The UKs drug policy, the press and the challenges of the legal highs drug market

Dutton, Shaun (2012) The UKs drug policy, the press and the challenges of the legal highs drug market. BSc dissertation, University of Portsmouth.

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    The emergence of the 'legal highs' market presents new and unique challenges to an already questionable drug control policy founded on prohibition. The internet enables a flexibility and responsiveness that outpaces legislative changes and frustrates prohibition. The market is likely to continue to do this due to a vast reservoir of available substances. This, combined with the counter information, counter-argument and alternative perspectives the internet gives voice to, potentially undermines drug policy and threatens its legitimacy.

    This paper seeks to understand the influences on the development of the UK's drug control policy, understand the challenges posed by the legal highs market, determine whether the current approach is sufficient to address these challenges and suggest recommendations resulting from this analysis.

    In summary, prohibition has been the dominant approach to the control of illicit drug use in the UK for over four decades. The news media have complimented political rhetoric promoting prohibition through a series of drug-related 'moral panics' throughout this time. The result of this has been the development of a disproportionate public fear of 'drugs', conceptualised as a societal menace, and an understanding that prohibition is the only response. However, prohibition has experienced growing criticisms particularly in that it is ineffective, divergent from scientific assessments of drug harm, driven by media opinion and has unintended negative and harmful consequences.

    The 'globalisation' of commerce facilitated by the internet has enabled the emergence of a market providing synthetic chemical compounds specifically manufactured to mimic the effects of illegal drugs whilst circumventing legislation by virtue of their structural differences. This market has expanded significantly over the past decade and has proved to be responsive and highly flexible. The substances promoted are frequently unknown; presenting unknown risks which are difficult to assess. Furthermore, the effectiveness of prohibitionist responses to these substances are challenged as new substances are marketed to replace banned ones far quicker than the bans can be implemented; being unknown, these new substances present the same risks as those they replace. Also, the internet enables the widespread dissemination of information contrary to government messages, political rhetoric and media misinformation; this acts to undermine, discredit and delegitimize drug control policy. This 'crisis in legitimacy' is emphasised by the understanding that recreational drug use can be rationalised and has become normalised for today's young people. In response, other jurisdictions have begun to investigate and trial alternative approaches to reduce the societal and individual harms of drug use and avoid the widespread criminalisation of young people.

    In conclusion, confronted with the failure of prohibition and the inadequacy of existing policy to meet the challenges presented by the legal highs market, it is logical to consider alternative approaches that may be more effective in protecting the public and reducing the harms of drug use. To continue the same policies perpetuates the risks and harms experienced today whilst risking the emergence of a genuinely dangerous substance. However, the long-standing indoctrination of 'drugs' as a societal evil into the public's psyche must be overcome before any meaningful debate on alternative approaches can take place; possibly representing the most significant challenge presented by the current situation. This will require the support of the news media who have an interest in the promotion of drug panics that they may be reluctant to relinquish.

    Item Type: Dissertation
    Departments/Research Groups: Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences > Institute of Criminal Justice Studies
    Depositing User: Jane Polwin
    Date Deposited: 15 Nov 2012 16:00
    Last Modified: 28 Jan 2015 12:11

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