Issues & Ideas | 21st April 2015

Governments ignore the evidence on drugs – only the Lib Dems are offering change

Where there is supply there will always be demand. By cracking down on drugs government only creates dangerous and untested substitutes.


The spate of deaths over the Christmas period caused by a synthetic drug masquerading as ecstasy are a direct consequence of counter-productive drug policy. As the 2015 general election approaches, the Liberal Democrats are the only party who have shown any sign of facing up to the desperate need for radical reform.

In pills commonly referred to as ecstasy, the active component is MDMA; a purely man-made drug synthesized from the precursor Safrole. Part of the UN strategy to tackle the supply of ecstasy worldwide has been to reduce the availability of the precursor needed to start the chemical process that produces MDMA. For instance in Thailand in 2010, there was a huge seizure of 50 tonnes of Safrole. As a result of these seizures, there was a substantial reduction in MDMA production.

However, despite a drop in output, the danger for society actually increased as a result of this approach. As Safrole became scarce, the manufacturers searched for a replacement for the precursor.

They settled on aniseed oil. When used as the precursor and subjected to the same chemical process, aniseed oil becomes para-Methoxyamphetamine (PMA). In a number of ways this substance is similar to MDMA. Unfortunately, a couple of key differences are responsible for the deaths that have been in the news, and the close shaves that haven’t.

Despite a drop in output, the danger for society actually increased.

A person who takes MDMA should feel the effects from 15 minutes to 40 minutes after consuming. In contrast, PMA will take anything from 1 hour to 2 hours to kick in. This difference may not sound great but when PMA is sold as MDMA that variation can be fatal. Users think they have been sold poor quality ecstasy and so take more to compensate.

The second key difference concerns the strength of each drug. An average dose of PMA, say 0.2 grams, will have a similar impact on the user as 2.0 grams of MDMA. These two effects in combination are responsible for the deaths over Christmas. It is only as a consequence of current drug policy and the ‘success’ of significantly reducing MDMA production that PMA has entered the market.

The sudden appearance on the streets of PMA, which customers and the majority of dealers believe to be MDMA, has increased the danger to the community. All the deaths from the winter period were due to pink ‘Superman’ pills containing PMA.

The first victim on 24 December was a 22 year-old man in Ipswich. New Year’s Day saw another three victims, all in their 20s, from Ipswich, Telford and Rendlesham in Suffolk. The policy to target the supply of Safrole and disrupt the production of MDMA has only led to the emergence of a far more dangerous environment and increased the likelihood of users harming themselves.

Superman pink pill

A remarkably similar sequence of events can also be observed in the supply of the drug Ketamine. Commonly used as a horse tranquiliser, Ketamine has become increasingly popular in recent years. After an enormous 225kg seizure from a VW van on the M6 near Manchester in early February 2014, estimated to be worth approximately £7 million, a significant shortage developed across the country.

Drugs policy is a clear example of total disregard for evidenced-based policy making.

Into this space flooded substitutes, such as Methoxetamine and Tiletamine, which are sold as Ketamine. In the same way as the relationship between PMA and MDMA, these substitutes have very similar characteristics as Ketamine – but with some small yet significant differences including potency and effect time.

Methoxetamine is a fine example of the problems with traditional law enforcement methods in ‘the age of legal highs’. Like Ketamine, Methoxetamine is a dissociative – a type of drug which distorts perceptions of sight and sound, often producing a feeling of being detached from one’s environment and self, sometimes causing out-of-body experiences. However, it was developed specifically to be a legal version of Ketamine. By minutely changing a drug’s chemical structure you can produce a derivative that is not proscribed as an illicit drug.


The reality we must face up to is that in this ‘age of legal highs’, this process can continue forever. Governments will always be one step behind – if they ban a drug, or cut the supply of precursor chemicals needed for its manufacture, the chemical structure will be tweaked and this new substance will flow into the market place for the original substance. After some time, if the new substance is made illegal or production halted, the process will continue, and in turn a new drug with an almost identical chemical structure will be created.

Allowing this cycle to continue is extremely dangerous for a number of reasons. Firstly, as already stated, the continuous introduction into society of new ‘designer drugs’ that are sold as the drugs they were modelled on dramatically increases the risks for users. The small differences in characteristics such as effect time and potency can cause serious harm to unwitting users, and will likely lead to more deaths.

Governments will always be one step behind – if they ban a drug the chemical structure will be tweaked.

Secondly, it is impossible to know the full extent of the harm that these new derivative drugs may do to users as due to their recent creation, no serious tests or studies will have been conducted into their effects. We can only guess at the long-term effects of irregular recreational use or regular addictive use over many years. The perpetual cycle of new derivative drugs will mean that scientific studies over many years will be useless by the time they are complete.

With the general election only weeks away it is clear that the Liberal Democrats are the only mainstream party who have had the courage to acknowledge the need for radical reform of drug policy. On March 4, Nick Clegg gave a speech to announce that his party would fight the election with a manifesto commitment to develop a UK version of the Portugal model of decriminalization.

Possession of small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use would no longer be a criminal offence but would be treated as a health matter – users would be diverted into drug rehabilitation or educational programmes.

As stated in the speech, the Portuguese model has been a huge success. Contrary to the prediction of critics, the evidence shows it has not led to an increase in drug use. Instead, there have been significant reductions in addiction, drug-related deaths and HIV infections. There is a suspicion that this policy is merely an attempt to win back young and student voters who have abandoned the party due to the broken pledge on tuition fees. However, the Liberal Democrats still deserve credit for being the first mainstream party to act to drastically alter the current approach to illegal drugs that has clearly been futile.

The position of the two largest parties in the UK on this issue is deeply depressing.

The position of the two largest parties in the UK on this issue is deeply depressing. Despite the mountain of evidence that the ‘war on drugs’ has been a complete failure, they still seek to maintain the status quo. A Home Office study, finally published in October 2014, showing that punitive drug laws have no impact on drug use was suppressed by the Conservative party because they did not like the conclusions. Despite being aware of this report, Downing Street continued to claim that current drug policy is working. This is a clear example of total disregard for evidenced-based policy making.

The Labour Party have also been unwilling to admit that the current drug policy paradigm is not sustainable and does more harm than good. More disappointing is the party’s decision to attack the Liberal Democrats – labelling them ‘soft on crime, drugs and thugs’ in election leaflets for their commitment to introduce a more effective regime for illegal drugs.

Labour attack leaflet on Lib Dem drug policy

This is the standard political attack that for years has scared political parties, including Labour, away from advocating and enacting more progressive, evidenced-based drug policy and penalties.

There have been historic changes internationally.

The leaflet in question warns that ‘they would end prison sentences for drug possession – even for the hardest drugs like heroin and crack’. This is scare tactics of the worse kind: stoking fear of something that will make the much-needed reform of our drug laws even harder to achieve.

Our recent experience has taught us that in this new era of legal highs, success in halting the supply of established drugs will only lead to new, untested derivative drugs entering the marketplace. There have been historic changes internationally, with even the United States seeing legalisation of cannabis in Washington, Colorado, Alaska and Oregon.

The Liberal Democrats are the first British party to embrace the need for radical reform. Unfortunately, due to the position of the Conservative and Labour parties, those who hoped that the May 2015 election would be a turning point in our approach to drug legalisation and regulation look set to have those hopes dashed.