In May 2016, the legislative abomination spawned by Home Secretary Theresa May, the Psychoactive Substances Act, finally came into effect.
The Act was supposedly created to combat the rise of “legal highs”. Laboratories design and manufacture new substances, intended for use in research, which can often have similar effects to existing drugs: 1P-LSD, for example, has similar hallucinogenic effects to the Class A drug LSD. However, since it is a different substance, it was legal to be produce, sell, and possess.
Theresa May’s solution was to introduce this new legislation, making the production, sale, import or export of “psychoactive substances” a criminal offence. The Psychoactive Substances Act doesn’t ban a list of substances – it bans every psychoactive substance, which it vaguely defines as a substance which affects the brain, with a few specific exemptions. These exemptions include alcohol (responsible for 8000 deaths per year in the UK) and nicotine (tobacco is responsible for 100,000 deaths per year). Legal highs, on the other hand, were responsible for about 60 deaths in England and Wales in 2013.
“For the purposes of this Act 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”
The problems with this legislation are vast. Banning the production of substances which affect the brain will have a huge impact on psychiatric medicine – we’re already 60 years behind where we should be due to the draconian criminalisation of MDMA, psychedelics, and other drugs with unprecedented potential for treating mental illness. A blanket ban is near impossible to enforce – nobody really knows what a “psychoactive substance” is, due to the ambiguity of the definition – and bans dozens, if not hundreds, of safe, useful substances, many of which don’t even exist yet.
These problems are insignificant, though, compared to the glaring flaw that should have stopped this legislation in its tracks: it doesn’t work.
Prohibition has always been controversial. We’ve been trying to prohibit various drugs for the last half a century, and yet mortality rates in 2014 were the highest ever recorded. An overwhelming amount of recent research, and real-world examples such as Portugal and the Czech Republic, where possession of all drugs were decriminalised, has demonstrated categorically that banning substances leads to more addiction, more deaths, more violent and organised crime, and actually has little to no effect on how many people use these drugs.
But we don’t even need to look as far as Portugal. Ireland, in 2010, introduced their own Psychoactive Substances Act, which the British act is based upon. Deaths from the newly banned substances increased by 200% between 2009 and 2013. The number of people using them also increased dramatically: from 16% in 2011 to 22% in 2014 – Ireland now has the highest proportion of psychoactive substance users in the EU, by a significant margin. While the banning of legal highs shut down the shops selling them, it also created a thriving black market, where the illegal suppliers can’t be held accountable and will often mix their drugs with other substances, such as crushed glass or rat poison, to make more money.
We have already seen this exact piece of legislation implemented. We have seen that it increased crime, addiction, consumption, and related deaths.
The result is counter-intuitive. It’s entirely reasonable to expect that banning substances should reduce the number of people using them, and it’s also reasonable to want to protect the people around us. But after 50 years, the results are clear: it doesn’t work. It’s time to stop playing politics, stop burying our heads in the sand, and start looking for a new approach.