Legal Killer: New psychoactive substances are often lawful, but deadly. What's the message to young people?
In the most famous section of the 1940 film Fantasia, when the Sorcerer's Apprentice splits the broomstick with an axe, he finds the splinters multiplying into yet more magical brooms. New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) are just like the brooms in Fantasia. Changes at the molecular level are creating a host of new substances faster than the authorities can classify and evaluate their health impact.
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), there are now 250 new substances on the market and the number is growing exponentially. This compares with the 234 substances scheduled under the international drug conventions and for which there is a general understanding of their health consequences.
The result is that NPS are numerous, diverse and dangerous. Based on questions put to 15 to 24 year olds, NPS use in the United States is now more than twice as high as in the EU. Perhaps just as worryingly, the NPS message is equally confusing: Due to loopholes in the law they are legal, but they can also kill.
Problems for health officials, as well as youth and community workers are exacerbated by the fact that so-called "legal highs" turn traditional arguments about drugs upside down. Based on UNODC's statistics the illicit nature of drugs can act as a powerful incentive for some people not to use them.
Such a trend can even be seen within different types of NPS. Ketamine became a controlled substance in 1999. Its use among 12th grade students in the United States fell by 40 per cent between 2000 and 2012. Mephedrone was controlled in 2010 in the United Kingdom. As a result, use of this drug among those going to clubs declined from 51 per cent in the same year to 19 per cent in 2011; this is equivalent to a decline of more than 60 per cent.
So the illegality of a substance can lead to decreases in its use, but what to do when unscrupulous chemical researchers are producing a conveyor belt of substances capable of being tweaked to legality ad infinitum?
Perhaps more than any other drug, the specific challenges of NPS call for a determined focus on raising awareness among young people. Critical to this approach is engagement. This does not mean hazy and unrealistic propaganda to young people who know better. It means reaching out to young people at the level of science and rational discussion. We should also be prepared to be educated ourselves. Discussion is dialogue. It's vital that we turn the two-way street into a broad freeway for interactive exchanges of information.
Raising awareness is also about challenging preconceptions. Discussion of drug use must include young people who use drugs. We cannot risk a small elite, certain in their own views, but largely divorced from the experiences of many other youngsters. UNODC's own Youth Initiative, now in 50 countries, is using many of these approaches to connect young people from around the globe to become active in their schools, communities and youth groups for the prevention of drug use.
Our goal must be to create committed actors and not merely passive recipients. By giving young people opportunities to talk, we can create an environment for bonding and for experience sharing. An environment where young people build on their own confidence and self-esteem, as well as that of their peers
Away from the classroom, work is also needed in communities and among families. Young people living in impoverished circumstances, facing abuse, suffering depression or surrounded by peers taking drugs, desperately need our help. Our goal must be to strike at the conditions of vulnerability, but it takes time and it takes financial resources. Long term donors from the public and private sectors are essential in these difficult times.
NPS risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. To successive generations we have said, "Don't take drugs." But this is perhaps counter-intuitive to a succession of generations long-used to ignoring their elders. What may work best is to focus less on drugs, and more on helping young people visualize their future, while also achieving their hopes and dreams without using new psychoactive substances.
Executive Director, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
This opinion piece first appeared in German in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.