinoids were first seen only nine years ago. But in less than a decade they have become the most popular drug in British prisons and the second most used in American schools. I discovered recently it is even carving through the West Bank.

This raises two questions: how did this powerful new narcotic sweep through society so quickly? And what can be done to reduce harm? This should be – but rarely is – the guiding principle for any policy involving individual choice. The answer to both questions is surprisingly simple, for it all comes down to prohibition and the backfiring ‘war on drugs’. Once again Spice highlights the cowardice, ignorance and sheer stupidity of Westminster on this issue – in contrast to growing numbers of their more sensible peers in other countries around the world.

These drugs started life as legal alternatives to cannabis. First, we saw the gangsters that control illegal drug markets exploit skunk, a much stronger version of a mild drug enjoyed by people for centuries. Cannabis in its traditional form is far less harmful than alcohol. But the stronger skunk meant smaller quantities needed to be smuggled and higher profits – just as their criminal predecessors in America switched from beer and wine to more lethal moonshine nearly a century ago. It also meant more damaged individuals.

Skunk is thought to account now for perhaps 90 per cent of cannabis sales in Britain. We have created a free underground market for drugs controlled by violent gangsters. And the legacy, especially when smoked by younger users, is higher incidence of mental health problems. Admissions to hospital psychiatric units for drug-related behavioural disorders and mental health damage have more than doubled in a decade.

But it gets worse. For then, foreign chemists cooked up a legal synthetic alternative, sold and distributed online. Again, it was much stronger than existing offerings on the market. It also came in dozens of different varieties, making it harder to detect for prison sniffer dogs since compounds can be tweaked so easily. And it was sold legally through shops that opened up across Britain.

The government response was to reach for its usual blunderbuss. But successive bans only led to new synthetic cannabinoids, which even the government’s own advisers said were increasingly potent and risky. This repeated the pattern seen throughout the history of prohibition. Yet ministers still brought in sweeping new measures making it a criminal offence to create or sell a ‘psychoactive substance’. One year later, this seems to have only intensified problems. Why do homeless people use Spice to numb misery? Because it has become so cheap.

Britain’s bumbling response to the desire of millions of citizens to use cannabis has been a textbook study in illiberal stupidity. Politicians can be accused of pushing Spice and creating this problem through prohibitionist policies that ignore evidence and increase harm. Alan Johnson, possibly the most over-rated person at Westminster, even sacked the scientist who pointed out the folly of reclassifying cannabis as a class B drug during his term as home secretary. Others only voice concerns once their careers are over.

Now look at Canada. The government of Justin Trudeau just introduced bills to make this the first major economy to fully legalise cannabis. Significantly, the mastermind is a tough former Toronto police chief, not a hippy libertarian seeking dope free-for-all. Recognising that almost one-third of adults use the drug, the Canadian government seeks to legalise, regulate and tax sales of the drug. Just as with alcohol, they also plan to control marketing and restrict sales to minors. Their key aim is to keep cannabis out of children’s hands.

Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister, tweeted that Britain ‘should take a leaf out of Canada’s book and get a grip on the cannabis trade. Let’s drive out criminality and restrict sales to over-18s.’ He is absolutely right. Yet these same arguments apply not just to cannabis, but to all drugs, from cocaine through to ecstasy and heroin. Legalisation and regulation is far safer both for users and for wider society. Drug reform also has pleasant side-effects: it raises cash for the exchequer, stops wasting police time and reduces pressure on health services.

The real zombies in this horror story are not those tragic unfortunates stumbling around Manchester. They are the men and women strolling around Westminster in suits, those politicians who still argue for prohibition despite catastrophic consequences and clear shifts taking place around the planet. How long must we wait, how much more damage must we see, before these befuddled people finally emerge from their stupor?

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