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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         The politics of drinking
August 23, 2010



Drugs in pubs: dodgy dealings and dodgy policies

The pub trade has given a “cautious welcome” to government plans to ban new ‘legal highs’ for up to a year before they are assessed  for classification. Licensees certainly need to know where they stand on the various substances that might come onto their premises but I don’t think this is necessarily a step forward.

Licensees should, in any case, be politely challenging any customer they see with something dodgy. Dodgy is hardly a scientific term, I know, but good publicans tend to be streetwise on this sort of thing. If in doubt, they should ask the customer to put it away or leave. It’s a practical matter of protecting their licence.

The “cautious” part of the welcome comes from Paul Smith, director of nightclubs body Noctis, who rightly wonders about the definition of a legal high. After all, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine are all legal drugs sold in pubs. Perhaps you could even include sugar in that. Even dodgy is a better term than ‘legal high’.

This new blanket ban is in response to the ease with with new drugs can be developed and marketed. When mephedrone was made illegal earlier it was feared that it would simply provoke the creation of a host of alternatives that would be even more difficult to track.

Now we’ve got Ivory Wave to worry about, it seems, and there are probably more. In fact, it appears ‘Ivory Wave’ is a cover name for a whole number of substances a chemical tweak away from mephedrone.

Banning any legal high as soon as it appears sounds like a solution, but it isn’t going to stop people taking psychoactive substances and it can only add a new twist to to the labyrinthine world of criminality that thrives on prohibition and stigmatises users who have a problem.

Meanwhile, the government is inviting contributions to another consultation on drug strategy – which, it says, will include alcohol where appropriate.

Of course, it’s a political rather than a practical response to the issue. As it stands it’s a dangerous cocktail of the utopian (“to prevent drug taking”) and the authoritarian, and, grafted onto it, the positive-sounding aim to “promote drug treatment with the focus on enabling people to become free of their addictions, including alcohol, to recover fully and contribute to society”.

Yet, at the same time, the Home Office is thinking about refusing benefits to drug addicts and alcoholics who don’t put themselves forward for treatment. The result will be further stigmatisation and more crime as people become increasingly desperate to feed their habit. (For a good round-up of drug agency opinion try this.

The real solution is just the opposite – to improve the environment in which drug users (that’s all of us) live. A short film that’s just popped up on the interweb about the Rat Park experiment shows how. Everyone should take five minutes to have a look.

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