Psychoactive Substances Act: Killing people for votes


In May 2016, the legislative abomination spawned by Home Secretary Theresa May, the Psychoactive Substances Act, finally came into effect.

The Act was supposedly created to combat the rise of “legal highs”. Laboratories design and manufacture new substances, intended for use in research, which can often have similar effects to existing drugs: 1P-LSD, for example, has similar hallucinogenic effects to the Class A drug LSD. However, since it is a different substance, it was legal to be produce, sell, and possess.

Theresa May’s solution was to introduce this new legislation, making the production, sale, import or export of “psychoactive substances” a criminal offence. The Psychoactive Substances Act doesn’t ban a list of substances – it bans every psychoactive substance, which it vaguely defines as a substance which affects the brain, with a few specific exemptions. These exemptions include alcohol (responsible for 8000 deaths per year in the UK) and nicotine (tobacco is responsible for 100,000 deaths per year). Legal highs, on the other hand, were responsible for about 60 deaths in England and Wales in 2013.

For the purposes of this Act a substance produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state

The problems with this legislation are vast. Banning the production of substances which affect the brain will have a huge impact on psychiatric medicine – we’re already 60 years behind where we should be due to the draconian criminalisation of MDMA, psychedelics, and other drugs with unprecedented potential for treating mental illness. A blanket ban is near impossible to enforce – nobody really knows what a “psychoactive substance” is, due to the ambiguity of the definition – and bans dozens, if not hundreds, of safe, useful substances, many of which don’t even exist yet.

These problems are insignificant, though, compared to the glaring flaw that should have stopped this legislation in its tracks: it doesn’t work.

Prohibition has always been controversial. We’ve been trying to prohibit various drugs for the last half a century, and yet mortality rates in 2014 were the highest ever recorded. An overwhelming amount of recent research, and real-world examples such as Portugal and the Czech Republic, where possession of all drugs were decriminalised, has demonstrated categorically that banning substances leads to more addiction, more deaths, more violent and organised crime, and actually has little to no effect on how many people use these drugs.

But we don’t even need to look as far as Portugal. Ireland, in 2010, introduced their own Psychoactive Substances Act, which the British act is based upon. Deaths from the newly banned substances increased by 200% between 2009 and 2013. The number of people using them also increased drastically: from 16% in 2011 to 22% in 2014 – Ireland now has the highest proportion of psychoactive substance users in the EU, by a significant margin. While the banning of legal highs shut down the shops selling them, it also created a thriving black market, where the illegal suppliers can’t be held accountable and will often mix their drugs with other substances, such as crushed glass or rat poison, to make more money.

* Jordan Lees is a Liberal Democrat member

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  • Jordan Lees 11th Jul '16 - 4:20pm

    I wrote this a while ago, before there was even a threat of May becoming our PM. I think it’s worth reflecting on some of the other things she’s done.

    During the coalition government, she attempted to alter a scientific report which found the war on drugs to be ineffective (1).

    She is also responsible for the Investigatory Powers Bill – another piece of legislation which is simply not fit for purpose, but also compromises our fundamental liberties and risks our online security. (2)

    The current government have introduced a clause to government research contracts to prevent researchers for lobbying for policy change based on their findings. (3)

    Theresa May is vehemently anti-science, to the point where she will try to control scientific discourse to support her policy – surely that’s the wrong way round?




  • The substances being sold as legal highs aren’t safe, they have no positive benefits and the people taking them are by and large addicts. the idea that legal high shops were in anyway held accountable for what they sold is laughable.

    why not watch this and see people shooting up, spending £600 week and the people selling it saying they wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole, as they have seen what it does to people.

  • Gosh you make her sound terrible, I am sure she is not.

  • Laurence Cox 11th Jul '16 - 9:15pm

    The use of statistics in this article is poor. Just because there are 8000 alcohol-related and 100,000 tobacco-related deaths every year and only 60 legal high-related deaths does not mean that legal highs are much safer. It all depends how many people are using them and how often they using them. We also need to remember that many of the alcohol- and tobacco-related deaths are the result of long-term exposure for which there is no data at all for the legal highs.

    Putting a label “Not for human consumption” on legal high packaging does not absolve the manufacturer of the product from the consequences of its use. The labs making these new drugs have no interest in checking whether they have side-effects; as long as they show some psychoactive effect. Even allowing their sale sends the message to some people that these ‘legal highs’ are somehow ‘safe’ even though none have been anywhere near the clinical trials that are essential for regular drugs, both prescription and non-prescription.

  • Caractus your argument is basically “It’s bad – so we must ban it”. Of course if this logic worked then nobody would die of drugs, we wouldn’t spend millions incarcerating people for a personal choice and there would be no addicts.
    The legal highs was a purely emotive argument (a bit like the Leave argument) based upon a false assumption that making criminals rather than patients and consumers of drug users would “solve” the issue.
    Of course in reality the war on drugs has been unmitigated disaster which ruins lives. Its based on a false understanding of addiction which sees it in a purely chemical context, ignoring psychological and social causes for addiction.
    When you are unable to quit your drug of choice, cutting off a cheap and legal source for said drug will inevitably lead to that individual at the mercy of a dealer peddling more expensive and less safe version of the drug of choice. This of course means the user is more likely to commit crimes to pay for a drug they are more likely to die using. This is frankly crazy.

  • Caracatus,

    As I already stated, there’s no list of banned substances. The substances banned by this aren’t just the things being sold in legal highs shops, and they aren’t just legal highs. Legal highs are a tiny fraction of what’s been banned, and many substances in future will be illegal as soon as they’re developed for no reason whatsoever.

    Of course legal highs shops are held accountable. Do you think they can get away with adding white heroin or rat poison to their products to make more money? No, they can’t. Illegal dealers can and frequently do.


    No, but it means they’re much less of a problem than alcohol or tobacco. Why is it a problem when 60 people per year die, but it’s not a problem when 100,000 die?

    But all of this is irrelevant, because nobody seems to have understood that this legislation has been tried and it made the problem worse.

  • Rightsaidfredfan 12th Jul '16 - 7:52am


    From a liberals point of view, Teresa May is pretty terrible, but from a regressive left wing point of view she is a women and her gender is more important than what she will actually do in office. I suspect many in this party will love her.

  • Jordan Lees 12th Jul '16 - 9:15am

    Caracatus, I’ve never taken any. Like I said, most haven’t even been created yet. I never suggested that synthetic cannabis is preferable, you seem to be making things up.

    There are controls on what they sell. You can’t sell one item that’s actually something else. You can’t sell synthetic cannabis but add other substances.

    Again, it’s irrelevant, because you haven’t commented on the Irish act which did exactly the same thing and increased mortality and consumption. If they’re that dangerous, why do you want to do something that makes more people use them?

  • Jordan Lees 12th Jul '16 - 9:51am

    It’s a concern because it’s an issue with a very clear solution, and yet we waste billions of pounds criminalising people, preventing them from getting the help they need for a health problem, ultimately achieving the exact opposite of what we’re meant to be achieving, trying the same thing for decades because some clueless people ignore what’s happening in the real world.

    They can sell rat poison. They can’t sell rat poison labelled as synthetic cannabis. A shop can’t sell you one thing while telling you it’s another, this isn’t a novel concept that only applies to legal highs. Illegal dealers can and will.

    There’s a consensus among medical researchers right now that our current approach to drugs is wrong. You seem to know better, but you can’t explain how and instead resort to throwing round accusations.

  • Irish act which did exactly the same thing and increased mortality and consumption

    Is there any actual evidence of a causal link?

  • preventing them from getting the help they need for a health problem

    There is no ‘health problem’. People take drugs because they like the way the drugs make them feel. That’s all there is to it.

  • Banning the production of substances which affect the brain will have a huge impact on psychiatric medicine – we’re already 60 years behind where we should be due to the draconian criminalisation of MDMA, psychedelics, and other drugs

    Don’t see the rationale for this statement, because the PS Act, has health care and medical research exemptions.

    There is an interesting article here about the Act and the guidance that has been released to the police and courts:

    Basically, whilst there are (major) issues with this Act and its definition of what a psychoactive substance is and thus is covered by the provisions of this Act, this is going to be one of those Acts where the guidance gives clarity to how the Act should be interpreted and enforced. Hence as is traditional under UK law, the police and courts are going to have to exercise their judgement.

  • Jordan Lees 13th Jul '16 - 8:43pm

    Dav, if you can ever simplify something enough to say “that’s all there is to it”, there’s probably a hell of a lot more to it. Drug addiction, particularly with alcohol, has been STRONGLY linked with genetic factors. It’s also been linked with childhood abuse. Drug addiction absolutely is a health issue. Susceptibility depends on a number of factors.

    It’s also ludicrous to simplify it to people taking drugs because “they like the way it makes them feel”. People take drugs to cope with past trauma, to cope with mental (or physical) illness, etc. Demonising and criminalising these people is absolutely disgusting, and the people who would throw someone in prison for what they choose to do to their bodies to cope with who knows what, are disgusting.

    There’s no evidence of a causal link, but the correlation is very clear. If we’re going to put people in prison, we should have some evidence that it works. Everything we have, however little that may be, shows the exact opposite.


    There were amendments made to protect medical research, but the law itself is wide open to interpretation and has the potential for abuse. While it does allow for medical research, it could complicate things, because any research with psychoactive substances now requires approval from an ethics board.

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