The Ban on Everything

“Look at that, a £100,000 in the pocket of the filth that sells it. A big yellow death bullet in the head of some poor user – or custard gannet as the dealers call them.” – Sir David Amess MP, Chair of the Psychoactive Substances Bill Committee*

Wave goodbye to incense and scented candles, a new bill banning “psychoactive substances” currently inching its way through Parliament could soon make it illegal to produce, supply or trade any substance that, quote, “affects [a] person’s mental functioning or emotional state.”

Sponsored by Theresa May and Lord Bates, the poorly-worded bill comes in response to public upset following a string of deaths linked to so-called “legal highs.” 

The National Health Service (NHS) describes legal highs as “substances that have similar effects to illegal drugs like cocaine or cannabis.” 

Previous attempts to ban the sale of legal highs have proven ineffective, partly because of “loopholes” in the law that allow for the creation of new legal compounds by making small structural changes to an illegal chemical.

The Psychoactive Substances Bill sidesteps this problem by placing a blanket ban on any substance which:

(a) is capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it, and
(b) is not an exempted substance (see section 3).

The scope of the bill could hardly be broader, prohibiting any substance not included on an approved list of exemptions. If passed, it would become a criminal offence to spray perfume or hang an air freshener.

In a letter to the Home Secretary in August, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) took issue with the government’s broad definition of “psychoactivity,” which fails to differentiate legal highs from items like nutmeg, incense or flowers, all of which are substances with a psychoactive effect.

• The scope of this definition is unnecessarily broad, with the potential for unintended consequences.

• An impossible list of exemptions will be needed. No matter how carefully a list of ‘exemptions’ is drawn, the possibility that relatively harmless substances may be included is ever present.

• A disproportionate weight to the importance of psychoactive ‘natural’ or ‘herbal’ materials is given in this definition. These materials are relatively few in number by comparison with the hundreds of NPS entering Europe and the UK. 

• Psychoactivity cannot be definitively proven.  

The government’s slippery grasp of the issue was made apparent during a recent debate in the House of Commons, where ministers were unable to agree on a working definition. 

The Right Honourable Norman Lamb provided the voice of sanity:

“Is it not extraordinary that at this point of our consideration of a Bill there is such concern about the possible implications of a definition? The view of many is that it is impossible to provide a scientifically or legally meaningful definition of a psychoactive substance. The definition is very broad. At least in principle, it could cover thousands of plants, spices, herbal remedies and over-the-counter medicines.”

With rational inquiry all but extinguished, the Psychoactive Substances Bill has been allowed to pass through Parliament unchecked. If nothing else, it provides a winning strategy for the war on drugs: ban everything.

*David Amess made this statement on the “Drugs” episode of the spoof current affairs television programme Brass Eye, in which he was fooled into filming an elaborate warning against the dangers of fictional Eastern European drug “cake.”

He was appointed chair of the Psychoactive Substances Bill Committee in October.


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