Dealing with ‘legal highs’ requires more than legislation

The government’s headline Psychoactive Substances Bill attracted criticism earlier this week when it was debated in the House of Lords. Mentor believes that evidence-based drug prevention and education represent the most effective means of ensuring that our children and young people grow up free from the harms of drugs – including NPS. Although the Bill suggests the government share this overall aim, the focus on legislation will likely lead to more resources being channelled into enforcement at a time when we need to improve prevention at a national level.

15 June 2015 | Policy

Despite general agreement that the issue of new psychoactive substances (NPS) needs to be addressed, the government’s headline Psychoactive Substances Bill attracted criticism earlier this week when it was debated in the House of Lords. Peers disputed the inconsistencies in the Bill, suggesting it would make UK drug laws “even more of a laughing stock than they are currently.”

This followed widespread commentary that has variously commended the Home Office for tackling the issue head-on, criticised the government for an affront to personal liberties, presented the legislation as contradictory and unworkable, and raised concern that the Bill could actually increase harm by driving the NPS market underground.

Notwithstanding the fact that fewer people are using ‘legal highs’ than the media would have us believe – as few as 8% of young people and adults have ever taken an NPS – it remains a growing concern. The government’s intention to tackle NPS use is commendable, and addressing the supply of these drugs may be one part of the solution. However, it should not be seen as a ‘silver bullet’: our approach to NPS use, and indeed our wider drug strategy, must be more multi-faceted and include, in particular, renewed efforts in drug prevention.

Mentor believes that evidence-based drug prevention and education represent the most effective means of ensuring that our children and young people grow up free from the harms of drugs – including NPS. Although the Bill suggests the government share this overall aim, the focus on legislation will likely lead to more resources being channelled into enforcement at a time when we need to improve prevention at a national level.

The UK government already spends £1.5 billion on drug law enforcement each year. A meagre £7 million – less than 1% of the annual spend on enforcement – is invested in drug education strategies that might equip young people with the skills and confidence to avoid taking drugs in the first place. Furthermore, despite the stated intention to tackle the issue of NPS, the Home Office has spent only £180,000 on NPS education and prevention in the last two years, raising concern that education and prevention do not feature prominently in the government’s strategy for tackling NPS use.

The Bill will necessitate additional spending on criminal justice – in prosecution and testing substances for psychoactivity, in particular. But this must not be allowed to overshadow efforts to enhance and expand drug prevention in the UK. Beyond the widespread debates over the practicability and forecasted effectiveness of the legislation, the greater worry is that the Bill will further imbalance the ratio between enforcement and prevention.

At Mentor, we know that prevention works. Over the last two decades we have demonstrated the effectiveness of a range of programmes and approaches. We know that if we invest in evidence-based drug prevention, we can empower young people to make the most of opportunities and ensure that fewer young people turn to alcohol and other drugs.

Whatever the final outcome of the Psychoactive Substances Bill, young people will still choose to use or not to use a variety of ‘legal’ and illegal substances – legal classification has little impact on decision-making. What we need to do, therefore, is equip young people with the skills and confidence to negotiate a range of difficult situations. In order to achieve this for all children and young people, a reassessment of the current spending on drug prevention could be far more important than the legislation that is debated in Parliament over the next few months.