Starting this April the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 will prohibit production, supply and importation of legal highs. Substances that have similar effects to illegal drugs such as cocaine but are chemically different enough to remain legal have caused dangerously unpredictable effects amongst users. The new laws aim “to end the trade in harmful psychoactive substances” and allow those caught offending to be charged with up to seven years’ imprisonment. The Government hasn’t specified banned drugs by name, but outlawed all psychoactive substances including future inventions. Alcohol, nicotine and caffeine remain legal.
The new laws follow Ireland’s suit, where a Psychoactive Substances Act was enforced in 2010. However, it led to just 4 prosecutions in 5 years, and ministers have recently decided on new actions to decriminalise recreational drugs.
A work of monumental ignorance
The Psychoactive Substances Act has received a slew of criticism, and not just from the anti-prohibition camp. Paul Flynn, Labour MP, submitted a Parliamentary motion describing the bill as “one of the stupidest, most dangerous and unscientific pieces of drugs legislation ever”. Clare Wilson for the New Scientist pointed out the ineptitude of the Parliamentary Debate MPs: some mispronounced drug names, misinterpreted medical data, and thought poppers – a relaxant drug popular among gay men – were mere party streamers (not so the Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, however, who called his Government “fantastically stupid” and went on to reveal he is a user of poppers).
Writing in the Guardian, the neuroscientist Vaughan Bell dubbed the Psychoactive Substances Bill “a work of monumental ignorance”. He discusses confusion over what a psychoactive substance is (many everyday items including cheese, for example, are known to affect brain chemistry) and how the only way to test whether a substance changes mental functioning is to take it – probably not a method the Home Office would endorse.
Legislation is not the silver bullet
129 deaths were reportedly caused by psychoactive substances last year. Karen Bradley, Minister for Preventing Abuse and Exploitation, said “we cannot, and should not, tolerate the open sale on our high streets and over the internet of these potentially harmful substances. That’s why we are imposing a blanket ban”. She did however admit that “legislation is not the silver bullet” and referenced continuing action in education and treatment to reduce drug use.