Blog Post

The G8 Wants to Focus on Prevention, Not Incarceration, for New Designer Drugs

Meghan Ralston

Two days ago, the G8 released a Statement of Intent on the collection and sharing of data about “new psychoactive substances (NPS)” - essentially what we would think of as “designer drugs.”

The memo describes a variety of ways the various countries plan to work together to help identify, track and test various new, emerging drugs of misuse. It lays out ways the countries can assist each other in drug surveillance and reporting and the like.

The content of the statement itself is essentially unremarkable—what’s remarkable is what isn’t in it. Upon first read, everything seems reasonable, appropriate, etc.

But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear: something is definitely missing.

What’s noticeably absent in the memo is any emphasis on increasing criminalization or penalties for people in possession of the new compounds. The memo instead enumerates the many ways that demand reduction, treatment and abuse prevention are fundamental to this agreement among the G8 countries.

In their own words, they “believe that a balanced, comprehensive and integrated approach is required to tackle the challenges posed by NPS.”

In the U.S., such phraseology in a similar document might well imply millions of dollars being spent to track, arrest and incarcerate not just manufacturers of NPS, but distributers (sellers) and users, as well—and far less allocated to demand reduction and treatment.  In the US, the “crackdown” mentality on drugs is so pervasive that we’ve come to naturally expect and even tacitly approve of it.

In other countries, notably in the other G8 countries, alternative approaches are being discussed. Not just discussed, but agreed upon.

The Statement of Intent is rich with references to the importance of a balanced approach to reducing potential harms associated with unknown synthetic drug compounds. But nowhere in the document is there an emphasis on dramatically beefing up law enforcement or the criminal justice system in order to strangle the global flow of these new compounds. We see words like “identify,” “monitor,” “report,” and phrases such as “exchanging knowledge on the profile of users…in order to better target prevention strategies…on potential adverse impacts and risks to public health.” We even see a passing mention of potentially regulating these drugs.

When a statement of intent shared by the member countries of the G8 talks more about “tailored prevention strategies” than locking people up, it gives some pause. Is the United States, a member of the G8, likely to embrace this essentially (apparently) non-punitive approach to newly emerging psychoactive substances, or will we adhere to most of the principles in the memo while also substantially beefing up DEA budget line items to maintain the status quo of cracking down, arresting and incarcerating people possessing these drugs?

That of course remains to be seen.


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