The penalties meted out to children using legal substances such as mephedrone are outrageous, as is the police involvement
Last week it emerged that Cranbrook school, in Kent, had taken punitive action against certain of its sixth-formers found to be taking the drug mephedrone. Three pupils at this co-educational grammar school have apparently been given a "short" suspension and, next year, will be obliged to attend a drug intervention programme. Headteacher Angela Daly told the BBC: "We know that teenagers experiment but we never condone drug misuse, whether it be alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs or these new legal highs, the illicit drugs."
The nature of the comment generated by this incident, and by the wider, emerging popularity of mephedrone, helps explain why we in this country have been unable to conduct a sensible debate about drug use and abuse.
The first thing that struck me about Daly's statement – repeated on the school's website – was the use of the word "illicit". My dictionary gives two definitions of this word. "Illicit" can apply to that which is "illegitimate" – meaning not sanctioned by law or custom; or it can be used simply as an alternative for illegal. Mephedrone, which can be taken in tablet form or snorted, like cocaine, is in fact a perfectly legal substance. You can order it by phone or over the internet, at around £7 per gram (though I understand retailers have – understandably – raised the price since the very welcome publicity Cranbrook School has given to the drug). Like cocaine, its effect is to instil a feeling of euphoria. But it can also – like cocaine – have a range of physical and psychological side-effects. Unlike cocaine, however, it is perfectly legal to use and to buy.
So Daly's use of the word "illicit" was misleading. Even if we concede that mephedrone is commonly sold as a "plant fertiliser" – to avoid food safety checks – both the supply and the use of this "legal high" are, currently, lawful activities. So while I can certainly applaud the policy of Cranbrook school in making its pupils aware of the dangers of taking a range of substances, the penalty visited upon those of its pupils found to be snorting mephedrone seems to me frankly outrageous – and quite possibly a breach of their human rights. They have been penalised for engaging in a lawful activity.
Mephedrone seems to have arrived in the UK from China sometime last year. Last month it was implicated – by the media – in the tragic death of 14-year-old Gabrielle Price, who had attended a party in Brighton where mephedrone, along with other substances, was being used. Whether mephedrone actually contributed at all to Price's death we shall no doubt discover in due course. But the frenzy whipped up in certain sections of the media over the increasing used of this legal substance seems to have triggered some questionable reactions by the police. According to a Daily Mail report:
Police [in the north-east of England] are taking a tough stance to combat the growing problem of mephedrone. Anyone caught in possession of suspicious substances is arrested, taken to a cell and has their DNA and fingerprints taken. Obviously, if the 'substance' turns out to be mephedrone, there will be no charges.
But the arrest could still have serious consequences. Some employers, for example, require job applicants to declare whether they have ever been arrested. It provides some token deterrent, at least.
Since when has it been on of the duties of the constabulary to deter citizens from engaging in a lawful activity? Have we now reached the stage at which the police – rather than parliament or an agency empowered by parliament – decide what is and what is not lawful? Are the electors to have no say in the matter?
There are plenty of dangerous substances that you or I can buy quite legally at our local pharmacy, or even supermarket (I include tobacco and alcohol). My own view – made clear in the Guardian last year – is that the criminalisation of drug-taking has been an extremely costly and ill-advised policy. The lesson of prohibition in the US is that tough law enforcement never reduces the demand for anything. As I wrote then: "The prohibition of illegal drugs has never succeeded and never will. It should be replaced by legalisation and regulation, which would reduce crime and lead to the disappearance of the murderous cartels that currently control drug supplies worldwide." This is the debate that we need to have, and I would be happy to travel to Cranbrook school to talk to pupils and staff about it.
December 14, 2009
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Legal highs are not a police matter