The Psychoactive Substances Bill is a conceptual mess – even the police say so

This blog was written by Izzy Taylor

The government’s controversial Psychoactive Substances Bill has been postponed indefinitely, apparently due to concerns from the police that it would be unenforceable as law. This may be the first perspicuous thinking on the issue since the bill was introduced in July of last year.

In a briefing published by Transform and Release when the bill was in its initial stages, the legally problematic definition of “psychoactive substance” was highlighted as a flaw that needed attention. This seems to have come to a head now, just one week prior to its becoming law (it would have come into force on 6th April).

Our Head of External Affairs, Danny Kushlick, was interviewed on the Today programme yesterday morning (listen here, from around 1hr 14 mins). He pointed out that the emergence of new psychoactive substances (NPS) – which is, after all, what the bill was intended to address – is a direct result of the prohibition of other, more “traditional” drugs. So the government has effectively chosen to tackle a problem caused by banning drugs by banning more drugs. 

Danny also discussed the bill on the Victoria Derbyshire programme on BBC 2. Click the screenshot below to watch the interview on iPlayer (the discussion starts at 48:50).

The Guardian writes that in Ireland, where a comparable piece of legislation was introduced in 2010, the police have failed to prosecute many people because of the difficulties involved in establishing whether any given substance is, in fact, psychoactive.

Where countries have attempted this kind of law, neither the use of NPS, nor the harms caused by them, has declined. We discussed this in a critique of the Psychoactive Substances Bill published on our blog last year.

In a stinging article published by Volteface, Deej Sullivan hopes that if the reason for the bill’s postponement is that the police themselves feel it’s unenforceable, then perhaps it will eventually be dropped.

Ian Dunt on writes about how the exclusion of poppers from the bill has led to further complications in the definition of psychoactive, making the eventual enforcement of this bill even more unlikely:

“So now substances not only need to stimulate or depress the central nervous system, they must do so ‘directly’. It’s not entirely clear what this means, but in the case of poppers, the fact it affects the blood vessels first, rather than the brain, seems to be the crucial element.”

To round up: the bill is not currently going ahead. The very earliest it could become law is 1st May, but it could simply remain in the long grass forever. The government may – finally, rightfully – be too embarrassed to introduce legislation that is up there with some of the worst of all time.