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The Psychoactive Substances Act: What does it all mean?


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New legislation banning legal highs is coming into force this week, but the public (along with some professionals responsible for the legislation, it seems) are a bit unsure about what it all means. Here are a few facts regarding the legislation, that'll hopefully clear a few things up:

What is the new legislation?

Detail of a Police officer
(Joe Giddens/PA)
The Psychoactive Substances Act will introduce a blanket ban on the production, distribution, sale and supply of legal highs that are intended for human consumption. Pretty simple so far (or so you might think.)

When does it come into force?

The ban will come into force on May 26th, over a month later than intended. It was supposed to come into force in early April, but the start date was postponed as ministers said they needed to “ensure the readiness of all the activity necessary to enable the smooth implementation.” 

What are the penalties?

A police officer
(Joe Giddens/PA)
Tough sentences of up to seven years will be introduced for offenders and new powers will be granted to police, who will now be able to shut down stores selling drug paraphernalia (known as ‘headshops’) and online dealers in the UK. The police will also have powers to seize and destroy psychoactive substances, as well as carry out searches of people, premises and vehicles. If an officer happens to find a person in possession of a psychoactive substance in a custodial institution, that person could now face a prison sentence of up to two years.

What is classed as psychoactive?

It is this question that has caused the most confusion, with many experts disagreeing on what substances can be classified as psychoactive, as there are exemptions. They are defined in the Act as a substance, intended for human consumption, that is “capable of producing a psychoactive effect”.

What are the exemptions?

A pile of cigarettes
(Chris Radburn/PA)
The law excludes “legitimate substances” such as food, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and medical products. An exemption clause has also been added to other healthcare activities and scientific research; it is detailed that so long as the people who engage in activities using such substances have a legitimate need to do so, that's OK.

What about poppers?

The Government announced in March that poppers would not be included in the ban because they are not a “psychoactive” substance. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) told the Home Office said that poppers (a chemical group of alkyl nitrites) produced “peripheral effects” on the brain, as opposed to psychoactive effects; they are therefore not affected by the ban.

Will the ban work?

A person smoking a roll up joint
(Andy Butterton/PA)
Many professionals and ministers sit on either side of the fence. Some say the ban will put users off, but many experts have cast doubt over these claims. The EU Drug Markets Report, released by the European Monitoring for Drugs and Drug Addiction in April, concluded that the constant flood of new legal highs that enter the market all the time makes controlling them all “unfeasible”, and said there were “no signs of a slowdown” in the development of new psychoactive substances.

Although the Act will come into effect at the end of the week, it remains to be seen just how effective it will be.

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