Last month, Minister of Health Ab Klink announced that he wanted to ban the electronic cigarette. Despite ‘smokers’ no longer inhaling tar, the inhaled nicotine is still poisonous and dangerous. This is not the first time that the government is suggesting banning addictive, readily available substances. ‘There’s absolutely no point in banning drugs’, says Donald Uges, Professor of Clinical and Forensic Toxicology at the University of Groningen. ‘It’d be much better to clearly regulate the provision.’
Uges’s views apply to almost all addictive substances. In his opinion there’s no point in imposing a ban because people will always find a way to get hold of their favourite drugs. ‘Anyone can grow marihuana at home’.The only thing that will work, according to Uges, is to keep drug availability low. It's certainly a problem, he says. ‘We’re all of course extremely concerned about young people using alcohol and drugs. Alcohol is the worst. But a lot of cocaine and speed is being used, sometimes together’. For example, during a random meeting at a Groningen student party, Uges discovered that fourteen of the thirty partygoers were using cocaine in combination with drink. ‘They do that because they want to keep drinking until the pub closes. They are only able to do that with the help of coke. They can become aggressive, have a reduced conception of danger and norms and values don’t apply any more.’
According to Uges, this problem is so great because alcohol and other drugs are so easy to come by. ‘It’s possible for someone to buy a few crates of beer in the evening from the supermarket. Young people can thus drink their way through crates of beer before they go to the pub. The same thing happens with smoking. There are vending machines everywhere and anyone can buy a new packet of cigarettes at any time. That’s exactly the type of impulse buying that should be stopped.’
If Uges had his way, alcohol would only be sold via off licences. ‘And then only during the day, between nine and six. Supermarkets are against this because they are afraid of losing sales. I don't think that argument holds water so the minister should be strict.’ The advantage of only selling alcohol via off licences, according to Uges, is in the opportunity to regulate. ‘An off licence has the time to check passports for age. And I’d certainly be in favour of a sales ban to under 18s.’ Uges points out that such alcohol regulation is actually the Swedish system. ‘So there's nothing new under the sun. But if the government wants to do something – this works. Of course people still drink, but clearly much less.’ And what applies to alcohol also applies to smoking. Cigarettes should only be sold in tobacconists and at set times, says Uges.
‘I was originally in favour of the tolerance policy towards marihuana, pot and hashish. But I’ve changed my mind. We now know that many young people become more susceptible to psychoses through cannabis use. Coffee shops are carcinogenic and the cannabis substance THC can remain in brain tissue for months even after just one joint. The shops are thus no longer right for this day and age. The worst of it is that many people go to coffee shops because it’s so much fun. That trend will increase after the smoking ban is introduced. Then even people who don’t smoke joints will be taking an extra risk. So here again, shut the shops at night and only let them sell during the day – but no smoking on the premises.’
Uges emphasizes how simple the rules are. ‘The guidelines must not be too difficult, so that everyone understands them and there can be no misunderstandings. They must be well monitored, and that’s possible with simple regulation via fixed sales points. If someone does not keep to the guidelines, they must be punished. Cancel the shop’s sales permit and give drug addicts caught in the act more time to kick the habit.’
Donald Uges (1947) is Professor of Clinical and Forensic Toxicology at the University of Groningen. He also works as a hospital pharmacist for the UMCG.
Prof. D.R.A. Uges, e-mail: email@example.com, tel. (050) 361 4071
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