Lincoln Legal Highs Ban - an example for others to follow
The issue of legal highs is back in the news this week, as the City of Lincoln became the first in the UK to ban their consumption in public. Whilst the ban is unlikely to greatly reduce the amount of legal highs consumed in the city, it is at least a principled and bold recognition of the issue by a local authority taking seriously the concerns of its residents and stakeholders.
It is a vital first step on what I hope will become a national wave of action to clamp down on the distribution and consumption of these dangerous and unpredictable substances.
The ban has also shone new light on the issue and encouraged a new wave of media interest. Indeed, I was interviewed along with two Framework service users for BBC Breakfast News on Tuesday. You can view the footage (in which I didn’t make the final cut!) here.
Many other media outlets have also picked up on the story, but I have been disappointed to hear and read so many comments from people playing down the seriousness of this issue. For the population of vulnerable young people that Framework supports in the area the impact of legal high use can be devastating. In this blog I hope to counter some of the views I have come across in the last 24 hours.
“Legal highs are legal – what’s the problem?”
This is a good place to start. Legal Highs – or New Psychoactive Substances to give them their formal name – can actually be anything but legal. These are products free of any quality control, produced and distributed by people who care little about the end consumer. There is simply no way of knowing what is and what isn’t inside. For example, in order to shift substances that have been banned, suppliers will cut legal chemicals with illegal, newly banned compounds. So people purchasing a substance of a particular brand name may in fact find that it contains a banned drug and they could be prosecuted for possession.
“Legal Highs aren’t as harmful as illegal drugs”
It is a mistake to think these substances are somehow less powerful and less harmful than the illegal drugs they emulate. They are in many cases a great deal stronger and more potent than most of the substances that can be bought from a traditional drug dealer. What’s more, their effects can be wildly unpredictable. What you buy one week may be a different substance a few weeks later with the same dosage having wildly different effects. This could lead to respiratory issues and hospital admission.
“Legal Highs aren’t addictive”
It has also been claimed that legal highs are not addictive and yet I have spoken to several young people who depend on certain legal highs to get them through the day.
“Legal Highs are not for human consumption”
As arguments go this is about as flimsy as they come. Sellers of legal highs claim time and again that their products are “not for human consumption”; that they are “research chemical”, “smoking incenses” or “bath salts.” This is simply a way of avoiding prosecution. If they weren’t intended for human consumption why would shops be selling them in the first place? Do we seriously believe that the market for research chemicals and bath salts is so vibrant?
“Legal Highs are a bit of harmless fun”
Reading the papers over the last few days it seems clear that plenty of people still view legal highs as a bit of harmless fun. There does need to be a balanced argument around legal highs as with any drug but I can say that my staff have seen the shocking impact these substances can have – mainly on impressionable young people. It is little short of tragic to see capable and talented young people – young people with every opportunity to contribute positively to society – so deeply damaged by products that can be bought openly from local shops and on line. People who are perfectly agreeable in the morning can be wracked with anger and paranoia in the evening; they can be shaking violently, hallucinating or behaving in erratic and dangerous ways. They can equally be plunged into deep sleep, depression and extreme lethargy.
The young people we work with in Lincoln are all at a very difficult stage in their lives and are all working to overcome considerable personal challenges. We are now finding that legal highs are presenting a considerable challenge to our work with them – creating barriers that never existed before and generating a whole series of new problems to deal with.
Make no mistake, certain legal highs – consumed in the wrong set of circumstances – can kill. Thankfully we haven’t experienced anything that serious, but we have had a couple of young service users rushed to hospital because of the substances they’ve taken. When they arrive the job of the medics treating them is greatly complicated by not knowing what substance has been ingested, smoked or inhaled. If there are ingredients on the packet, there is simply no way of knowing that these are accurate, and every reason to suspect that they are not.
The way forward
Ultimately people must choose for themselves to learn more about the dangers of legal highs and avoid them completely, but coordinated government action on this issue could make a real difference. The action taken by City of Lincoln Council is undoubtedly a step in the right direction – a brave and principled recognition of the problem in Lincoln. However, there is only so much they can do. I believe the onus is now on central government to take more of a lead on this issue, certainly preventing the distribution from retailers on the high street would mean that legal high usage is not seen as acceptable and normalised. Pushing the distribution back to dealers of illegal substances will present another set of issues but it does stop the supply being mainstream. What does need to continue is the education of current and potential users and awareness raising of the issues around legal highs with society in general.