Once again, the issue of so called legal highs has hit the headlines. These substances are formulated to mimic the effects of a wide range of illegal drugs including cocaine and cannabis.
For some years now, governments have been attempting to control these substances, but effectively it is a process of ‘catch-up’ as the producers of these products stay one step ahead of the law by changing the chemical composition slightly.
I have been campaigning on this subject since I was first invited to a meeting of parents who were concerned not only at effects these products were having on young people, but also the ease of their availability.
I was delighted to secure a Member’s Business Debate on the subject which attracted strong interest and some very positive contributions from MSPs across the political divide.
Since then, I have been invited to sit on the Ministerial group on the subject in the Scottish Parliament.
A number of anti-legal high groups have sprung up across the UK, with several in the North East. It is encouraging that a number of these groups stay in regular contact with each other and share their campaigning experiences.
The problem is growing, and a serious one. In 2009, the Scottish Ambulance Service reports that it dealt with 150 call-outs which involved the use of legal highs or ‘new psychoactive substances’ as they are more appropriately known.
Last year, that figure had increased dramatically to well over 2000, with 241 of those call-outs taking place in Grampian. That is an increase of 1,386% across a five year period. Put another way, that means that in Scotland, ambulances were called out on average six times a day to incidents involving legal highs.
Some might be tempted to associate the use of these substances with urban areas which may already have issues with illegal drugs, but it has been reported that they are more prevalent in more rural areas where it can be more difficult to acquire the illegal versions.
This should give us in the Mearns cause for concern, especially when we consider the effects these products can have on users. Regrettably, too often we see these effects reported in the media. In one incident, a user was so out of control it took six police officers to subdue him, in another, a youth pulled a knife on his family.
Against this backdrop, I personally find it appalling that not only are these substances available over the counter, but that people choose to open shops where a considerable part of their sales appears to be from these products and ancillary kit.
The smug, and frankly pathetic excuse from some of those who deal in these things is that these chemicals are sold not for human consumption, but are in fact to be used for a wide range of things including plant food, incense and bath salts.
It is an excuse that fools no-one, and I welcome the fact that the UK and Scottish and local governments are working together to combat this menace. For example, earlier this year, a shop selling legal highs in Aberdeen was closed down after a Sheriff granted a closure order on the premises. This was the first case of its kind in Scotland, and reflects the level of concern that people have about these chemicals.
Perhaps the most significant step however is the introduction by Home Secretary Theresa May of the 2015 Psychoactive Substances Bill. This bill will make it an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, possess with intent to supply, import or export psychoactive substances; that is, any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect.
It is a wide-ranging bill, as it needs to be given the evasive manner in which these products are formulated, but the bill does propose a list of exempted substances which might otherwise have fallen within its remit.
The tough stance adopted on this issue is welcome, but entirely necessary. In 2014 there were 114 deaths in Scotland where legal highs had been taken, a substantial increase from four in 2009.
There can be no place for these chemicals either on our high streets or in our communities, and the sooner their use is stamped out the better.