New laws came into force in May which criminalize the production, distribution, supply and sale of previously legal highs, or “designer drugs”.
New legislation in the form of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 imposes a blanket ban on the distribution of designer drugs with mood-altering properties which mimic the effects of drugs such as cocaine, cannabis or ecstasy. It is not an offence under the Act to possess these drugs for personal use but producers and distributors of the drugs could now receive a sentence of up to 7 years in custody. A psychoactive substance is defined as any substance which “produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state”.
Legal highs are produced in industrial scale in countries such as China and India and imported into Europe for sale on the internet or in local shops making them easily accessible. Producers of the drugs tweak the molecular structure of illegal drugs, thereby bringing it outside the list of prohibited substances produced by the Government. The Government was therefore in a never ending race to catch up because as soon as they prohibited one alternative, producers would tweak it again.
These alternative drugs have been legal to sell in shops as long as they are marked as “not for human consumption”. Many are sold claiming to be bath salts and plant food. There is a common misconception that these drugs are safe due to the fact they were “legal” but in reality, these drugs are untested and linked to the death of around 400 people in the UK. Only the day before the new legislation came into force, four men in Manchester were hospitalised after taking drugs named Clockwork Orange, Pandora’s Box, and Kronic. Another common, previously legal, substance was often referred to as “Spice” and was said to be a synthetic form of cannabis.
The use of these designer drugs has also been linked to the same anti-social, criminal behaviour as their illegal alternatives, which is especially prevalent within the prison system. Of 277 deaths in our prisons over the past 2 years, 39 have been linked to the use of “legal highs”.
The blanket ban can have major repercussions for businesses that sell these designer drugs. We have already seen several shops in Newcastle city centre closed down for selling legal highs but as a result of the new legislation, any business owner now caught selling these drugs by test purchase Officers from the Police can expect to receive a prison sentence of up to 7 years. The Home Office predicts that the new legislation will only result in around 5 prosecutions per year but the principal aim is to reduce the accessibility of these dangerous drugs and consequently reduce the rising numbers in associated deaths.
We think that Home Office predictions of the number of prosecutions may be an underestimate and that communities may put pressure on law enforcement agencies to try and reduce the quantity of such substances. It may be that the Government takes a more drastic step to prohibit possession of these drugs once it is seen how the new legislation is adopted.