To predict the future, look to the past, says Chris Wilkins. Consider BZP, a drug with amphetamine-like effects that became a popular ‘legal high’ in New Zealand during the mid-2000s.
His findings show that one in 20 people aged between 16 and 64 took a BZP legal high –known as ‘party pills’ – before BZP was prohibited in 2008.
One in five users had taken six or more BZP party pills and one in nine had taken eight or more BZP party pills at one time. The dosage recommended by manufacturers was one or two pills per session.
“An alarming 90 percent of BZP users mixed BZP party pills with alcohol and 22 percent combined them with smoking cannabis. The product instructions on BZP party pills advising against using them with alcohol or any other drug were widely ignored,” he says.
As a commercially marketed, synthetic, legal high often used in combination with other drugs, BZP party pills may be a portent of things to come.
Wilkins believes that by 2030 we will face increasingchallenges controlling a growing number of both illegal and legal psychoactive substances. And he predicts that alongside the alcohol and tobacco industries a third legal drug sector will emerge selling vetted and approved legal highs.
“Tomorrow’s sellers of low-potency psychoactive substances will have to provide evidence that the products they are sponsoring are ‘low harm’.
“This new sector will offer opportunities to respond to drug problems in different ways, but will also bring the same challenges related to intoxication, risk-taking behaviour and vulnerable groups, and the lobbying of a powerful industry,” he says.
Wilkins says that by 2030, concepts like the ‘war on drugs’ and prohibition may seem increasingly meaningless. However, he does not favour the legalisation of illicit drugs as a way forward.
“Retailers and others argue that alcohol and drug use is a consumer choice issue but my experience as a researcher tells me that for some, substance use is used to cover up underlying problems such as stress, anxiety and depression.
“That’s why I don’t believe that the legalisation of illicit drugs is a realistic option. Our past record in trying to control industries selling legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco is not reassuring.
“The political response to the commercialisation of alcohol and drug use is often timid, with controls progressively eroded over time. What we are left with is legal products that are cheap, very available and socially acceptable.
“What we do know is that people will use whatever substances are available to them that are socially sanctioned, and heavy users will tend to choose the cheapest substances available to get intoxicated. Prohibition is not the only policy response but as a policy tool, it does have a number of strengths. It can reduce the availability of a substance, force the price up, and some sectors of society won’t use illegal substances.”
What Wilkins thinks will certainly shift is the perspective from which we view illicit drug use: it will come to be seen as less a criminal justice issue and more one of public health.
This is already apparent in the provision of dedicated drug treatment units in nine local prisons and the recent setting up of full-time drug courts in Auckland.
“We can see evidence of an appetite to do things differently in places like the Netherlands and Portugal, where the possession of small amounts of drugs has been decriminalised and referral to treatment is being emphasised as the primary institutional response,” he says.
“Our own Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 includes a public health dimension, but this perspective has been neglected in the past.”