Illegal Highs

The government's review reveals the mixed results of the Psychoactive Substances Act

20th November 2018

Legislation which made the sale of psychoactive substances that are known as new or novel psychoactive substances (NPS) illegal has been in effect for more than two years. But has it been a success?

The Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) came into effect on 26 May 2016, after a period of sustained and considerable media panic — some justified, some not so much — over the rapidly increasing use and availability of NPS, such as synthetic cannabis like spice and black mamba (justified), as well as the much more benign nitrous oxide (not so much), known colloquially as laughing gas, NOS, or, apparently, nangs. Since the Act’s introduction, we’ve heard much less about Nitrous Oxide — though it’s still pretty readily available — but synthetic cannabis use among the homeless, for instance, was and is still a visible issue in many towns and cities.

But, according to a government report released this week, “most of the main aims of the PSA appear to have been achieved”. Though it does go on to note that “some areas of concern have remained or emerged since the Act”.

The stated aims of the PSA according to the report were to end the “open sale” of legal highs, stop the “cat and mouse game” of  manufacturers altering the chemical make-up of NPS slightly to get around the law as it was, reduce the number of people using psychoactive substances – particularly young people, the homeless and prisoners – and to reduce the health and social harms associated with psychoactive substances.

The Act attracted its fair share of criticism when proposed, with many prophesying that while it would likely have some of its intended effects, it could feasibly make the wider situation even worse in a number of ways. Many predicted, for instance, that by banning the open sale of such substances, demand would not be eliminated, but just forced “underground” to street dealers.

It was also thought that while the Act might achieve a reduction in use generally, it could lead to a concentration of usage among the most vulnerable and at risk in society, namely the homeless and prisoners. These concerns and predictions, in the eyes of many critics of the Act, have proved to be justified.

Pre-ban, NPS could be purchased from headshops, both bricks-and-mortar and online, and were therefore easily accessible to young people and society in general. Largely, the Act has been effective in this regard. The report notes that 31 headshops have closed post-ban, and a further 332 no longer stock NPS. The effect, obviously, is that the “open sale” of NPS has ended, as hoped.

The problem though, is that this doesn’t necessarily mean nobody is getting NPS. As the report acknowledges, there has been a “large-scale shift” toward street dealers becoming the main suppliers, “particularly for synthetic cannabinoids”, which are arguably the most dangerous group of substances covered under the Act. The price of NPS also seem to have risen as availability has fallen and the supply has become illicit.

Additionally, the online sale of NPS continues largely unabetted, but mainly on the dark web; Europol identifies the UK as “one of the leading dark web sellers of NPS both before and after the Act”.

By stopping the “open sale” of many NPS a number of potential users might now never come across them, or might be put off by their decreased availability and increased price. This is reflected in a general decline in usage, particularly among 16-24 year old’s; a key aim of the Act. But regular-users and addicts are still able to access them, albeit from more dangerous sources, and evidence suggests that the impact of the Act on the other target demographics — the homeless and prisoners — has been limited at best, and negative at worst.

The report paints a mixed picture with regard to NPS use among the homeless, stating: “Drugs workers in some areas reported significant falls in the use of NPS [among the homeless], while in around half of areas, no difference was observed.” Following the implementation of the Act, a drugs worker from Bristol quoted in the report said: “The use of it has dropped dramatically. I think spice has had its moment.” Meanwhile, in Sheffield, “[PSA] has had no effect” according to a drugs worker there.

Vulnerable users are being targeted by drug gangs in the most horrendous way

A number of worrying reports from the prison sector in the last 18 months confirm the use of synthetic cannabis continues to a shocking extent in many prisons.

This new report confirms those findings, and shows that neither the usage of NPS in prisons, nor the rate of violent incidents associated, have significantly declined since the Act was introduced, and indeed, in some cases usage has even increased.

LEAP UK (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) sees the report as confirming the organisation’s view that “no-one has been made safer by the introduction of PSA 2016”. LEAP UK is a campaign group, made up of ex-senior law enforcement, military and intelligence agency workers who want to see an end to punitive drug policy.

“NPS sales have been pushed out to street dealers, an environment that makes it infinitely more difficult to limit the potential dangers of these substances. Vulnerable users are being targeted by drug gangs in the most horrendous way,” according to the group.

In terms of health and social harms, the impact of the Act seems to have been limited. The report found that while the number of medical enquiries concerning NPS and concerns reported by NPS users have fallen since the introduction of the act, this represents the continuation of a trend which began before the Act’s introduction, and considering the potency of NPS has increased (particularly for synthetic cannabis), this might not suggest a reduction in harm per user, but just an overall decline in usage, and therefore harm.

Data on hospital visits related to NPS is patchy, and though generally figures would suggest a decline in the proportion of patients with issues relating to NPS since the PSA, although a number of local studies in key areas like London and Edinburgh have reported no significant change. Deaths from NPS have reduced in England and Wales, but risen considerably in Scotland.

Highlighting the difficulty in ascertaining an accurate picture in relation to the effect of the PSA on harms, LEAP UK said: “The claims to have reduced health and social harms cannot be viewed as reliable. We know from past experience that numbers presenting for medical attention in relation to a substance will always drop once possession of that substance is made illegal. People feel they cannot admit usage for fear of criminal justice reprisals.”

By it’s own definition, it’s fair to say the Act has achieved some of its stated aims, and the Government can in that regard reasonably claim it as a partial-success. But in terms of actually helping to end the harms associated with NPS, and the scope of the damage caused to society, it is clear from the government’s own assessment that the Act does not measure up.

Main image: ProMo Cymru

20th November 2018