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Dr Neil McKeganey: Four jumbo jets packed with youngsters crashing every year. The true toll of the so-called drugs war

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I spoke last weekend at a conference on recovery from drug addiction in the picturesque beauty of Henley on Thames. Two of the other speakers were mothers who described the pain of having lost their children to drug abuse. Each in their own way described the child they had lost and the shock mixed with guilt and anger and a sadness so deep it left a gaping unfilled hole at the centre of their lives. As these women spoke, I was reminded of the fate of all those families in the aftermath of the Great War and other conflicts who waited in vain for loved ones that never returned.

These mothers are like the war widows and bereaved parents from a conflict no less global in its scale. Their offspring have been lost in a conflict every bit as terrible and as destructive as those that have gone before.

I was asked whether I thought that the Government had given up on tackling the drugs problem. It is hard not to feel that there is an element of truth in that view in the totality of these deaths.  The equivalent of four jumbo jets full of young people crashing in England every year with metronomic regularity. Each year’s total creeping upwards to 2,000 and beyond and the counter set back at zero each January.  We seem to have become inured to the statistics of premature death even while being moved at the pain of individual family loss.

Our politicians tell us that the war on drugs will never be won, hinting that decriminalisation or legalisation is now the only sensible option.  These politicians could not be more wrong in their characterisation of a failed war on drugs. There is a war involving drugs, but it is not war against drugs it is the war on families and young lives being waged by the drugs epidemic itself.

At the end of the day, of course, individuals not politicians or drugs pushers take the decision to use or refuse to use illegal drugs. At the heart of the drugs problem are not social causes or government policies, not even government inaction, but individual choice. The resolution of our drug problem will only come about when the choices we make are in favour of not using drugs.

The growth in the use of legal highs, now being marketed through the Internet, and openly sold in high street headshops across the UK, shows that our drugs epidemic is not slowing down. These drugs, marketed with such names as Total Annihilation, have been linked to a 600 per cent increase in deaths in recent years. Perhaps those who are naming these drugs know something that we have not yet cottoned on to.

Young people are looking for the exotic, the unusual, the mind-blowing, the transformative experience that lifts them from the normality of their everyday lives. If that is the case, there will be no let up in the market for these drugs and no shortage of bereaved parents speaking at conferences to come.

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Neil McKeganey
Director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research in Glasgow and former Government drug policy advisor.

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