From today, some of your herb rack, bits of your tea selection and even those parched flowers withering away on your kitchen table are technically all illegal. Why? Because they all contain psychoactive substances, according to the government's definition in its new Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA), which came into effect at midnight.
Flowers contain terpenes, which can cause psychoactive effects. Tea contains caffeine, which is exempt from the ban, alongside alcohol, nicotine and poppers, but it also contains L-Theanine, which is not exempt, and reportedly has psychoactive properties.
"A substance produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person's central nervous system, it affects the person's mental functioning or emotional state," according to the wording in the government's truly all-encompassing new bill.
Smelling something pleasant, like freshly baked bread, triggers your central nervous system and affects your emotional state. So if you want to be a pedant (and I do), from today, that bread – or its scent, at least – is technically illegal. Equally: eat enough nutmeg and you start to feel a bit funny. Should the Home Office start seizing cartloads of the stuff at Britain's borders and jail the lorry drivers for drug trafficking offences?
Technically, pet shops will be in trouble if they're caught selling catnip from today onwards. You'd imagine they'll probably be left alone, because of basic common sense, but the mere fact that raids over catnip is even a possibility should ring alarm bells.
A protest promoted on Facebook and scheduled to start today encourages you to call your local police station or the Home Office and check whether or not you're legally allowed to light that incense candle or drink your tea this evening, or do basically anything that could now be criminal thanks to the PSA. I met up with the protest organiser, Deej Sullivan, a journalist and drug policy activist, to find out why he's so opposed to the bill.
"This Act overturns centuries of British legal tradition," he said. "One of the most basic tenets of British law is that our rights are not given – they are implied, unless specifically denied by law. This Act has turned that on its head, so that your right to consume any substance is prohibited unless specifically allowed by the law."
What this means is that drug policy from today dictates which drugs are allowed, instead of which drugs aren't allowed. This presents a new extreme within UK drug policy – and even international drug policy – as the bill depends on exemptions, meaning enforcement will inevitably be inconsistent.
"Inundating local [police] stations and their social media feeds with requests about whether or not you're breaking the law by having a cup of tea is not likely to waste much police time and money, but what it will do is demonstrate the absurdity of this law," said Deej.
It seems odd that when police resources are already stretched, drug policy is moving in a direction that is only going to stretch them further. A recent report by DrugWise stated: "In the debate at the Committee stage, the issue of payment – for example, the costs of testing, expert witnesses, etc. – was raised without any clear answers, and certainly no commitment of funds coming from any new sources."
It's another shortcoming of this bill, which hopes to prosecute people using complex and costly mechanisms, yet does not intend to provide adequate resources to do so. To find out more about the challenges in this realm, I spoke to Dr Paolo Deluca, a senior lecturer at King's College, whose current work revolves around new psychoactive substances – the substance this Act targets.
"There are obviously some challenges the enforcement agencies will need to tackle," he said. "It's still confusing as to what is an illegal activity or not. From my point of view, it will be difficult to demonstrate that a substance is psychoactive. It is difficult to see how the subjective change in a person's emotional state would be demonstrated in court."
A similar bill introduced in Ireland in 2010 has already come up against these kind of problems: authorities have only managed a meagre four prosecutions for new psychoactive substance offences in the past five years.
READ ON MOTHERBOARD: The UK Has Banned Drugs That Don't Even Exist Yet
The authors of the bill believe they are one step ahead, as it actually bans psychoactive substances that haven't been discovered yet. But, as always, there are people out there using the government's regressive approach to their own advantage.
Dr Paolo has been working on a project called "Cassandra", which analyses and tracks new psychoactive substances internationally. In his research he was able to see the effects of the bill in the lead up to its implementation. Online, legal suppliers were shifting as much product as possible in the lead up to today, while the darknet was seeing an increase of listings for those same products. So the products have just moved from head shops to the darknet, or to the hands of street dealers, where they're much less regulated than they were in a brick and mortar store.
Manager of Addaction UK, Rick Bradley, expressed concern about the effects of the Act on his work tackling addiction. "Although the new legislation may stop the recreational user accessing these drugs so easily, vulnerable people who are addicted to substances such as synthetic cannabinoids will be pushed to a greater degree of risk," he said. "Individuals will be affected by this law differently [...] if they are further criminalised, they risk not getting the proper support they need. That is one of the main problems we see potentially arising from this legislation."
The fact that, technically, you could get in trouble for enjoying the smell of freshly baked bread is a funny example of how misguided the Psychoactive Substances Act is. But as those I spoke to pointed out, the fact it will likely cause more harm to users than they experienced before – and the fact it's not actually going to stop anyone from accessing new psychoactive substances – is much more of a worry.
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