Opinion: Teresa May’s pipedream


The draft Psychoactive Substances Bill worries me.

Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.  Recent discussions of drug misuse generally do not look back far enough.  Every Voice reader already knows that prohibition does not work, mostly because of market forces, but it is sobering to read just how often over the centuries and in how many places that lesson has been learned the hard way.  Again and again the same sequence has recurred: moral panic, decisive action, free publicity for forbidden fruit, final result worse than before.  My favourite source of historical information is a 620-page report published in 1972 by the American Consumers Union entitled “Licit and Illicit Drugs” (large pdf).

Back in the 1970s I and some colleagues did research on chemotaxis – how a giant amoeba decides where to move.  We showed that an amoeba’s pursuit of happiness (food, warmth, etc) is fundamentally the same as in humans.  Deep down there is nothing special about the brain.  In all living creatures decision-making depends on much the same underlying chemistry, electric currents across membranes, and behavioural logic.  Complex behaviour can emerge from simple causes.

So how does the draft bill address this fundamental unity of all life?  It declares a substance psychoactive “if by stimulating or depressing the central nervous system it affects a person’s mental functioning or emotional state”.  Thinking of the central nervous system as a distinct organ (rather like a soul) panders to conservatives’ focus on moral choice rather than messy chance and will hit trouble from neural implants. A list of “exempted substances” contains all the usual suspects: medicines, alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, food.  The government took advice from an expert panel (heavy on vested interests, light on science) which discussed other countries’ struggles to create workable definitions, but seems to have rejected the best model on offer, from New Zealand.

Most knowledgeable scientists will share my worries.  The draft bill’s text does not acknowledge genetic variation among humans, the complexity of metabolic pathways, drug interactions, or ongoing research into brain function.  It seems not to recognise the simplicity and ubiquity of well-known mind-altering substances (such as lead, glutamate, or xenon) nor the complexity and uncertainty of some mixtures (such as alkaloids in chocolate, amines in cheese, flavours in wine, or pheromones in sweat).  Actually the most dangerous mind-bending substance in modern Britain is probably sugar.  It is even suspected that a parasite from cats harms the brain function of millions of people, including schizophrenics.

It is hard to predict exactly which substances will first make this bill look foolish, but to catch the “new generation of psychoactive drugs” but to “exclude legitimate substances” will require huge expense and bureaucracy.  Scientific research will be harmed, for example into autism and Alzheimer’s, repair of spinal damage, Parkinson’s Disease, or development of new antibiotics.

Freakonomics studied the incentives and motivations of crack cocaine dealers.  Someone should investigate why governments are addicted to failed policies.

* Anthony Durham retired after careers as a research scientist and computer software publisher and is a long-serving member of the Lib Dems, living in Greenwich

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  • I am very worried that they may soon invent psychoactive substances which may make people think like Teresa May. The Tories may even want to put these in the drinking water! 😉

  • Graham Martin-Royle 10th Jun '15 - 11:30am

    Prohibition never works, all it will do is make career criminals even richer.

  • Simon Gilbert 10th Jun '15 - 11:57am

    I hope the Lib Dems continue to be the most enlightened party on drugs.

  • Richard Wingfield 10th Jun '15 - 12:30pm

    Labour have announced their support for the Bill so, indeed, we are the most enlightened party on drugs (the Bill extends to Scotland and the SNP’s position isn’t known yet).

    As Anthony notes, the legislation, as drafted, is bad legislation, certainly. But I think it’s important not to overstate the case: despite the broad definition of “psychoactive substances” in clause 2 of the Bill, I think it likely that, in practice, the police and CPS will only go after the kinds of substances that the government already prohibits on a case-by-case basis under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. I don’t think there’ll be raids on florists or perfurmeries. That being said, I dislike broad legislation even if the intention is for it to be enforced only in narrow circumstances. Far better to have a tighter definition of “psychoactive substances”.

    Given that the broad policy behind the Bill has the support of Labour, what we as a party should do – in the Lords especially – is try to amend the most problematic, technical aspects of the Bill. One obvious amendment would be to amend clause 2 to define psychoactive substances as substances which “significantly” affect a person’s mental functioning or emotional state rather than just have any affect. The Irish legislation – which is the inspiration behind the UK’s Bill – uses the term “significantly” so as to limit the prohibition to substances which have a serious effect, rather than a minor or modest one. Such an amendment may find support in the Lords, particularly if backbenchers with a background in science, were vocal in calling for it.

  • “It is hard to predict exactly which substances will first make this bill look foolish”

    That is east it was Paper and Ink when it was first printed out. This is totally bonkers.

  • @Simon Gilbert:

    “I hope the Lib Dems continue to be the most enlightened party on drugs.”

    Most of us seek such enlightenment without the use of drugs! 😉

  • Richard Wingfield

    “But I think it’s important not to overstate the case”

    This bill is getting slated and rightly so. It would be hard to overstate the case, it is terrible on so many levels and it is not as if the Tories haven’t had ministers controlling the home office for 5 years to work out a better bill.

    It turns the traditional concept in E&W law on its head you should be free to do something unless it is prohibited not the European approach of the government allowing you. The Tories were so keen to complain about Europeans and their Human Rights court being so foreign and how we need “traditional” British rights, then to come up with something like this.

    “I think it likely that, in practice, the police and CPS will only go after the kinds of substances that the government already prohibits on a case-by-case basis under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971”

    How did that work out with all that ‘terrorism’ legislation?

  • Richard Underhill 10th Jun '15 - 2:57pm

    This thoughtful, researched and scientific article starts with the unfortunate statement that
    ” Every Voice reader already knows that prohibition does not work”
    but does not depend on it.
    A different intellectual discipline shows that statements containing words such as “every” “all” “none” are likely to be wrong, if only because they can be disproved with only one exception.
    Some published material is mainly read by journalists and/or the special advisors of political opponents.

    It would be helpful if Norman Baker could be persuaded to go into more detail about why a report on drugs caused a disagreement with the Home Secretary.
    Former MP Jeremy Browne said that “She knows her own mind”, but is that about good governance? or electability? or a mixture of the both?

  • Simon Gilbert 10th Jun '15 - 3:33pm

    @Tony Dawson

    ‘Most of us seek such enlightenment without the use of drugs! 😉’

    Fully agreed! To be clear to others (as I think you understood me anyway) the challenge is how to respond to something that may be harmful (and is harmful in many traditional recreational drugs) in a way that minimises harm to individuals as well as the wider society.
    The political response to something you don’t believe or agree with is perhaps a test of how Liberal one’s approach is.

    ‘Most of us seek such enlightenment without the use of alcohol’ would be the historical precedent.

  • Agree with all these statements. Surely though it’s time for the kill! If legislation is poorly drafted then there’s political mileage to be made over Conservative incompetence. We should skin this cat in two ways – beforehand by lambasting the tories over it then by using parliamentary process to amend it.

  • sally haynes-preece 11th Jun '15 - 5:17pm

    I am a pharmacist……and I know how fundamentally useless the current approach on drugs is. This bill will no doubt get into law and achieve nothing

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