The arrival of the UK’s Psychoactive Substances Bill confirms that the war on drugs won’t be stopping anytime soon. Following the official clamour for legalisation of some soft drugs a few years ago, the Tories’ new, hastily drafted bill seeks to extend the reach of prohibition even further. While the new measures, cracking down on so-called psychoactive substances, were little more than an aside in last week’s Queen’s Speech, they represent some of the most authoritarian and overzealous restrictions on drug-use in recent memory.
The bill seeks to ban ‘any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect’. Coming in response to the burgeoning trade in ‘legal highs’ – synthetic riffs on old favourites like ecstasy and cannabis, sold as ‘plant fertiliser’ or ‘bath salts’ – the bill seeks to end the ‘game of cat and mouse’, as Home Office minister Mike Penning put it, whereby the surge in new products overwhelms parliament’s ability to legislate against drugs effectively.
This bill marks a chilling shift in policy. Rather than prohibit the production and sale of particular drugs, any psychoactive substance, loosely defined as that which is ‘capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it’, will be illegal by default. The government is now the ultimate arbiter of what we are allowed to consume – and to what end. Shunning any reasoned discussion of what products should and should not be restricted, the government will simply ban anything that looks or smells like an illicit substance. So paranoid are the authorities over what we might choose to ingest when left to our own devices that they’ve decided it’s best just to ban the lot.
A case in point is laughing gas. Colourfully labelled ‘hippie crack’ by the tabloids, it is consumed harmlessly by hundreds of thousands of teenage revellers each year at festivals and house parties. But now even nitrous oxide is no laughing matter. As with all other psychoactive substances, its production, supply and sale have been made into criminal offences, carrying a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
The ludicrously loose definition of what is to be banned by this bill has led to some inevitable ribbing in the press. What about an illicit whiff of Pritt Stick? What about the psychoactive joy the scent of roses provokes? The steamroller approach of this policy has meant the government has even had to issue assurances that ‘food, alcohol, tobacco, nicotine, caffeine and medical products’ would be exempt from the proposed legislation.