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Mixed Reception for Legal High Ban

Legal HighsThe new nationwide ban on legal highs has come into force, sparking a mixed set of opinions and responses. Some have welcomed the ban as an important step in tackling dangerous substance abuse issues, while others have expressed doubts as to the practicality of enforcing the ban.

Legal highs, also known as “new psychoactive substances,” are chemical substances that are designed to have effects very similar to those of prohibited drugs, but also to be different enough in composition from those drugs to escape existing bans. They are ostensibly sold for purposes other than human ingestion – another step in evading existing drug laws – but when ingested produce a “high” similar to other drugs such as cocaine. Last year, a rise in prison violence was linked to legal highs, and over 100 deaths around the country were believed to involve such substances.

The new law represents a blanket ban on all such substances, effectively closing all the loopholes that the previously slipped through. Bans have previously been enforced on the local level in some areas, but the new law takes effect nationwide. It prohibits production of these substances, as well as selling or otherwise supplying them. It also empowers the police to shut down both online stores and physical “headshops” which sell drug paraphernalia, as well as to carry out searches and to confiscate and destroy any such substances they find.

Many have been delighted by the new law. Notably, those who have campaigned against the use of dangerous psychoactive substances have welcomed the ban. Karen Vandersypen, who began campaigning against legal highs after they led to the death of her son, described herself as “delighted.”

However, there are also doubts about whether it will be feasible to enforce the ban effectively. The new law was originally supposed to take effect last month, with questions about enforcement reportedly being among the reasons for the delay. Now the government has released its “forensic strategy,” methods of testing substances to establish whether they fall within the scope of this law, further doubts have been expressed. A number of lawyers, forensic experts and pharmacologists predicted that enforcing the prohibition on new psychoactive substances would be “fraught with difficulty.”

Critics have also suggested that convictions under the new law would be relatively difficult to obtain. A large part of this difficulty relates to the testing strategy, and difficulties in definitively establishing that a substance produces a high. According to professor Les Iversen, chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), writing in a letter to the Home Secretary: “There is currently no way to define psychoactivity through a biochemical test, therefore there is no guarantee of proving psychoactivity in a court of law.”

Overall Crime Down but Reported Rapes on the Rise

According to official figures from the Office for National Statistics, Crime in England and Wales is falling. This conclusion was also backed up by separate research from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, which identified a 16% drop on overall crime. Despite this, however, the number of reported rapes is at its highest ever level.

This is not necessarily entirely down to an increase in the number of offences taking place. For a number of reasons, rape has historically been a significantly underreported crime. Now, victims are becoming more and more willing to come forward and make reports, so that more instances of this type of crime are actually recorded by police. Police writing off reports of rape and generally failing to record them properly is an issue that has raised concerns recently. Following the controversy that has surrounded the issue, according to the ONS’ head of crime statistics John Flatley, “it’s certainly the case the police are taking action to improve their recording and handling of rape investigations.”

However, there are concerns that this may be only one factor driving the increase in the number of incidents recorded, with figures also being driven upwards by an actual increase in the number of offences taken place. The official data does not offer any indication of whether this is likely to be the case, but some statisticians have stated that a 48% increase in knife-point rapes, for instance, is likely to be down to a genuine rise rather than simply better recording processes.

The increased number of reported rapes is made up of two kinds of allegation. Recent years have seen a significant rise in the number of victims gathering the necessary courage to report historical offences when they did not feel able to come forward at the time. However, nearly three quarters (73%) of the latest increase are down to current offences – a departure from the trend seen in recent years.

Overall crime, according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, is down to a total of 7.1 million offences over the course of a year. This is the lowest level seen since 1981 when the survey started. Meanwhile, the ONS’ data showed that the number of rapes recorded by police in the year leading up to June was 22,116. This is an increase of 29%. The number of rapes in which the victim was threatened with a knife increased by nearly half, rising to 294 from 199.

Experts Baffled by Fall in Crime

There is a traditional view that, in times of austerity, crime is likely to rise. This applies to all aspects of criminal activity, and in particular to crimes against property such as theft. However, recent figures have revealed that crime rates have fallen, somewhat surprisingly, in the UK over the last year, a statistic that goes firmly against the expected. Overall, crimes appear to number some eight percent less than in the previous year.

The murder rate in England and Wales also fell by some ten percent, with 549 murders recorded across the year, and this is the lowest level since as long ago as 1978. The figures are baffling criminologists, who believe that trends in the past show precisely the opposite, with crime rising across the board when times are hard. It would appear that both the official annual crime survey and statistics from the police point to a change.

1Professor Mike Hough, an expert criminologist with many years experience in analysing trends, said:
“This fall is striking and unexpected, especially in view of the fiscal crisis, whose impact is bearing down sharpest on the poorest and most marginal social groups. There is no single explanation. Better policing may be part of the explanation, but for property crimes like burglary and car theft changes in opportunities are more important.”

He went on to elaborate as to some possible reasons for the decline in crime:
“Cars are getting more and more secure, and the value of goods that burglars used to target is falling fast. These factors may spill over to other property crime, because there are fewer opportunities for ‘low-level crimes’ or ‘debut crimes’ on which young offenders can cut their teeth. But expressive crimes like violence and vandalism are also falling. Possibly the fall in alcohol consumption among the 16-25 age group may be a factor here.”