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The Psychoactive Substances Act Is Mostly Helping London Police Arrest NOS Sellers

Data obtained by VICE under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that 71 percent of arrests since the bill came in were for nitrous oxide offences.

When the Psychoactive Substances Act came into force last May there was one question on the lips of everyone from Premier League footballers to campus shotters: what will become of our beloved balloons? Now, almost eight months on, new figures released to VICE under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that nitrous oxide is by far the main target of London police's efforts to clamp down on "new psychoactive substances".


For the uninitiated, the bill – introduced on the 26th of May – was overseen by then-Home Secretary Theresa May and banned an array of substances previously known as legal highs, including salvia, Spice and nitrous oxide, as well as potentially anything capable of "stimulating or depressing the person's central nervous system" and affecting "the person's mental functioning or emotional state". Crucially, though, only the supply, distribution, production and sale of the drugs were criminalised, meaning possession for personal use remained legal.

While some praised this aspect of the Act as a modern, Portuguese-style compromise, most criticised it as another moralising, unenforceable and poorly thought out piece of legislation. Whichever side you came down on, though, nobody really knew what the post-PSA landscape would look like, aside from the fact you'd no longer be able to buy the substances over the counter in high street head shops. And that first part happened quickly, with over 300 shops ceasing to sell legal highs inside three months of the ban. Now, new data released by the Metropolitan Police offers an insight into the first six months of the bill.

Between the 26th of May and the 30th of November last year, 160 people were detained by the Met under the Psychoactive Substances Act, equating to just under one arrest a day in London since the law was passed. The stats reveal that NoS has borne the brunt of the police crackdown, accounting for at least 114 – or 71 percent – of all arrests, in comparison to 33 for unspecified substances and 13 relating to synthetic cannabinoids like Spice.


So while there's no need to worry if you just plan on doing a couple of balloons, the consequences could be a little more serious if you're caught with a clinking sports bag full of canisters, shouting  "doubles for £4". A seven-year prison sentence serious, in fact.

To make sense of the numbers I spoke to Danny Kushlick, founder of Bristol's Transform Drug Policy Foundation. "The intent of the Act was to stop the high street sale of the drugs, and it's done that," he said. "The question is: what are the unintended consequences? What's now happened is that people are being arrested for the sale of [nitrous oxide], a relatively benign substance, where they weren't before – and each of these cases is a travesty of justice."

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WATCH: 'Spice Boys', our short documentary about young men in Manchester addicted to synthetic cannabinoids. 

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When I asked Danny about Spice, a synthetic cannabinoid currently causing chaos in Britain's prisons, and with links to psychosis, he was unconvinced that banning the substance would bring about long-term harm reduction. "We know that there's been a reduction in opportunistic purchases of new psychoactive substances, but overall have we gained in terms of social outcomes?" he asked. "If you look at the use of Spice in prison and among homeless people, the gains are really low."


According to Westminster councillor Nickie Aiken, speaking to the Guardian late last year, almost a quarter of the borough's street homeless use the drug and are being targeted by dealers selling Spice spliffs for as little as 50p. Meanwhile, the problems in UK prisons show no sign of slowing down. Which is no huge surprise: as anyone who's spent more than ten seconds looking into drug prohibition could have pointed out before the act came in, banning a substance simply pushes the trade underground rather than stopping people using it.

Responding to the figures, the Metropolitan Police said they were pleased with the progress made under the new legislation. "[It] has assisted greatly in reducing the availability and accessibility of many harmful substances to persons who were not aware of the associated dangers," a representative stated. "The powers provided by the act allow us to deal with persons who seek to profit from the trading of untested and dangerous products. It has also helped us to address anti-social behaviour driven by the consumption of such substances."

When asked about the amount of nitrous oxide-related arrests, the Met pointed to London's apparently still thriving party scene. "London hosts more festivals and carnivals than any other region within the United Kingdom. Nitrous oxide is a psychoactive substance and its use is strongly associated with the music/dance scene. It is of no surprise, therefore, that there were seizures throughout the busy festival period."


"Prohibition is primarily there to protect the government's reputation," said Kushlick. "That's what the closure of the head shops was about. The question is whether the government will shift its priorities to actually doing its job, which is looking after public health. If it doesn't do that it'll carry on producing lousy legislation which has lousy outcomes."


More on VICE:

Why Were Devon and Cornwall Police Selling Laughing Gas On eBay?

2016 Was the Year the Tabloids Won the War on Drugs

Laugh a Minute: We Spent a Night with Sheffield's Busiest NOS Salesman