Legally Bonged: Why The Psychoactive Substances Act should go up in smoke

Cannabis is the biggest player in the EU drugs market, outstripping cocaine and heroin to snatch up 38% of the estimated 24 billion euro industry, and yet the UK police force have this week revealed under a Freedom of Information request that their officers are making half the arrests for possession they did five years ago.

Despite arrests dropping from 35,367 in 2010 to 9,115 arrests in 2015, consumption has stayed stable at around 7% of the population during that period.

Numerous studies have shown, including one from the Home Office back in 2014, that it is not clear that decriminalisation has an impact on levels of drug use and that decriminalisation can significantly reduce the burden on criminal justice systems. With Durham police admitting that they are no longer targeting or investigating cannabis users “so as to free up staff to deal with things that are more important” you should rightfully question why yet another restrictive drug law was planned to come into force today.

The Psychoactive Substances Act, whose debut was scheduled for today, would make it an offence to produce, supply or offer to supply any psychoactive substance if it is likely to be used for its psychoactive effects and regardless of its potential for harm.

However, the legislation has been delayed as the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) warned that it was unlikely the Act would go any way towards stemming the flow of designer drugs onto the market, partnered with continuing confusion about what the term ‘psychoactive substances’ actually covers and a worry that under the current definition of a psychoactive substance, or lack of, the Act is not enforceable by the police. 

We urgently need an honest discussion of the law’s limitations. Our ABC classification system is far too simplistic, failing to differentiate between drugs in terms of overall harm or addictiveness, with extremely harmful drugs like heroin grouped together with ecstasy, which is statistically less dangerous to users than horse riding.

Beyond the limitations of imposing our drug laws, drug prohibition hands criminals an underground market worth over £200bn annually worldwide, and is responsible for deaths of thousands of people every year.

Just as incredibly destructive drugs like crystal meth and crack cocaine emerged from a clampdown on less risky drugs, so legal highs fill a void for the recreational drug user. A 'blanket ban' on psychoactive substances may eliminate high street 'head shops', but will push trade underground and encourage a slew of new, even more dangerous alternatives.

The fact that everyday substances like caffeine, alcohol and tobacco will be covered by such a ban (and have to be exempted) just shows how all-encompassing and heavy-handed such an approach is. To reduce harm from drug use the government should instead legalise recreational drugs like cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine so they are available with rigorous safety controls. This unworkable new Act will merely push the industry further into the dark, and frankly they’d be wise to put it in their pipe and smoke it.