Friday, November 16, 2012

Getting high on ‘bath salts’ sold online

While Portugal has been written off by the media around the world as an economic basket case, there is widespread acclaim for the courageous initative taken by this small country in tackling the scourge of addictive drugs.  A report just released in Lisbon, however, makes it clear that Chinese ‘entrepreneurs’ are revitalising and expanding the international narcotics trade. Young people are being exposed to drugs more than ever.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalised the use of all drugs, including cocaine and heroin as well as marijuana and amphetamines. Possession of more than 10 doses, defined by weight for each drug type, was considered dealing and still very much a crime. Possession of up to 10 daily doses for personal use was still illegal but not punishable as a crime. Instead, it was considered a public order offence - a health problem to be dealt with by counselling sessions or appropriate treatment in special centres.
More than a decade on, is the system working? Most say it is a resounding success. Others claim it has been a complete failure.
The diverse views may be due at least in part to researchers using insufficient data to promote biased preferences for promoting, or blocking, law reform elsewhere.
No one is arguing that the system is perfect. For example, the use of marijuana is still commonplace in the Algarve, especially among teenagers and young adults – and joints nowadays are far stronger than those of yesteryear.
On the other hand, before decriminalisation was introduced, fears were expressed that it might backfire and produce an upsurge in drug abuse and even turn Portugal into a drug tourist haven. That does not seem to have happened.
While the number of people receiving treatment has risen, drug-related court cases have dropped dramatically - and so too have the number of drug-related HIV cases due to sharing dirty needles.
Placing the focus on health rather than crime does not seem to have added to the country’s economic woes either. Expenditure has been transferred from the justice department to the health services.
A number of countries have tentatively introduced the pro-active decriminalisation approach. Even the mighty United States is coming around to following in Portugal’s footsteps.  After 40 years, many analysts in America realise that the ‘war on drugs’, which to date has cost a trillion dollars, is simply not working.
Alarmingly, China has now entered the fray big time. The European Union’s drug monitoring agency based in Lisbon has announced that, for the third consecutive year, a record number of new synthetic substances known as “legal highs” are now available via the Internet. Most are produced in China and to a lesser extent India.
These psychoactive substances are marketed under innocent sounding labels such as ‘bath salts,’ ‘plant food’ and ‘research chemicals,’ but they reproduce the effects of traditional illegal drugs.  
The number of online ‘head shops’ selling Europe’s 10 most popular ‘legal highs’ doubled in twelve months and at last count stood at 759, according to the agency’s latest voluminous report. More than one new psychoactive drug is coming on to the market each week.
Traffickers of cocaine, heroin and other traditional addictive drugs are now facing growing competition from what the agency calls “opportunistic entrepreneurs” pedalling synthetic alternatives, which have the potential for wider and easier distribution.
As if coping with drugs has not been hard enough in the past, this new fast moving market is posing fresh challenges.
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