Richard Rosser on supporting the government’s latest drugs legislation - with caveats
Labour supports the general approach of the Psychoactive Substances Bill, which creates a blanket ban on the production, distribution, sale and supply of such substances along the lines of one introduced in Ireland in 2010. Rather than focus on possession, the Bill makes it an offence to break the ban. Our position is in line with a commitment we gave in our general election manifesto.
The emergence and considerable increase in new psychoactive substances, more commonly called ‘legal highs’, has occurred over the past seven years or so. Legal highs are intended to produce the same effects for those taking them as drugs controlled by the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, for example cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy.
Chemicals in the new substances are often neither legal nor safe for human consumption, and can be difficult to identify. This is because of their diversity and the relative ease and speed with which they are developed. Indeed, many are only legal because they have not yet been assessed for their harm. Just over a hundred new substances were identified in the EU in 2014, up from 24 in 2009. Deaths in England and Wales related to these substances have also risen, up from 26 in 2009 to 60 in 2013.
In December 2013, an expert panel was appointed to undertake a review into legal highs. In 2014, the Panel concluded that the current legislation, including the 1971 Act, was unlikely to cope with the speed of developments in the market. The panel recommended that the government should legislate to prohibit distribution, focussing on suppliers rather than users. Legal highs are currently sold openly through ‘head shops’ or online retailers.
The Bill defines a legal high as any substance capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person, stimulating or depressing the central nervous system and affecting mental functioning or emotional state. In doing so, the government believes the blanket ban will overcome the problem of the time lag between a new legal high coming onto the market and the securing of evidence that harm has actually been caused. As it stands, on, only when the latter happens can the 1971 Act be applied.
The Bill does provide for listed substances capable of producing a psychoactive effect to be exempt from the Bill. With alcohol, tobacco or medicines, because they are controlled through existing legislation; and for the likes of caffeine and chocolate, because the psychoactive effect is relatively negligible,
Labour will raise a number of issues on the Bill’s detail, and the level of effectiveness or otherwise of some of its provisions. These include the likely anticipated impact on the market in ‘legal highs’, the extent to which things will simply go ‘underground’, and the resources that will be made available to the police and local authorities to exercise any new powers. We also have questions about how effective the measures will be against those who sell either via the internet or from abroad.
More importantly, we want to find out exactly what Ministers are doing, and intend to do, to address the expert panel’s call for an enhanced response to the challenges of legal highs through intervention and treatment, prevention and education, and information sharing. Changing the law will not alone deliver the desired impact of this Bill.
Lord Richard Rosser is Shadow Home Office Minister in the House of Lords
Published 9th June 2015