One of the biggest talking points from the Queen’s speech has been the announcement of new legislation which will ban so-called legal highs (or Novel Psychoactive Substances).
The Psychoactive Substances Bill will outlaw the production and distribution of these substances, with a penalty of up to seven years in prison for anybody caught breaking the law. However, the problem with NSP’s (from the government’s perspective) has always been that as soon as you ban one, another appears. Chemists around the world are constantly tweaking molecular structures to get around laws which up until now have only targeted specific chemicals.
Their new plan to fight the ‘menace’ of legal highs is to ban, well, everything. The draft legislation, which is available to read here, effectively outlaws anything psychoactive. A psychoactive substance is defined in the Bill as any substance which (a) is capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it, and (b) is not an exempted substance.
The exempted substance bit is important here, because their definition of a psychoactive effect is as follows – a substance produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state.
So that’s alcohol out then, and tobacco, and tea, coffee, sugar, nutmeg, and certainly chocolate and catnip. Not to mention pharmaceutical drugs. But of course all of these, and others, will be exempted from the new law, despite the fact that tobacco caused an estimated 101,000 deaths in the UK in 2010 (18% of all deaths that year). Alcohol accounted for a further 8,790 deaths, and pharmaceutical drugs killed almost 2,500.
That’s around 112,000 people who died in this country in one year, as a result of using the very drugs that have been exempted from legislation purportedly designed to protect us from harm.
This is yet another clear example of the hypocrisy and ignorance of our national drug policy. Cameron and the Tories continue to crow that ‘just because something is legal, that doesn’t mean it’s safe’. Which is true, of course, but to say that and then refuse to include the two most dangerous and deadly legal highs of all in the discussion reveals their true intention – which is to force through legislation based on popularity, rather than on evidence.
The evidence couldn’t be clearer, banning drugs has never worked and will never work. Even before this kind of blanket ban was being considered, the government tried to clamp down on legal highs by banning individual drugs, like mephedrone for example. The only thing such bans achieved was to push the market underground and into the clutches of organised crime. Mephedrone is still sold in huge quantities all over the country – all that has changed is that it is now more dangerous and unregulated than ever.
Moreover, the banning of many previously legal synthetic cannabinoids has led to the creation of brand new, untested and in many cases far more lethal versions of those drugs. If we hadn’t attempted to ban our way out of the problem in the first place, many of the compounds which have been linked to injury and death would simply not exist. Instead they will now, like Mephedrone, end up on the black market.
The Home Office themselves provided us with some of the clearest evidence yet that banning drugs is an utterly pointless and futile way to reduce not only their harm, but also the rate at which they are used. In October of last year, they finally released a report which had been buried by the then-coalition government for months. 'Drugs: International Comparators' drew on the evidence from the drug policies of 11 different countries and compared them to our own. These countries included Portugal, which decriminalised all drug use 14 years ago.
The findings were not particularly startling to those of us who follow drug policy, but were a damning indictment of the current prohibitionist stance in this country. The main finding from the report, which was repeated many times in the aftermath of its release was this - punitive drug policies have absolutely no effect whatsoever on the rates of drug use in a country.
Ironically enough, but perhaps fittingly, another report was released on the same day. In this report – the New Psychoactive Substances Report – the authors called for the ban on legal highs which is now about to be implemented. The Drugs Minister at the time, Norman Baker, went on the record to say that he wanted to ‘destroy headshops’. So in essence in that single day the government made this statement: ‘banning things doesn’t work, so let’s ban some more things’. Nothing like sending a clear and consistent message about drugs, is there?
To get back to the Psychoactive Substances Bill then – it is clear that the bill itself has no basis in logic or evidence. If it did, instead of a blanket ban on everything, we would see regulated markets not only for current legal highs, but also for currently illegal highs. However, it looks like it will be passed into law regardless, so we might as well try and understand it a little better.
Like most pieces of drug policy it is – probably deliberately – rather vaguely worded. It is unclear at present for example, whether mild psychoactive plants such as Kratom, Calea Zacatechichi, Blue Lotus, etc., will be outlawed, or whether they will be exempted. If they are to be banned, then the lunatics really will be running the asylum. These are plants that have been used for thousands of years, plants which have been sold in the UK for decades without any problems. They are many many times safer than alcohol or tobacco or even caffeine.
The Psychoactive Substances Bill does state that ‘Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products’ will be exempt from prohibition, and that these products are defined as medicinal products whose only active ingredients are herbal substances or herbal preparations (or both).
So clearly there is some scope for such herbal products to be exempted from the laws, which is at least one slight silver lining in an otherwise ludicrous piece of legislation. But in reality, the passing of this law will be yet another giant leap backwards for scientific, evidence based drug policy in this country. It seems our leaders long ago lost sight of what effective drug policy should be – a policy which uses evidence and logic to put the safety of the people first. Instead of that, they seem more determined than ever to make the kind of grandstanding policy decisions which appease Daily Mail fear mongering but waste millions of pounds of taxpayers money without having any positive effect.