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Education needed to combat legal high 'epidemic', say doctors

The BMA wants a comprehensive campaign to educate young people about the dangers of psychoactive substances, as a report declares a legal high use ‘epidemic’.mixed pills

Drugs: New Psychoactive Substances and Prescription Drugs, by the Commons home affairs select committee, says the government should introduce legislation so sellers become responsible for proving a substance’s safety.

The committee also wants mobile testing sites at festivals to aid the removal of potentially harmful substances, and specific education in schools and colleges on psychoactive substances such as mephedrone.

Deaths involving these new substances have increased by 79 per cent, from 29 in 2011 to 52 in 2012, according to the report, published last week. The number of new psychoactive substances reported by European member states rose by 51 per cent – from 166 at the end of 2009, to 251 by mid-2012.

BMA board of science chair Baroness Sheila Hollins said it was encouraging the committee had responded positively to the BMA and other clinical bodies about how to address the serious consequences of drug use.

‘The law needs to be enforced to deter the distribution of damaging psychoactive substances,’ Baroness Hollins insisted.


Complex causes of addiction

‘But we must ensure we have a wider, effective drug policy that takes into account the complex biological, psychological and social factors that leads to these substances being in demand in the first place.

‘We can only tackle this problem through a combination of better treatment of existing drug addicts - a robust system that helps spot the early signs of addiction and a comprehensive campaign to educate young people about the dangers of psychoactive substances.’

The committee report says chief constables and other law enforcement agencies have failed to understand the impact of legal highs, now easily available in places as wide-ranging as petrol stations and pet shops.

Committee chair Keith Vaz said new versions of legal highs were being produced at the rate of one a week and the government’s ‘slow’ response to the crisis may have led to more deaths.

The report also highlighted the challenges posed by prescription drugs, with the committee urging medical practices to start collecting anonymised data on patients addicted to these drugs.


Prescription drug concern

BMA GPs committee chair Chaand Nagpaul said GPs played a key role in treating patients in the community suffering from the impact of drug addiction.Dr Chaand Nagpaul is Chairman of the General Practitioners Committee

He said: ‘It is a devastating medical condition that ruins lives, families and communities and it is right that we continuously look at how we can improve the treatment of drug addiction.

‘However, the identification of individuals addicted to prescription drugs is not straightforward.

‘While we should do all we can to support their withdrawal from such drugs, we also need to ensure that patients are confident that their sensitive personal data will remain secure.

‘Any data collection exercise [must be] properly considered, piloted and tested before it is implemented.’

MPs raised concerns about the ‘low number’ of prosecutions brought against doctors and pharmacists.

The report cited a survey by the Family Doctor Association which found 80 per cent of 197 GPs surveyed said they were aware of prescribing drugs to people who were addicts.

‘There are currently 1.5 million people addicted to prescription drugs in the UK,’ said Mr Vaz.

‘Local GPs need to report their suspicious and collate information to illuminate this problem.’

Earlier this year, the BMA board of science published Drugs of Dependence – the Role of Medical Professionals. It is doing further work specifically on prescription drugs.

 Read Drugs: New Psychoactive Substances and Prescription Drugs 

 Read Drugs of Dependence – the Role of Medical Professionals