On Tuesday the government's Psychoactive Substances Bill was finally agreed by both House of Parliament, but not without strong resistance from the Liberal Democrats. We believe in a crystal clear, evidence-based approach to reduce the harms caused by drugs, where drugs misuse is treated as a health issue, not a criminal justice one. Instead this Bill creates yet more criminal offences, creates even more confusion and the experts agree, with result in more harm and more deaths.
The first thing Liberal Democrats called for in response to this Bill was an end to the so-called "war on drugs" pantomime, the empty "oh yes they are", "oh no they're not" rhetoric on whether current drugs laws are working. We called for an objective, independent, scientific review of existing drugs laws to establish whether new laws were needed or whether a fundamental change in approach was required. Despite the respected Home Affairs Select Committee backing our approach, both the Conservative government and the Labour opposition refused to support an objective review.
Instead of being health-based, the Bill adopts a heavy-handed approach that outlaws everything you can consume that alters the way you feel, unless it is specifically exempted. Despite research showing that alcohol causes more harm to society than any other drug, it is no surprise that this tops the list of exemptions.
Much has been made of calls to exempt "poppers" because of its positive uses and benign nature, it having been used widely by the gay community for almost 50 years without a ban. As a result of the outcry, the government have referred this substance to a panel of experts who may recommend adding it to the exempt list. So it is legal to sell "poppers" now, it is going to be illegal to sell it in a few weeks' time but it may be legal again by the summer. The fact is, many other substances that have been used for years with few ill-effects are in the same boat as "poppers" but this catch-all Bill is indiscriminate.
New psychoactive substances or "legal highs" are the real target of this Bill, substances that have been produced to mimic the effects of controlled drugs already banned by law. If possession of controlled drugs was not an offence, there would be no need for "legal highs" or for this Bill but I digress. Some of these synthetic replacements are more harmful than the controlled drugs they replace and yet it will not an offence to possess "legal highs", only to manufacture or supply them (except in prison where possession will also be an offence, even if you are a visitor or member of staff). If you're confused, spare a thought for the police officer who can stop, search and arrest you if the officer suspects you may have a real ecstasy tablet in your pocket but he can't touch you if he thinks you might have an artificial ecstasy tablet on you.
This Bill will push users into the hands of criminal street dealers in hard drugs and overseas-based internet suppliers who could not care less about what's in the drugs they supply or what effect they have on their clients. The internationally respected expert Professor David Nutt believes this Bill will "increase harm and deaths". Surely that is the last thing anybody wants and yet that is what the Conservative government and the Labour 'opposition' have signed.
Lord Paddick is a Lib Dem peer and former Met Police commander
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