15 Jun The march of prohibition faces its first real hurdle

It’s always been a given in British politics: Any new law designed to crack down on drug ‘abuse’ is passed almost without debate, it’s pretty a safe bet that no-one would ever dare challenge such moral high ground proposals. Until now.

From a drug law reformers point of view it’s been really encouraging to see the almost universal derision poured onto the new ‘psychoactive Substances Bill’, the proposal to ban the sale of ‘New psychoactive substances’ (NPS), the so called ‘legal highs’, many of which are actually already illegal, not that that has been a run away success. A huge can of very fat juicy worms has been opened, long overdue questions are being asked and some never dared to be spoken observations made.

Let’s make something clear from the start from the point of view of CLEAR. The whole issue of NPS has come about for one reason and one reason only; because of the prohibition of the drugs millions of people want to use. NPS were promoted with great success as legal alternatives to the banned drugs, some headshops even touting them as a form of “Harm reduction” in the early days because it kept users away from the illegal trade, although to be frank that was nothing short of cynical marketing. At the very least the harm potential from these new drugs is unknown for the simple reason they are new drugs and no-one has ever taken them before. There is absolutely no reason to think they may be safer than what I suppose we can now call the ‘established psychoactive substances’. In fact there is a growing body of evidence that some of them at least are far more dangerous. This is especially true for the fake cannabis products known as ‘Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists” (SCRAs).


CLEAR’s advice about SCRAs is simple – do not take them, at all, ever. They are not cannabis, they have nothing in common with cannabis and they are vastly more dangerous than cannabis.

So at first sight it would seem to make sense to ban the sale of NPS as the bill is proposing and if it weren’t for the reality of the drugs situation in this country, it might have done. The expression long used to answer the question as to why it isn’t a good idea is there is “no reason to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted”. In other words these chemicals are out there now, they are cheap, easily available via the internet and there is a massive and deeply embedded dealer network well established in this country ready and willing to put the stuff out. The problem really comes in the way the black market trade might be putting them out.

The aim of enforcement against the dealer network is to disrupt the supply with the expectation of reducing the potency of street drugs. Now in the simplistic way prohibition supporters think, this is easy. By disrupting the supply you increase the contamination of the street drugs so strength will go down and fear of unknown contamination will deter use, the result being demand and therefore harm will be cut. Now it doesn’t take much thinking to understand why this logic is flawed because it assumes the substances used to cut the drugs with are both inactive and safer than the actual drugs. This of course is no longer true because NPS will make very effective cutting agents.

We have already seen an example of what might happen with the dance drug ecstasy, which should of course be MDMA. Pure MDMA is not harmless, but it is pretty safe, indeed one of the safest of the recreational drugs.

Drug Harms

Ranking of established psychoactive drug harms (Nutt et al)

However pills containing an entirely different substance PMA or PMMA have been passed off as ecstasy and people have died as a result. This is prohibition in action and it’s a problem that might be about to get a lot worse.

An example of what might happen seen a steady rise in deaths over recent years caused by drugs sold as ecstasy pills which contain far more dangerous drugs than MDMA. PMA and PMMA have proven fatal in quite a few instances, but that’s how prohibition works, its moonshine and bathtub gin all over again.

What, in all honestly, does anyone expect to happen once the black market trade becomes the principle outlet for NPS ecstasy like drugs?

Of course, it doesn’t stop with ‘white powder’ drugs. How long before cannabis gets pumped up with SCRA padding to give weak herbal cannabis a boost? Of course we know cannabis can be contaminated, we’ve seen “grit weed” where microscopic glass beads were sprayed onto herbal cannabis, we know from very real experience that the criminal black market can and will do things like this. Black market ‘street’ supply of cannabis could be about to become truly dangerous.

One obvious use for NPS SCRA chemicals is to beef up weak cannabis.

It’s not just the chance of dying from cannabis sprayed or otherwise mixed with NPS SCRAs, but very real psychological harm they can cause which is far in excess of anything cannabis can do, worse even than the worst claims of the Daily Mail for their ‘deadly skunk’. It is no overstatement to say that millions of cannabis consumers could be at risk of serious harm.

There is no chance of preventing these substances being available simply by banning their sale in headshops. At least while being sold though legal outlets we can find out what is actually being sold, driving it underground will simply close off any opportunity to monitor the situation.

As a report from The Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University explains:

In Ireland, which has its own Psychoactive Substances Act that bans all NPS, use reported by young people (aged 16-24) is the highest in the EU, and has increased since the 2010 ban. In Poland, a similar ban was temporally followed by a rapid decrease in the number of ‘legal-high related poisonings’ reported by medical services, suggesting policy success. However, three years after the ban the number of poisonings reports had increased above pre-ban levels. Polish officials have suggested that this is partly due to the continued availability of NPS through illegal and international Internet markets.

We do now face a very serious problem. NPS are nasty substances, they should not be on sale in brightly coloured packaging with druggy type names with “not for human consumption” written in small type on the back and sold by headshops that don’t have a clue about what they are selling. But it will be much worse when they turn up as contamination dressed up as the established psychoactive substances.

Something drastic does need to be done, but not this pathetic half baked prohibition inspired kneejerk PS bill nonsense.

It is vital that if this bill goes ahead a great deal of monitoring is done to ensure the harm they cause does not increase. Quite how they could do that is anyone’s guess and the best we can probably hope for a slow realisation of a problem some years down the line.

The bill is worded in such a way as to ban virtually everything. It defines psychoactive substances as:

… 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; and references to a substance’s psychoactive effects are to be read accordingly.

A far better definition of what they mean by ‘psychoactive substance’ is needed, but how you apply a single definition to cover everything from an LSD like substance to something mimicking cocaine or heroin is going to be tricky if you don’t want to also ban perfumes with aphrodisiac properties.

Bare in mind the the government’s own appointed experts, the ACMD, did not propose this bill and were not formally consulted in its drafting and the reason for the mess becomes easier to understand.

Drugs law in this country has always been based, albeit on weak evidence, on the claimed risks posed by drugs. Hence we have (supposedly) increased penalties for the more harmful substances; the A,B,C classification for prohibited drugs. This new bill doesn’t make possession of NPS an offence, which is good, but that is hardly consistent with the rest of the drugs policy which does criminalise possession for substances, even those acknowledged to be safer than NPS. Where is the consistency in criminalising cannabis possession but not SCRA possession?

As LibDem lord Brian Paddick told the House of Lords last week the “dangers in the bill as drafted are to make the drug laws even more of a laughing stock than they are currently.” Indeed, it’s a right dog’s dinner.

The PS bill has exposed a whole host of real problems and has hopefully started a long overdue debate. Already a raft of amendments have been proposed by the House of Lords which includes proposals for monitoring the situation

(1) The Secretary of State must, following commencement of this Act, conduct an annual impact assessment of this Act, including deaths and other harms caused by all controlled substances and banned substances.

(2) If it is deemed that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 or this Act (or both) has contributed to increased health and social harms, the government shall bring forward proposals for reform.

As well as amendments to try to make sense of the definition of psycho active substance.

It seems likely that when this bill eventually makes it into law, as it probably will, it will look very different to the half baked proposal we’ve seen so far, but however it’s refined, it will still fail to solve the real problems.

So what is the real solution? There is one, but the government isn’t going to like it.

These substances have come into being because the established psychoactive substances are banned, they are a classic prohibition response. No-one really wants to buy SCRAs, certainly no-one wants PMMA instead of Ecstasy. The answer is to address the cause of the problem, not (yet another) symptom. NPS is just another example to add to the ever lengthening list of ‘unintended consequences’ of the prohibition drugs policy. In the UK the biggest NPS sales are for SCRA fake cannabis. Solve that one by letting people have the real thing.

Cannabis law reform has never been so important.