June 26th marked the 29th International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. The day serves as a reminder of the UN's determination to work towards a world free from drug abuse and a calling to all countries to continue to improve the lives of people blighted by drugs.This year the day is celebrated exactly a month after the enforcements of the UK Psychoactive Substance Act. After almost a year of debate since its initial proposal the bill became law on the 26th May 2016. The act makes it illegal to produce, supply, offer to supply, import or export any 'New Psychoactive Substance' (NPS).
So what is NPS and how do they effect people
NPS or 'legal highs' as they are also incorrectly referred to are a range of drugs that have been designed to mimic the effects of established drugs such as Cocaine, Cannabis, Ecstasy or LSD. Manufactures of these drugs develop new chemicals to replace ones that are banned, meaning the chemical structures of NPS is constantly changing. The most widely used group of NPS are synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists which are smoking mixtures such as Spice and Black Mamba, which mimic the effects of Cannabis but can also be much stronger. Others such as BZP or Mephedrone replicate the effects of amphetamines or stimulants.
Whilst NPS has been cited in a number of fatalities, very few deaths have been recorded as a direct result of taking one of these substances in isolation, however some users have been hospitalised after experiencing breathing problems, seizures or convolutions and dependency is a major concern.
The Rise of NPS
Whilst the UK has seen a decrease in the consumption of controlled drugs such as heroin and cocaine through more vigorous campaigning against drug abuse, there has been a rise in the use of NPS. The internet has opened up new distribution channels, allowing many people to purchase these drugs online. The internet has also allowed people to research and find out which drugs have been discarded in medical trials for having psychoactive effects which can then be used in manufacturing NPS.
Drugs have traditionally been controlled under the Misuse of Substances Act before becoming popular but In the case of NPS many substances became popular before being banned and due to the frequently changing chemical structure of NPS as soon as one drug was banned another appeared in its place. The authorities have been constantly one step behind. The NPS Act was consequently a step to regain some control over the distribution and sale of these substances.
The new legislation has caused much controversy with many critics accusing it of not going far enough the law doesn't make it illegal to possess NPS apart from on custodial premises and there is no grading of harms. The main premise of the ban is to stop high street sales making NPS harder to acquire but it will not stop the use of these drugs all together. Some commentators suggest that the new law is not protecting our most venerable populations. Whilst the change in law may deter the causal user it is unlikely to go very far in stopping people who are at grater risk of dependency.
It's hard to predict what actual impact the new law will have as there is little accurate data to estimate who is most effected by the rise of NPS. Most people who seek help from drug services do not cite NPS as there 'drug of choice' those who are most venerable to the negative effects of NPS – the homeless, prisoners and students are unaccounted for in the limited data that has been collected.
NPS is not the only concern that needs to be urgently addressed, other issues such as the surge in ecstasy use among young people, and the increase in abuse of prescription medication need serious attention. Perhaps The International Day Against Drug Abuse is the perfect platform for us to all stand together united in the fact that we will continue working towards improving the lives of people affected by substance abuse, we will continue our work with the most vulnerable sections of society and we will continue our passion for recovery.