As of this week the Psychoactive Substances Act came into effect in the UK, a long-awaited and much-disputed piece of legislation that will attempt to transform the existing drug marketplace. The act will make it an offence to supply any substance that can produce a psychoactive effect (of course with the exception of the likes of alcohol and caffeine), aiming to specifically target new psychoactive substances (NPS) or ‘legal highs’, which have thus far evaded the Misuse of Drugs Act.
But just what are New Psychoactive Substances, and why has it been so difficult to enforce laws against their supply and use?
NPS are synthetic chemical substances created to mimic the effects of existing illegal substances, such as cannabis or ecstasy. These drugs are often designed in such a way that they are sufficiently chemically similar to an illicit drug to cause the desired psychoactive effects, but adequately different to bypass the existing legislation. The legislation currently controlling illicit substances in the UK is specific in the substances under regulation, meaning any slight changes to the chemical structure of an illicit drug can technically render the drug uncontrolled and legal to supply or use.
New psychoactive substances are typically sold as powders, pills or smoking mixtures (somewhat resembling cannabis). You may have heard these drugs referred to as “legal highs”, rather inaccurately indicating they are legal and even safe to use. But a brief internet search will pull up an array of news pieces highlighting unexpected illnesses and deaths brought on by the use of these drugs. The primary danger surrounding the use of new psychoactive substances is the lack of research involving these substances, exacerbated by the ever-changing and difficult-to-monitor composition of the drugs. In addition to this, as NPS are specifically sold as being unsuitable for human consumption, thus avoiding certain regulations, the user cannot be confident in exactly what they are buying. Although many legal highs do offer a list of ingredients on the packaging, the highly unregulated nature of this market casts doubt on the accuracy of such information. Forensic analysis of NPSs has shown that they may contain unexpected constituents and even quantities of illicit drugs.
The NPS market has boomed in recent years, with new drugs hitting the streets faster than scientists can even identify them. They have thus far been widely available online and in head shops (establishments openly selling paraphernalia for the use of cannabis and other drugs), typically advertised as bath salts or plant food. Unfortunately the ever-changing variety of ‘legal highs’ available has presented forensic scientists with a particular challenge. The analysis of more typical drugs is relatively straightforward, with the analyst armed with well-trialled presumptive tests, analytical methods and libraries for comparison. However as new psychoactive substances are developed with modified chemical structures, they may not react with presumptive tests and library matching may prove useless without a comparison.
The premise of the act has come under great scrutiny, with opponents asserting the Act will blindly ban harmless substances (not true) or that it will be utterly unenforceable (somewhat true). A similar piece of legislation has been instigated in the Republic of Ireland, but with little success, as highlighted by the extremely low number of successful prosecutions under the law. In fact, the implementation of this legislation in Ireland was actually followed by an increase in NPS use amongst teenagers from 16% to 22%. That is not to say the legislation was the cause of this increase, but it is an interesting point nonetheless.
Despite the criticism and uncertainty, the Psychoactive Substances Act will attempt to curb the supply of psychoactive substances and protect potential users of these drugs. Although it will not be an offense to possess new psychoactive substances for personal use, it will be a criminal act to supply such substances. It will be inconceivable to halt the online sale of psychoactive substances, but it will be possible to prevent head shops, of which there are hundreds around the UK, from blatantly advertising and selling these drugs. Although the Psychoactive Substances Act promises to be a difficult piece of legislation to enforce, if at the very least it prevents new psychoactive substances from being freely advertised as a normal and ‘safe’ alternative to drugs, a great improvement will be made. But only time will tell if this new piece of legislation will really reduce the use of these no longer legal highs.
Home Office.Trade in so-called ‘legal highs’ now illegal. [online] Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/trade-in-so-called-legal-highs-now-illegal
New Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 [online] Available: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2016/2/contents/enacted