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New Psychoactive Substances Ban Won't Even Achieve Its Aims

28/05/2015 19:48 BST | Updated 28/05/2016 10:59 BST

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The UK government this week announced its plans to introduce a blanket ban on all new psychoactive substances (NPSs as they're known), in a move that follows in the steps of Ireland's ban in 2010. Following the recent spate of hospitalisations and deaths from one such substance, 'Spice', this may seem like the logical step, especially for a government that proscribes to the the idea that prohibition is the preferred way to tackle drug use, rather than regulation of substances that have been shown to have a low and acceptable level of toxicity. (The overwhelming evidence indicates that prohibition is not the best way to deal with drug use, but that is an argument for another day.)

However, the proposed bill will have much deeper effect than simply adding a few more names to the list of already banned substances. In particular, it could lead to some wholly unintended consequences, whilst failing to solve many of the issues surrounding NPSs in the first place. The bill plans to ban the supply, export/import, production and possession with intent to supply of all psychoactive substances made for human consumption, except those on a explicit 'exempt' list, which will include alcohol, tobacco, food and pharmaceuticals and already controlled drugs, which will still be subject to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

What this potentially means for a whole range of products and substances is not presently clear, but importantly, this is the least effective possible way of curbing the public health harms of NPSs. To understand why, consider what NPSs are and why people take them. NPSs are developed by chemists to elicit a similar effect to controlled drugs, but just different enough chemically to currently be classed as legal. They are generally untested, and so their health risks are completely unknown. Some may be safer than currently used controlled substances, but most are not. For instance, synthetic cannabinoids try to mimic cannabis' effects, but contrary to cannabis, which is relatively safe and has a long history of minimal harms, they have been associated with a high incidence of seizures and even deaths.

So why do people take these more dangerous, untested, substances? The most important reasons are that they are legal, so there is no danger of a criminal record, and they are generally not detected in drug tests, making them popular among professionals and those in prison - often synthetic cannabinoids barely even smell, something many a teenager will see the immediate appeal of, having been caught smelling of weed by their parents one too many times. Why won't the new ban help? Importantly, possession of NPSs will still be legal under the proposed bill, and consequently most of the advantages NPSs hold over controlled drugs will continue to exist for the end user. The trade will simply be pushed underground, with all the associated problems that this will bring, and the government will have lost its golden opportunity to regulate the substances with low toxicity and thereby provide controls on their safety.

Not criminalising possession is obviously better than criminalising another section of the population for the simple act of owning a substance, and it is undeniable that use of NPSs will reduce, as this has been shown to happen in both Ireland and New Zealand after their respective bans. However, for many that will still use NPSs, plenty of incentives to take them over better understood, and usually safer 'classical' psychoactive substances will exist, whilst the health risks will only increase once trade in them has been made illegal, as criminal enterprise is not famed for its insistence on quality control.

Another effect the proposed ban will have is to stifle any efforts being made to create safer alternatives to our current drugs of choice, both legal and illegal. Initiatives such as the one by Prof. David Nutt and the Beckley Foundation to develop a safer alternative to alcohol, dubbed Chaperone, will, under the new bill, be made illegal, and no clear indication has been given about how one might move a new substance from the 'banned' list to the 'allowed' list. It is worth noting that e-cigarettes, were they to be invented after the proposed bill, would be automatically banned until who-knows-when, despite their value in helping people quit smoking being huge, and their health risks compared to tobacco miniscule. Research into developing valuable new alternatives will either be completely banned, or subject to regulations akin to those that prevent research into drugs like psychedelics taking place now. Even research assessing the possible harms of NPSs will be made more difficult to undertake, and so these untested substances will remain untested, yet will still find their audience in the general public, as opposed to having manufacturers run the cost of safety testing and regulating the safest new substances.

There are many other glaring issues with the proposed bill, which others havepointedout, and that may mean the bill will never see the light of day. If the caveat of 'substances made for human consumption' exists, how will the government legislate against what has previously been the case, NPS manufacturers labelling their products, with their tongue firmly in their cheek, 'Not for Human Consumption'? With the proposed bill, the government has shown itself to be completely uninformed as to the realities of why people use NPSs, and handicapped itself regarding any attempts that could have been made to regulate the the safest substances and guard against their potential dangers.

One final point that should be considered is that many people turn to NPSs because the old favourites like cannabis, MDMA and psychedelics are illegal - I would suggest that the careful and strict regulation of the 'classic' substances could easily be the best way to minimise harms from people's wish to experience an altered state of consciousness.