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Failed drugs policy fuelled by pure hypocrisy and hysteria

The conviction of three people in connection with the supply of so-called legal highs in a Belfast courtroom this week lays bare doublethink behind our approach to narcotics, says Henry McDonald

With apologies to The Prodigy, in the early to mid-1990s, every single drug scare started with an 'E'.

Northern Ireland was not immune to the public panic about ecstasy, or MDMA, or as it was known in the rave party scene across these islands, the "love drug".

There were stories about young people who had taken E dying either from the dodgy chemicals that had been cut into the tablets or, as was more common, the lethal effects of dehydration brought on by the drug itself, the heat of the dancefloor and lack of water.

It was during this period that I persuaded BBC Northern Ireland's news and current affairs department to send me to Manchester, where an interesting experiment was taking place inside a club that, for those of us who had been involved in music from punk onwards, was a mecca of the alternative anti-pop underground: The Hacienda.

The club was once owned by the survivors of Joy Division, New Order and the Mancunian music impresario and Granada TV presenter Tony Wilson (inset).

By the early-1990s The Hacienda had moved from being a venue where the "Madchester" bands took to the stage and had become the home of a huge dance-rave scene. And coming with that scene was the dancer's drug of choice - ecstasy.

To counter the dangers of dehydration from E-intake and dance-induced overheating, management at The Hacienda introduced a "safer dancing policy" inside the club.

They set aside areas known as "chill-out zones", which were cool and had instant access to water coolers to counter dehydration.

Staff were trained to administer first aid and cope with ravers who had dehydrated while on E.

The whole set-up was a pragmatic one, which accepted that many on the dancefloor would consume E while partying there.

The Hacienda was actually proud of its "safer dancing" regime and I remember a sweating, hungover, but as always highly articulate Wilson making a coherent case for this practical, realistic approach to recreational drug use, which he insisted had actually saved many lives.

When the special report from Manchester was broadcast on the teatime news there was a mixed reaction. From older and conservative quarters there were the usual accusations of promoting a soft, liberal line on drug consumption, while from those directly involved in the local Ulster rave scene, gratitude and relief that there was some rational debate being injected into the usual, hysterical reportage about this one aspect of drug and youth culture.

On the Continent, meanwhile, the always-liberal, forward-thinking Dutch were going one step further than Manchester and The Hacienda. In Holland - and, in particular, the rave scene in Amsterdam - clubs were actually providing customers with E-testing kits, which could examine if the tablets they were about to consume were unadulterated and relatively safe.

As a result the number of ecstasy-related deaths in The Netherlands was far, far lower than the relatively small number of deaths around the rave scene in the UK.

Memories of driving around the grim, semi-vacant streets of Moss Side in Manchester, my cameraman taking tracking shots of the area which then echoed to gunfire from the gangland wars that blighted the inner-city district; of sitting down to interview the late, legendary Wilson, whom I had first seen on television back in the 1970s when he promoted a new wave of non-conformist bands, and filming in the interior of the club synonymous with the likes of New Order - they all came back to mind on reading about this week's court case involving so-called legal highs.

Two men and a woman made UK legal history when a Belfast court became the first to convict individuals in relation to the supply of legal highs.

The whole issue of legal highs only highlights further the utter absurdity of the Roaring Twenties/Prohibition approach to drugs in the Western world, including here in Northern Ireland.

Just as the ban on alcoholic drink in the United States only fuelled the illicit sale of booze under the control of the new organised crime gangs of the time, the prohibition of all narcotics has only made the gangsters which control the supply of heroin, cocaine, speed and ecstasy richer far beyond the wildest dreams of Al Capone and his cronies.

Ian Brown, Ashley Campbell and Susan Bradshaw all admitted failing to comply with safety regulations by distributing a dangerous product - legal highs- at a Belfast city centre shop.

Yet the existence of legal highs, which are being produced synthetically and exponentially across the planet, demonstrates that, while the State can shut down one type of drug on the market (and, crucially, on the internet), the chemists and the suppliers will invent another one almost the very same day.

Local politicians, of course, have fuelled the usual drug hysteria and, playing on words, demanded that legal highs should be called instead "lethal highs".

They may be right about that nomenclature, because there will undoubtedly be legal highs which are impure and of a chemical compound that will have lethal effects on those that ingest them.

However, the crucial word in Tuesday's judgment at Laganside Court was the word "safety". The three defendants admitted their guilt on the basis that they were compromising the safety of those buying the product at Soho Bookshop in Gresham Street.

Had they taken health and safety regulations into consideration? Is there a system where a synthetic, legal drug could be chemically/medically tested, its supply limited to a specific dose and then licensed?

Under such a regime, the trio would not be guilty of anything other than selling something probably no more dangerous than booze from an off-licence, or tobacco from a corner shop.

Why is it that local politicians lobby (absolutely correctly) as far up as Downing Street or the European Union to keep a factory open in Ballymena that produces a toxic product that kills millions around the planet - namely the cigarette - but at the same time demand new laws to completely prohibit other synthetic toxins which may, in some cases, be potentially lethal?

There may be no answer to that doublethink other than the simple, practical suggestion that the so-called "war on drugs" is now even more unwinnable with the advent of synthetically created drugs that exist in the penumbra between illegality and legality.

That is to follow the spirit of The Hacienda's "safer dancing" policy, or better still the logical, rational approach of the Dutch party scene, by subjecting these new narcotics on the market to rigorous safety testing.

Belfast Telegraph

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