Psychoactive Substances Act, One year on.

Harm Reduction News

LAST year the government, with little opposition, passed the most draconian drug law legislation in any Western country, banning any psychoactive substance, whether natural or synthetic, even if it had not been invented or discovered yet, with the passing of the Psychoactive Substances Act.

This was a knee-jerk response to negative publicity in the media about legal highs, broadly exaggerating the perceived problem. In reality, the psychoactive substance, alcohol, causes far more harm to society than any of the so called legal highs that were on sale in headshops throughout the UK before the Psychoactive Substances Act, and tobacco certainly kills far more people than spice. However, alcohol and tobacco were, of course, exempt from the legislation.

The ban also potentially includes harmless and beneficial herbs such as kratom, blue lotus, damiana, dagga, etc., all of which we have now seen withdrawn from sale in the UK. Recently, the DEA in America proposed to ban kratom, a member of the coffee family from South East Asia known for its therapeutic properties, however, this was stopped after a massive backlash from people who use it for pain management and it can still be readily purchased from online vendors in the US.

Kratom leaf, traditionally used in herbal teas for pain management.
The kratom tree is a natural traditinoal herbal medicine from South East Asia used for pain management and to wean people off opitates.

That is not to say there was not a problem with some of the more questionable psychoactive substances being sold by headshops throughout Britain, one that was made worse by the continued banning of substances, which led to laboratories in China soon finding a way around the law with new compounds, even if the government had previously made an analogue law attempting to ban all related compounds.

The first legislation to tackle the so-called legal high problem was introduced in 2011 by the Coalition, giving the government powers to slap an instant 12 month ban on anything they saw fit, giving it time to be referred to the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). But they simply couldn’t keep up with the new substances and the Chinese, with long memories, didn’t forget the mid 19th century Opium Wars where the British fought to expand the opium trade to all of China, and were happy to oblige to repay the debt by filling the demand in the UK for legal psychoactive substances, flooding the market with them.

This was a great opportunity to reform the outdated and antiquated drug laws in the UK that do more harm than good. Unfortunately, the government decided to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, introducing a blanket ban on all psychoactive substances apart from alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine.

After an outrage from a gay Conservative MP, the government changed its mind on poppers, falsely claiming they are not psychoactive because they incorrectly said they do not impact the central nervous system. A quick search on Google Scholar quickly provides articles to the contrary. Poppers most certainly do impact the central nervous system, since poppers produce NO that binds to receptors in the brain. Bizarrely, the government some time ago banned the safe form of poppers, Amyl Nitrate, so instead manufacturers switched to dangerous forms of industrial solvent such as isopropyl nitrite, isobutyl nitrite and butyl nitrite, which have been linked to retinal damage in the eye and are akin to sniffing petrol. So, in the eyes of the government, sniffing industrial solvents is ok, but a tea from the harmless blue lotus flower is a big no no, as is perfectly safe NO2, commonly known as laughing gas, a substance deemed so dangerous they routinely give it to pregnant women while giving birth. Crazy!

The Sun on poppers
Psychoactive poppers are still legal to sell in Britain, following criticisms from a gay Tory MP, provided they are not for human consumption.

Poppers are still sold in the UK with big warnings on them stating “not for human consumption”, so it’s very strange how a potentially dangerous substance that is sniffed to get a short high that usually ends with a headache is allowed to be legally traded, yet far safer substances could land a vendor up to seven years in prison, because after ninety years of the failed policies of prohibition, the government decided to have more prohibition. Evidently, they never read the famous Einstein quote “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.

One of the big scare stories was synthetic cannabis, commonly known as Spice. The truth is these products had been on sale in the UK since 2005, originally using a compound called JWH-018. Spice is made with a combustible herb with the active cannabinoid added. Due to the lack of regulation, manufacturers started to make these products with far too much of the active ingredient in them, causing the user to get extremely high, even mildly tripping, with just a couple of tokes, which sometimes lead to heart palpitations, and even hospitalisation. Spice has now become the drug of choice in prisons because it is so strong only a tiny amount is needed and has no smell, so therefore I’m informed it is easy to smuggle inside. Furthermore, they do not show up in drug tests, making it an ideal drug of choice for the internal prison black market. The logic of sending someone to prison for drug offences where they are more likely to come into contact with drugs can be left for another blog.

Of course, if there were a legal cannabis market in the UK, as there has been de facto in The Netherlands since the 1970s, then I doubt there would be much of a market for Spice. Soon Canada is to completely legalise recreational marijuana, joining a number of US states and the small South American country of Uruguay. You certainly do not see Spice on sale in places like The Netherlands, the Czech Republic, or Spain, where even though it is legal, nobody buys it, because you can easily get the real thing without hassle from the authorities.

As previously mentioned, it wasn’t just synthetic chemicals, including ones that have not even been invented or discovered yet that were banned The blanket ban technically made any herb that has psychoactive properties illegal to sell, including even catnip, which according to Wikipedia has mild psychoactive properties on the human brain. I wonder if Mrs May will order the police to raid pet shops throughout the country?

Many of these herbs or plants have been used for centuries and are not only known to be pretty much harmless, they have medicinal and mild analgesic properties.

The truth is that the legal high trade in the UK has been around since the 1990s when the products were mainly herbal. The authorities didn’t give a shit because they thought they didn’t work, the ravers didn’t use them because they thought they didn’t work, yet there was a niche market for these products for people who didn’t want to break the law, perhaps because of their job or maybe they were simply law abiding citizens who never break the law. These were often ephedrine based, using extracts from plants like Sida Cordofolia; they were also popular with people who just wanted that extra energy boost at a late-night party with a sound system, but not the nasty comedown that was associated with their illegal counterparts, often mainly caused by impurities. Ironically, when the legal high trade first started in Britain they were marketed as a “safe alternative to illegal drugs”. The first legal highs sold in the UK were marked clearly for consumption with dosage information and full ingredients, that was until the UK Medicines agency (MHRA) started threatening to prosecute shops if they sold them for consumption, so manufacturers simply changed the labels to plant food or incense or bath salts to get around the law, thus removing any sensible dosage information, which wasn’t really harm reduction.

The legal high trade really started to boom in 2002, when the Home Office issued a letter confirming it was not illegal to buy, sell or give away a fresh magic mushroom provided it had not been processed in any way. After an unsuccessful prosecution of a headshop owner in 2004 for selling magic mushrooms, where the judge ruled the law was too ambiguous and threw the case out as an Abuse of Process, the government decided to make magic mushrooms a Class A drug, along with crystal meth, crack cocaine, and heroin. They did this without referring it to the ACMD, as they should have by law, even though magic mushrooms are pretty much at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to potential for abuse.  In fact, there is really interesting research into shrooms that has proven them to treat depression and cluster headaches. Unfortunately, the only legal way to consume a magic mushroom in the UK is to go to a field and get down on all fours and eat them fresh from the ground like a cow, since it is not illegal to have an illegal drug in your system.

The magic mushroom ban came in force in the summer of 2005, shortly after the Glastonbury Festival where Australian comedian Brendon Burns gave away 10,000 kg of shrooms to his audience.

As we know, this didn’t make the legal high market go away. Vendors and wholesalers soon found replacement products. Initially Spice and PEP pills made from BZP, a piperazine, replaced the gap in the market left after the banning of perfectly safe magic mushrooms. Four years later, JWH-018 and all its analogues as well as BZP were banned and classified as Class B or C drugs by the government, even though at the time there was not one reported death from either. It didn’t take long for the Chinese to get around the law. A British chemist who examined the 2009 legislation told me he wasn’t surprised they managed to easily get around the law as in his opinion it looked like it had been written by an A-level chemistry student who had flunked his exams.

So, by the time they banned BZP, it had already been largely replaced with mephedrone, a far nastier substance with a very unpleasant comedown, and synthetic cannabinoid manufacturers were soon offering new compounds from China that didn’t fall foul of UK law, providing it was, as poppers are still today, “Not for human consumption”.

Synthetic spice vs cannabis
We’ed rather smoke real cannabis.

More synthetic cannabinoids were banned only to be quickly replaced with unknown ones, and mephedrone was banned in June 2010, again only to be replaced by even nastier substances. That said, Prof David Nutt made an interesting observation that in the couple of years or so during the mephedrone boom, cocaine deaths fell by almost a quarter, since it is a safer substance and many cocaine users switched during this time to mephedrone, as it gives a strong high and was easy to purchase, plus legal.

So now we have the blanket ban on everything psychoactive, with few exemptions, but has the problem gone away? No of course it hasn’t, if anything they made things worse by handing over a legal trade supplied by VAT registered businesses to the criminal black market. Apparently, the prison system is rife with spice, mephedrone is still on sale and is used to cut ecstasy pills or even completely replace MDMA, which is a much safer substance, even though it is a Class A drug as opposed to the Class B status of mephedrone.

Spice is still sold on the black market and it’s now only the super strong stuff available, whereas before the ban, there were milder spice products that didn’t send you to outer-space in one toke. Vice reported Spice is a huge problem amongst Britain’s homeless, so much for harm reduction with the Psychoactive Substances Act. It was nothing more than posturing for the red top rags and other media outlets.

There is another issue here at hand and that is one of liberty and human rights. While we are not suggesting headshops and web sites should be given carte blanche to sell what they like, there are many people who use or used such products, causing no harm to society whatsoever. Unsurprisingly, the average headshop owner did not want to kill or hospitalise their clientele as it’s not great for repeat business. The government had correctly identified a problem with the sale of some extremely powerful and untested psychoactive substances in an unregulated market, yet instead of fixing the problem, they made it worse by sweeping it under the carpet and handing the sale to the criminal black market.

It was a golden opportunity for the government to introduce legislation to allow the sale of safer substances in a taxed and regulated environment at a time of austerity when we are told there is not enough in the pot to fund essential public services. Spice could have been wiped off the map by ending the prohibition of cannabis and genuine harm reduction could have been applied to much of the UK’s insatiable desire to alter one’s consciousness by consuming psychoactive substances. Unfortunately, if you want to alter your mind state without breaking the law (assuming you’re not down to going down on all fours in a field during magic mushroom season) the only way to do so legally in Britain is to consume alcohol, one of the most dangerous legal highs ever brought to market.

While we see progress in South America, Canada, parts of Europe, and even in the USA, the home of prohibition, it does seem unlikely there will be any meaningful move towards sensible drugs policy and genuine harm reduction in the UK. Our current PM, Theresa May, while Home Secretary, tried to alter the findings of a report on drugs commissioned by the then Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, because she didn’t like its conclusions. It is safe to say Britain will be one of the last Western countries that will be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century with a sensible drugs policy that focuses on harm reduction and the right to safely expand one’s’ consciousness using mind-altering substances other than alcohol or tobacco.


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