Class A stimulants are, once again, having a moment. More people are taking cocaine and MDMA in Britain now than they have in a decade. Both substances are cited by the 2017/18 Crime Survey for England and Wales as the driver behind the 17 percent year-on-year growth in the use of Class As by adults of all ages, and the more than 35 percent increase in their use by 16 to 24-year-olds in the last six years.
Given that cocaine purity is the greatest it’s been for a decade and prices have stayed stable, its draw is hardly surprising, and it remains the most popular illegal stimulant. The surge in use has, however, been linked to rather more harmful things than just all-nighters, embarrassing chat and misplaced bravado. Cocaine-related hospital admissions and deaths are on the rise.
But what would happen if powder cocaine, crack, MDMA, crystal meth and speed were legalised? Would their use be safer?
Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst for the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, believes so. He's been working on the world's first book to provide common-sense guidelines on regulating stimulants (he previously wrote one about regulating cannabis that was used by the governments of Canada and Uruguay to inform their regulation policies). We had a chat to find out how things would work in reality.
VICE: Legalising cannabis is one thing, but legalising stimulants is another thing entirely, right?
Steve Rolles: Different drugs are associated with different risks, and the whole idea of regulation is to manage and reduce risk, so the regulatory tools you'd deploy are going to vary. Within stimulants there's an enormous array of products and risks, so you'd have various models to regulate price, potency, packaging, vendors and marketing, but the principles and goals are the same.
Where would you be able to buy them?
I hesitate to generalise on that, because you wouldn’t sell cocaine and injectable amphetamines in the same way. At the most restrictive end of the scale – for example, methamphetamine and injectable stimulants – you’d have a prescription drug set-up, a bit like prescribed methadone. For cocaine and MDMA, you'd have something more like a pharmacy. It would be a retail model, but it'd be a strictly regulated one with a trained medical professional as the gatekeeper, who’d have to abide by a set of rules in terms of age controls, not selling to people who are intoxicated, and selling in rationed quantities so you couldn’t just buy a kilo of cocaine.
Cocaine and MDMA, and lower potency stimulants such as dexamphetamine, could also be available at licensed premises like pubs or coffee shops, where members buy things to consume on site. Lower potency stimulants would also be bought from licensed retailers, like an off-licence. For things like coca tea and caffeine-based energy drinks such as Red Bull, you don’t really need any controls; they could be sold in supermarkets, as some are now.
What about crack? Would that be legal? If not, wouldn’t people just make it anyway?
If cocaine powder is available, crack is effectively available anyway because you could make it yourself fairly quickly. But it’s something you’d want to discourage, so we wouldn’t suggest retailing it. The person selling the powder could give advice on harm minimisation and you certainly wouldn’t criminalise users either.
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And crystal meth, legalise that?
Methamphetamine is not that different to regular amphetamines that have been used for decades on the party scene. The difference with methamphetamine is that it's longer lasting, more potent per milligram and easier to smoke. It’s been demonised in a way that doesn’t reflect its pharmacology. In terms of regulating, you wouldn’t sell injectable methamphetamine, but you might sell slow release, oral, pill-form preparations in a pharmacy. What you want to do is move people towards the safer preparations of drugs.
Will legal coke be a downer because everyone loves snorting it in the toilets? Will it remove the ritualistic use and attraction of these drugs?
I understand that for some people the score is quite a thrill. The culture would change if you got coke that looked more like a pharmaceutical drug, but that’s got to be a good thing because that’s exactly what it is. We can be romantic and nostalgic about the good old days when we used to buy crappy coke that was cut with Nesquik from some dodgy geezer, but really I don’t think anyone is going to shed too many tears for that loss.
Will legal speed mean the purity is upped and it’ll be cool again?
It could happen. With speed, you might be better off with a slow release oral product like a pill that would give you the buzz over a longer time. That does mean, though, that you don’t have the initial rush you get like when you take it in powder form.
Who’d profit from sales?
It’d move into the conventional domain of legal business. There’d be profits for producers, suppliers and retailers, as with any other outlet, and the government would profit from tax revenue. It’s worth pointing out that things like cocaine, methamphetamine and amphetamines are already legal drugs in the medical field. There’s no mystery about how those things are used in the clinical sphere, and the wider market would just be an extension of that.
What will happen to prices? Will it be cheaper to buy coke than it is now?
We’ve suggested the price of something like cocaine be at or near the current illegal market price. You don’t want to change the price dramatically or rapidly. If it halved, you might get a spike in levels of use, as people buy twice as much – or, if you whack the price up, people would not bother with the legal supply and stick with their existing dealers.
How would you knock out the underground economy and would it have any impact on crime?
People would progressively migrate from illegal supply to legal supply. We can reasonably aspire that 80 to 90 percent of the market would move into the legal domain, and at that point the illegal market would contract by that sort of amount. The illegal trade currently provides significant revenue for organised crime and is a driver of offending, extortion and corruption in the UK and around the world. Our policy decisions that we make here have negative ripples internationally, through West Africa, the Caribbean, Mexico, Colombia and Peru, where it's fuelled violence and instability for decades. If we took that away, we’d see a concurrent reduction in crime; we’d be disempowering a lot of often very unpleasant organised crime groups.
Deaths caused by cocaine and amphetamines are rising. Wouldn’t legalising just make things worse?
Legalisation would allow you to know what you’re taking because you’d have a regulated product that would say on the packaging how strong it is, what’s in it, clear health advice and dosage guidelines. We’ve had a long problem of drugs being cut with nasty things or being mis-sold, and now a problem with drugs being stronger than people expect. You might want a pill that has 100mg of MDMA in it; now, you get pills with 250mg or 300mg, and if you’re coming from a culture of double dropping weaker pills, you're getting into potentially high-risk territory where people start dying. At the moment, you can buy a packet of paracetamol in Poundland and it’s got more information on it than you get from a wrap of coke bought on a street corner or in a dark sweaty club. Knowledge is power.
Death and exploitation are features of the cocaine supply chain. Is there any point in legal coke without fair trade coke?
Cocaine is a deeply unethical product because of the nature of its production: it’s environmentally destructive, fuels crime, conflict and instability while empowering organised criminals. However, to blame users for all those bad things is a distraction from the fact that it’s the policy makers who are ultimately responsible. We don’t have a choice to buy fair trade cocaine now, but we could if it was a legal product. You could have production with fair trade principles, organic certification; it’d be the same as fair trade bananas. But it has to be legal to do that. You can’t do it when Pablo Escobar et al are controlling the market.
Do you think that culturally we’re capable of managing the responsibility of these things when alcohol, which is legal, is already a problem?
We’ve got a responsibility to deal with reality, and the reality is that thousands of young people are using illegal stimulants now. It’s abundantly clear that the risks people face from drugs are hugely increased by illegal supply, and if regulation can reduce some of the risks and address them then that is the responsible course. Alcohol is as dangerous as a class A drug and it's been marketed directly to children through sponsorship of Premier League football. What we don’t want is to repeat that kind of stupidity. You make these things functionally available in a way that meets demand but doesn’t promote use. Then you redirect the money made into risk education and giving young people cool stuff to do so they’re not that interested in doing drugs in the first place.
Research is identifying the therapeutic benefits of some stimulants, especially MDMA, for treating conditions such as PTSD. Would legalisation make research easier?
A lot of stimulants are already legal medicines, but it’s difficult to do research with MDMA because it’s a schedule 1 drug and requires a Home Office licence. The research that is going on is promising for trauma therapy. If it was rescheduled and the stigma around it reduced, then certainly that would facilitate research and its potential be realised. I really hope the book will help support reform around stimulants, which is the next logical step in the public debate. It's going to be a harder one to have because the scaremongering and entrenched attitudes around stimulants are much more intense than even cannabis, but we have to start somewhere.
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