Amid much confusion, the British Government has now delayed plans to impose a blanket ban on legal highs in the UK. The Psychoactive Substances Act, which was supposed to come into force on 6th April 2016, now won’t become law until at least May, while the government and law enforcement work out what exactly it is they’re trying to ban.
The law, which will criminalise currently legal “psychoactive substances”, was rushed through Parliament in January this year – but critics have long been arguing that defining what highs would fall foul of the ban is an almost impossible task, meaning the law would be unenforceable. Just last week it was confirmed that poppers would in fact remain legal, despite prior warnings that they’d be taken off shelves. Experts and ministers are still undecided on where the line should be drawn.
The use of legal highs has rocketed in the UK in recent years, as have the number of deaths related to their consumption. In 2013, there were 173 deaths from legal highs in England, Wales and Scotland – a figure that rose from 99 the year before, and campaigners argue it’s time for the state to take action.
Similar legislation was passed in Ireland in 2010, but over five years the results have been mixed. While many head shops and established websites disappeared overnight, whether usage has reduced remains unclear, official figures showing both increases and decreases.
What’s certain is that the purchase of these substances has been forced underground – which comes with a host of difficulties. By forcing the trade to become a black market any accountability is lost, as is the ability of the state to regulate supply and purity.
A recent report by drug reform charity Release argued that decriminalisation of possession of drugs in over 25 countries around the globe had proven beneficial for individuals, society and governments too.
“This delay comes as no surprise,” Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director of Release told Huck this morning. “The government has been repeatedly told by its own experts, the ACMD, that the legal definition of psychoactivity is unworkable, and Release has submitted a number of briefings stating that the definition cannot be established in a court of law.”
Niamh argues the Home Office has ignored all of these warnings.
“This is a sad indictment of where we are in the UK when it comes to drug policy, with the government seemingly hell bent on letting ideology trump evidence in their myopic pursuit of an all-out punitive approach to drugs,” she continued.
However, the Government still expects the legislation to be implemented “in the spring”, with Parliamentary rules dictating the earliest possible date would be 1st May.
In a written answer issued last week, Home Office Minister Karen Bradley said: “We need to ensure the readiness of all the activity necessary to enable the smooth implementation of the legislation across the UK and to support law enforcement in their ability to drive forward the legislation on commencement.”
The Act will bring in a blanket ban on the production, distribution, sale and supply of “designer drugs”, with sellers facing up to seven years in prison.
When asked why the delay had occurred, a Home Office spokesperson told Huck: “In line with the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the Government is in the final stages of putting in place a programme of testing to demonstrate a substance’s psychoactivity prior to commencement of the Act.”