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The Sloppy Legal Highs Ban Proves the Government Is Terrible at Drugs

Amid more setbacks to the Psychoactive Substances Act, it's becoming clearer and clearer that the British government cannot grasp how to deal with drugs.
Jamie Clifton
London, GB
March 30, 2016, 12:06pm

After an embarrassing setback with poppers a couple of weeks ago, the government has reportedly postponed the Psychoactive Substances Act "indefinitely".

In a letter to a head shop owner from Hampshire Police, published by the Alternative Trade Association, it was confirmed that "the commencement date for the legislation would no longer be the 6th of April, and a new date for commencement has yet to be confirmed".


To suggest the bill will be delayed "indefinitely" might be a bit strong; sources at the Home Office told that the government still intends to pass the act into law "by spring" – and it's unlikely the Home Office would shelve such a highly publicised bill for too long. Either way, the hold-up comes as no huge surprise: the planned legislation – which, after a brief media panic got the public riled up, aimed to ban all "psychoactive substances" (i.e. the "legal highs" sold on the UK's high streets) – has been a disaster from the get-go.

As soon as the plans were announced, they were derided by campaigners, experts and activists, with even the home secretary's own advisers saying the bill would be "impossible" to enact – mostly because the Home Office wanted to ban anything deemed "psychoactive", which, technically, would have included alcohol, nicotine and food.

Humans generally depend on that last one to remain alive, and the government makes a nice bit of revenue taxing the others, so those three psychoactive substances were added to the "exemption list" – a load of stuff the Home Office decided it would allow people to put inside their own bodies.

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Traditionally, politicians tend not to listen to the advice of the drug experts they pay to advise them – look at the case of sacked drug advisor David Nutt, for example; or the Home Office report that stated the war on drugs wasn't working, before being promptly ignored by officials in the Home Office. This exemption list was supposed to mitigate the issue of the government not really knowing what it was doing, allowing decision-makers to ignore rational advice and just add stuff to the list that it plainly didn't make sense to ban.

However, as the poppers news a couple of weeks ago proved, even that tactic has come unstuck. After Labour tabled an amendment to have poppers excluded from the bill, MPs voted to keep them in, meaning British retailers would no longer be allowed to sell them. A month or so later, The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs said that, despite the result of the vote, poppers cannot be included in the ban because they're technically not "psychoactive" enough to fall within the boundaries of the bill. Again: more damaging evidence of legislators not understanding the exact thing they're supposed to be legislating against.


If it had paid any attention to the current situation in Ireland before jumping in two-footed, the government would have known what kind of a conundrum it would now be facing. The Irish government issued a similar blanket ban five years ago, and while a load of head shops that had previously sold legal highs were no longer permitted to sell them, the trade just moved to the streets.

In 2011, 16 percent of those polled had used legal highs; in 2014, that number had increased to 22 percent. Worse still, the use of these substances in Ireland among young people is now the highest in the EU. Research suggests that the same migration of sales from legitimate sources to street dealers is already happening in England.

Another issue in Ireland is that the law, according to Det Sgt Tony Howard from the ROI's Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau, is almost completely unenforceable. To prosecute, the state must prove that a substance has a psychoactive effect, and this has proved a lot harder than legislators initially predicted. "We are relying on scientists to assist us with these prosecutions and, unfortunately, they haven't been able to provide the evidence to us," said Howard.

Plenty of the substances set to be banned under the bill should be banned; there's no doubt about that. Synthetic cannabis is a horrible, destructive drug, as are the "legal" alternatives to drugs like MDMA, LSD and cocaine. However, what's become starkly clear is that politicians should really take some time to work out new legislation, rather than trying to rush through ill-advised policy because of a media panic drummed up by conservative press.


The war on drugs, according to anyone with a working knowledge of the war on drugs, does not work. The tactic there – like the Psychoactive Substances Act – was to just ban everything and hope it disappeared. None of it has disappeared.

Let's hope this delay allows the Home Office time to properly consider what it's about to implement. Because, were it to push through the bill in any state close to what it currently looks like, it's not going to help anyone but street dealers, who'll see a sudden boost in sales. People aren't going to stop taking drugs, so instead of banning them all outright, it makes more sense to explore regulation options that would reduce harm caused to those who choose to use them.

However, considering every drug policy case in British history, it seems unlikely the government will take anything resembling a sensible approach, So, for now, all we can do is wait and wish.

More on VICE:

How the Government's Legal High Ban Will Directly Harm Users and Help Dealers

I Sell Legal Highs in the UK and Now I'm Fucked

The Death Stats That the Government's Using to Ban Legal Highs Are Total Bullshit