John’s Speech in the Legal Highs Debate

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): As many colleagues have said, the issue is complicated, and we are all a bit wiser thanks to the briefings that we have had from a number of organisations. However, certainly on a personal level, I still feel that I have but scratched the surface of the information that is out there. The SDF told us that NPSs—I will just use the shorthand at this stage in the debate—or legal highs are a potential danger to users. I very much enjoyed Kezia Dugdale’s speech and I agree that it is important that we use the terminology of legal highs. As Dennis Robertson said, I do not think that many users of legal highs are likely to be listening to the debate or are likely to view it or read the Official Report subsequently. That issue about information is perhaps one that we have to address.

The key words are “legal” and “high”. I suggest that it is difficult to second guess people. It is the fact that people get high from alcohol or legal drugs that attracts 17-year-olds to taking them, albeit that alcohol is illegal for them to consume. I do not think that the word “legal” necessarily has the attraction that the word “high” has in the scheme of things. However, even that small point shows that we need evidence. It is vital that such evidence comes from the appropriate source. We need a balanced response to the issue and, at the head of that response by a country mile, I would like to see education. The SDF, Crew and the harm reduction teams are clearly involved in that.

The motion talks about law enforcement and the challenges of enforcement. At the risk of being out of kilter with all previous speakers, I point out that there is a debate to be had as to why there should be enforcement on legal issues, and certainly with regard to legal highs. The police’s role in the choices for life scheme is important. Clearly, the police wish to have more powers to deal with the issue, but what are the implications of the law enforcement agency seeking more powers on the issue? Where would that stop? Around the globe, people take a range of substances to stimulate themselves. We need to be cautious that we are approaching this properly.

I asked a couple of young folk about the issue, and they had a totally different attitude from me and perhaps other members. Indeed, the swift response that I got from someone was that we should legalise cannabis. I do not propose that we do that, but we can learn from experience in other jurisdictions, most recently Uruguay, about the implications for new psychoactive substances of that particular act. We must also consider the consequences of turning something that is presently legal into something illegal. We know that law enforcement and legislators struggle to keep up with the pharmaceutical people, but our approach needs to be entirely evidence based.

Drug users are the informed consumers. My colleague Alison McInnes said that consumers do not know what they are buying. Members might think that that is terrible, but some folks think that it is a bit of a lucky dip. They think, “You never know—it might be good or it might be bad.” That is why some folks end up buying dog worming tablets.

Head shops have been talked about a great deal, and there has been collaborative working on that issue. Much has been said about packaging. The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service is looking at issues of reckless conduct. I was grateful to be invited along to the meeting that the minister talked about. A trading standards officer who was there was puzzling with the thought that, if someone is content with spending £22 on bath salts, how do we approach that?

Kezia Dugdale talked about bulk purchases, and our briefing was helpful in highlighting the free sample issue and self-funding dealerships, which I would describe as pyramid selling—that is capitalism; it works well in that field, just as it works well for Governments as they trade in their drugs of choice, alcohol and tobacco. The SDF briefing also talks about alternative lifestyle choices, and we know how alcohol advertising promotes lifestyle choices. If anyone is listening to the debate, they might therefore get a whiff of hypocrisy from what we are saying.

I heard a lot about quality control, although I do not think that everyone talked about support for testing. The initiative in Wales was mentioned, and I support such an approach. It is hugely important that people can make informed choices about everything that they do.

Injecting is a small part of the picture, we are told. In a previous debate, which has been mentioned, I talked about supervision of injecting, which is a significant way of reducing harm, not just for individuals but for communities.

The SDF tells us that in the vast majority of cases no issues are reported. Labour’s amendment talks about promoting understanding, but will we get all the knowledge or just the downside? If examination of drugs shows that there are no ill effects, does that mean that they are okay?

There are challenges for the police, who at operational level have not always been supportive of approaches to harm reduction such as needle exchanges and searching people as they leave premises. I urge that there be no tokenism or quick publicity-seeking fixes to deal with head shops, which are a small part of a much bigger issue. Let us be pragmatic, not patronising