The UK's legal high ban: raising more problems than solutions?

The UK's legal high ban: raising more problems than solutions?
By Sarah Taylor
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Spice, Black Mamba, Insane: all are names given to New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), or ‘legal highs,’ and all are banned in the UK from today (May…


Spice, Black Mamba, Insane: all are names given to New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), or ‘legal highs,’ and all are banned in the UK from today (May 26).

But the legislation is vague, critics say, and fears are rife that the problem will simply be pushed underground.

The Psychoactive Substances Act

The Psychoactive Substances Act has come into force, with offenders facing up to seven years behind bars if found to have broken the law.

In this instance, defines law-breaking as:
“The blanket ban on the sale, supply, importation and exportation of the dangerous drugs will apply across the UK whenever they are intended for human consumption.”

Alcohol, caffeine, medicines, food and tobacco have all been explicitly exempt from the legislation.

“Those involved in the supply, production, possession with intent to supply and importation or exportation of a psychoactive substance now face a prison sentence of up to 7 years.”

Possession by individuals is not a criminal offence, unless they are in prison.

In December, 2015, HM Inspectorate of Prisons found that NPS were, at that point, “the most serious threat to the safety and security of the prison system.”

What are legal highs?

Simply put, NPS are substances designed to mimic the ‘highs’ of illegal drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy and speed. But the molecules in legal highs have been modified to sidestep previous anti-drug laws.

The most popular of the NPS are synthetic cannabinoids. At as little as £10 (around 13 euros) per 1g packet, they may be cheap, but they can also be potent.

Before the Psychoactive Substances Act came into effect, legal highs could be bought over the counter in some of the UK’s 250 ‘head shops,’ online and in some convenience stores and petrol stations.

‘Worse than heroin’

Legal highs couldn’t be sold for human consumption, but they could be sold for other uses; for example, as bath salts, or plant food.

Superintendent Richard Jackson works on Newcastle police force’s NPS Task Force. When asked about fears users will now be drawn to street dealers, who may hook them onto other substances such as cocaine or heroin, he responded:
“Legal highs are far worse, far more addictive.”

Users of legal highs say side effects include paranoid delusions, sudden collapses and regular fitting.

According to the Office for National Statistics, “between 2004 and 2013, there were 76 deaths involving legal highs in England and Wales.”

These are, specifically, cases where the death certificate mentions a legal high.

Will the Psychoactive Substances Act impact on the consumption of legal highs?

Karen Bradley, the Minister for Preventing Abuse, Exploitation and Crime appeared optimistic about the new law:

“The Psychoactive Substances Act sends a clear message – these drugs are not legal, they are not safe and we will not allow them to be sold in this country,” she wrote on


While the government admits that “legislation alone is not the silver bullet,” it does claim to have devised:

“A world-leading testing programme to determine whether a substance is capable of having a psychoactive effect will help provide evidence to support enforcement action.”

Yet, UK neighbour Ireland, which brought in a similar ban on legal highs in 2010, has only prosecuted a handful of people under the legislation. What’s more, the European Commission reports that from just after the ban came into effect, in 2011, through to 2014, the country had Europe’s second-largest increase in legal high use among 15-24 year-olds.

By 2013 in Britain, reports suggest, at least 670,000 15-24 year-olds had tried an NPS at least once.

Critics of the new law, including health professionals, politicians and law enforcement officials claim the Psychoactive Substances Act will result in more criminal offences and more deaths.


‘Nicely written, but vague’

The New Scientist has labeled the Act “one of the stupidest, most dangerous and unscientific pieces of drugs legislation ever conceived.”

Experts, such as Rudi Fortson QC, a barrister who has specialised in NPS issues told the Independent that while a blanket ban may appear to solve the problem on the surface of things, in practice it won’t be so simple.

Criminal convictions are expected to be difficult to secure.

For example, any drug that is not already listed in the UK’s index of Certified Drug Reference Standards would have to be tested before being accepted in a criminal court as “producing a psychoactive effect.”

Atholl Johnson, a clinical pharmacology professor at Queen Mary University of London dubbed the bill “unworkable” and “nicely written, but vague.”


Adele Wallace, whose 17-year-old son Adam Owens died after taking legal highs summed up the problem:

“If they can’t identify it’s a definite psychoactive substance, how can you prosecute?”

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