The Psychoactive Substances Bill 2015 is one of the most ludicrous and ill-conceived pieces of legislation I’ve read in a while. It was announced in the Queen’s Speech in May 2015 and was passed from the Lords to the Commons on 22 July 2015. It is intended to:
make it an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, possess with intent to supply, import or export psychoactive substances; that is, any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect.
It makes it illegal to produce, supply, import or export any psychoactive substance. While it’s still legal to posess such a substance, it must be in a small enough quantity to avoid appearing as though it were intended for supply.
It defines a psychoactive substance as “any substance which is capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it, and is not an exempted substance”. A substance is deemed to produce a psychoactive effect if, “by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state”.
“by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state”
I don’t know about you, but I take an awful lot of substances that stimulate or depress the central nervous system in order to affect mental functioning and emotional state. I eat food, for example.
Of course, not even the current government is stupid enough to try to ban food — it’s exempt from the Bill along with alcohol, nicotine, tobacco, caffeine and medicinal products.
So what does the Bill ban then?
Everything else, basically. It’s supposed to be a response to recent increases in the recreational use of New/Novel Psychoactive Substances, or NPS.
NPS are more commonly known as legal highs, as many of them are legal and they are designed to have psychoactive effects.
The effect, duration and appearance of the drug will vary but most NPS are chemicals produced in a lab and come in powder, pill or herbal form. A liquid version, containing synthetic cannabinoids, is available for use in e-cigarettes/vapourizers.
NPS are also known as novel/new drugs, legal highs and legals and are usually branded with names which are euphemistic and misrepresentative. Examples would include herbal extracts, room incense, novelty collectors’ items and research chemicals.
The most common NPS are generally stimulants — used in place of cocaine, MDMA and the like — and synthetic cannabinoids.
Reading Annex 2 to the report, you’d be forgiven for thinking it provides all the evidence needed to ban NPS outright. It paints the usual bleak picture of harmful drug misuse — needles, psychosis, paranoia and all. The fact that many of these “legal highs” are packaged to look like sweets — specifically to appeal to teenagers (we’re told)— makes them seem even more dangerous. In Crew’s research, the most commonly occuring stimulat packets are from a brand called Blue Stuff, featuring a stylised picture of Heisenberg, the fictional meth-baron from Breaking Bad.
I don’t doubt that this country has a slight problem with NPS, but it has a bigger problem with illegal drug use. While reliable statistics are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence from those involved with harm reduction puts festival drug use at 80% MDMA and only 5% NPS. Despite this, I’m told that use of NPS is a particular problem because most should be taken at much lower doses than more traditional drugs, and there’s scant information on dosage. Of course, this is true of MDMA too, as this report from the Global Drug Survey shows.
Many would argue that the legality of NPS must be a big motivator for buyers. Surely people would rather buy legal drugs than illegal ones? It’s interesting to note that the 2014 Home Office Review into NPS in England found that “for the majority of users, evidence suggests that legality is not the biggest motivator”. To me, this is quite obvious. The illegality of illicit drugs doesn’t stop people taking them, after all.
A proper discussion on the best approach to tackling drug problems is worthy of its own article, so for now I’ll limit myself to suggesting that the problem — both with legal and illegal drugs — is not nearly as bad as the media would have us believe, and the NPS issue certainly doesn’t warrant such an all-encompassing new law.
While the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is permissive legislation, the new bill is restrictive. Not only will it reduce (so government hopes) the recreational use of NPS, but other classes of substance will get caught in its net.
Smart drugs have been the topic of much conversation in the last few years. From university students to tech entrepreneurs, drugs like Modafinil, Ritalin and Adderall are being used to improve focus, alertness and memory—usually with fewer negative side-affects than excessive caffeine use. Of course, like other NPS, these can be abused too. Indeed, the Blue Stuff mentioned above is actually just ethylphenidate (an analogue of methylphenidate, aka Ritalin).
The dictionary definition of Nootropic is “a substance that enhances cognition and memory and facilitates learning”, and while stimulants like Modafinil are sometimes called Nootropics, most experts have a much stricter definition. Dr Corneliu Giurgea, who coined the term in 1972, defined them thus:
1. Enhance learning and memory.
2. Enhance learned behaviors under conditions known to disrupt them.
3. Protect the brain from physical or chemical injury.
4. Enhance the tonic cortical/subcortical control mechanisms.
5. Exhibit few side effects and extremely low toxicity, while lacking the pharmacology of typical psychotropic drugs (motor stimulation, sedation, etc.).
Although there’s still no exact agreement on how to define the term, the definition above is very different to the image most people have of smart drugs. Nootropics are not so far away from the health supplements and vitamins many of us take every day. Indeed, supplements like fish oil, choline and L-theamine (found in green tea) are essential parts of most nootropic “stacks”.
A large part of our society tends to put drugs into four main boxes:
- Non-prescription medical “I use these every day to stave off headaches and the like, they must be safe. I also take all these supplements because my health magazine told me that 6000 mg of Vitamin C was good for weight loss.”
- Prescription medical drugs “I’m not a doctor so I couldn’t possibly understand the pharmacology — there are so many long words! I just trust my GP.”
- Socially acceptable non-drug drugs “Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine aren’t really drugs are they.”
- Bad, horrible, nasty drugs “If my son took any of these things I don’t know what I’d do. He’ll ruin his life and end up like those people in Requiem for a Dream.”
Smart drugs and nootropics inevitably end up in the last box (unless they’re available at Holland & Barret, then they’re in the first one).
It should be fairly obvious that these boxes are artificially constructed — built with political rhetoric, hermetically sealed by drug laws and regularly repainted by the media — it is incredibly difficult to move something from one box to another.
Does the Prime Minister believe that once a healthier relationship is established between politicians and the media, it will be easier for Governments to adopt evidence-based policy in relation to, for instance, tackling drugs?
That’s a lovely idea.
Why do people take psychoactive substances?
To help explain why I think this new Bill is so ridiculous, I’d like to spend a minute looking at why people take drugs in the first place. While it’s impossible to neatly categorise everybody’s motivation, I think that the vast majority of people take psychoactive substances for one of the following four reasons.
To broaden the mind
While many people take psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin (and to some extent MDMA) with the sole intent of having a good time, a great many people do so in order to broaden their understanding of the world. I’m no expert on this, so instead I encourage you to read or listen to Sam Harris’ intelligent and eloquently written article on the subject. Sam is a neuroscientist and philosopher with a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from UCLA (and he has a lovely reading voice).
To have fun
By far the biggest set of recreational drug-takers are occasional. I’d love to provide accurate data, but it’s notoriously difficult to come by. I know hundreds of people who take both legal and illegal drugs on occasion, with the sole intent of having a good night out. For some it’s a once-every-few-months thing; for others it happens every weekend. I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but in Brighton and London it’s only a little less usual than liking craft beer. Most of these people would never admit it in print for fear of the consequences should their family or employers find out.
To improve their performance and health
Health-conscious fitness enthusiasts with a penchant for kale and almond-milk smoothies are not the first people that spring to mind when we talk about psychoactive substances. Yet there are a growing number of people who are turning to smart drugs and nootropics to improve their mental health and reduce their susceptibility to diseases like Alzheimer’s. Like many who use substances to broaden the mind, they are often well-informed. Not all nootropics are psychoactive substances, of course, but many are.
To escape from an unpleasant reality
This applies as much to the over-worked City trader who’s addicted to cocaine as it does to the unemployed heroin addict in Liverpool who’s lost all hope of finding a job. If fact, it applies to a whole lot of people — right across the social spectrum. In my experience, it is in this class that drug use tends to turn into misuse. Kindness, compassion and (where necessary) medical help is the solution. Not prohibition. I can’t imagine the recent welfare reforms will do much to help this set.
The problem with a broad-ranging and restrictive law like this new bill is that it fails to take account of these motivations. The reason someone takes a psychoactive substance has a profound effect on the likelihood of their use turning into mis-use.
I have no data to back it up, but I’m willing to bet that the single biggest indicator of whether drugs affect someone positively or negatively (in the medium to long term) is not the drug itself, but the intent and social situation of the person taking it.
It is the social problems leading to chronic or harmful misuse which government must address, not the use itself.
What’s my problem with this new bill?
The chief motivation for the widespread introduction of drug controls in the early 1970's was the fear that habitual drug use — led at the time by psychedelics and cannabis — was damaging the fabric of society. They were probably right. To quote Sam Harris:
For every insight of lasting value produced by drugs [in the 1960's], there was an army of zombies with flowers in their hair shuffling toward failure and regret. Turning on, tuning in, and dropping out is wise, or even benign, only if you can then drop into a mode of life that makes ethical and material sense and doesn’t leave your children wandering in traffic.
Yet this motivation can hardly be applied to modern-day drug taking. The use of illicit drugs like cocaine and MDMA is incredibly widespread. Despite being illegal, many friends from my early 20's took excessive amounts of both (and much more besides). All are now what society might call “successful”. From youth worker to Army Captain to City trader and teacher, all contribute much to society. They certainly don’t damage its fabric.
When applied to smart drugs and nootropics, the argument is even weaker. Where drug-taking in the 60's was fuelled by a desire to escape the shackles of established society, the use of these drugs is fuelled by the opposite. They exist explicitly to make people more productive, whether in education or work.
To introduce effective drug control legislation we must base our laws on sound evidence. A little while ago, New Zealand decided to tackle their problem with NPS. I’ll let Ian Dunt explain:
The government came to a sensible solution. It would offer drug designers the chance to get approval for their products if they could convince a Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority they were safe. It was a great idea and passed with just one vote against. And then it all went wrong.
Because the world is sillier than any of us are really prepared to admit, it went wrong not because of a backlash by drug prohibitionists, but because of animal rights activists. The interim licensing sections were repealed and a section added banning the advisory committee from authorising a product where the trial for its use involved the use of an animal.
Putting aside the eccentricities of Kiwi politics for a moment, the reasonable original proposal was profoundly dangerous for supporters of the war on drugs. It threatened the idea that drugs must be banned, regardless of harm, out of some quasi-religious anti-intoxification agenda. It introduced the notion that drug regulation should take place on the basis of evidence of harm, rather than some sort of historic crusade. Basically, it was sensible. And because it was sensible, it was a threat to the global system of drug regulation.
Specifically, though. What’s my problem?
In short, the Psychoactive Substances Bill is an ill-conceived piece of legislation that was heavily criticised by the government’s own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. In addition to the points they raised in their letter to the Home Secretary, I have the following concerns:
- It does nothing to account for the causes of misuse, or to promote education about the risks. It does the opposite and potentially criminalises a great many otherwise law-abiding citizens.
- The UK doesn’t usually enact restrictive “blanket-ban” laws like this.
- It cannot be sensible to ban all drugs that might be developed in the future unless the Home Secretary has given his express permission for them to be un-banned. It will hinder research in the UK.
- It will inevitably tie up police and border agency staff in less-than-useful work, preventing them from addressing more important issues. It is also likeley to be unenforceable — a similar bill in Ireland has led to very few convictions. Lord Paddick, former Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police was not a fan.
- It is not based in any scientific evidence of harm.
As a final thought, I cannot help but question the timing of this bill. There was some discussion in the Lords, thanks mainly to Baroness Hamwee and Lord Paddick, but with all attention on the Chancellor’s recent welfare reforms I can’t help but wonder if this will pass in the Commons with very little debate.
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