The tragic death of 17-year-old Adam Owens in Newtownards in April has once again brought the dangers of so-called ‘legal highs’ into sharp focus. The legality of these ‘designer drugs’ does not mean that they are any safer than the banned substances such as cocaine or ecstasy which they mimic. In some cases, the opposite may be true.
One such drug called Seretoni caused 20 deaths in Northern Ireland in 2013 before being banned and made a Class A substance. However, when one substance is banned, another is waiting in the wings to take its place. The effects of these drugs are entirely untested. Many young people’s lives are being destroyed by dependence upon ‘legal highs’ and the psychological and social problems they cause.
Understandably, there have been calls for new legislation which would introduce a blanket ban on all psychoactive substances. The sale of these drugs should be made illegal, at least until adequate medical studies have been carried out to understand their effects. However, people should not be criminalised simply for taking any drug. This failed policy simply drives drug use underground and prevents people seeking help. Neither do the thuggish tactics of groups like ‘Republican Action Against Drugs’ in any way address the problem. Instead, drug abuse should be approached as a health and social care issue, with adequate investment in support services and treatment for those in need. Adam Owens’ parents said they felt there was no one to turn to.
The Socialist Party is in favour of a drugs policy which aims to minimise the negative impact of drug abuse on individual people and society. Part of such a policy would aim to remove power from profit-hungry, criminal gangs – often linked to paramilitaries – who prey upon working class communities. This would mean some drugs which are widely used – such as cannabis – being made available in a legal and regulated way. It would also mean other drugs – such as heroin – being prescribed to addicts through the NHS while they are receiving therapy, in order to cut across crime and other social problems.
Drug abuse must be looked at in the context of the conditions in society. The austerity policies of the Stormont politicians have reduced access to education and created mass youth unemployment in working class communities. A study by the Prince’s Trust has unsurprisingly revealed that long-term unemployment can lead to feelings of hopelessness, mental health problems and substance abuse in young people. Meanwhile, community and youth services are being cut to the bone. In order to tackle the scourge of drug abuse, we need to tackle the conditions which allow it to flourish.