For several months now, our conservative government has been hustling the ‘New Psychoactive Substances’ Bill through parliament and into law. Widely condemned as one of the worst laws ever seen, the NPS act is hateful, illogical, poorly worded and has the potential to make us all criminals. Quite simply, from May 26th, we will see an increase in drug-related suffering and death in the UK.
The reason for this law coming into being is a national hysteria surrounding ‘legal highs’. Your average pensioner hates seeing teenagers getting high and not being punished for it, and wants to see legal high vendors kicked out of their towns. The conservatives, hopping on this bandwagon, have brought out reams of misleading and false statistics about legal high-related deaths. Countless voters have been riled up by the media, seeing images of innocent teens on front pages, hospitalised and killed by drugs that have slipped through the legislative cracks.
In fact, deaths from legal highs are tiny, around a dozen per year, accounting for a tiny percentage of frequent legal high users (around 10% of UK youth use legal highs). Compare this to alcohol users, where we would expect one million alcohol-related hospitalisations every year. But tightening alcohol legislation doesn’t win votes. Portraying innocent teens being preyed upon by wily drug dealers wins votes.
The truth is, many of these legal highs are harmful simply because they haven’t been tested and aren’t regulated. But making them illegal won’t solve the problem; it will simply be pushed underground. A similar attempt at making legal highs illegal in Ireland went disastrously wrong as kids just went to the back streets to get their drugs; use of previously legal highs increased from 16% to 22% over the first four years of their ban. In Poland, a similar ban caused a similar increase in the use of these drugs. In both cases, harm from legal highs was increased as vendors no longer had an obligation to provide their customers with a genuine product. Introducing a blanket ban on drugs just pushes their sale underground and decreases their quality. The NPS act will increase drug use and increase drug-related harm.
Although some legal highs are harmful, most of them aren’t. Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, can be bought over-the-counter as an inert gas used to whip cream. But fill a balloon with the stuff and you get a brief, 30-second high that keeps Theresa May awake at night. It’s a popular drug among students and has been shown to do very little harm. It’s an example of why this act isn’t about banning harmful drugs; it’s an act that aims to eradicate all drugs from our lives.
Other harmless drugs that will be banned include Kratom, a pain-killing plant chewed by millions of people across Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia every day. In the US, where prescription painkillers are one of the deadliest drugs around, patients have started taking Kratom to wean themselves off more addictive painkilling drugs, and the plant has potential to be used as a general treatment for withdrawal from opiate addiction. Additionally, the harmless herb Salvia divinorum, which has been used in healing rituals for hundreds of years, has potential to be developed into a non-addictive painkiller. There are many other examples of harmless drugs that may actually provide a benefit to society that are being made illegal by this senseless act.
The problem the government has faced in its hate-filled war on all drugs is that it’s hard to manufacture a blanket ban. They can’t just ban harmful drugs, because many of the drugs they want to eradicate have no evidence of harm. So they’ve fashioned a bizarrely vague definition of an illegal drug; something that “affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state”. And they’ve made sure to exclude the big money-spinners, coincidentally some of the most harmful and addictive drugs in the country (alcohol, tobacco and caffeine). Other than that, any substance that you ingest that can change how you’re feeling could be illegal under the new law.
And I say ‘could’, because no one is really sure how anyone will be able to prove that a substance has altered your mind in court. Importantly, the police are very concerned about how they can possibly enforce a law that potentially makes everything illegal. In fact, some people are urging for you to contact your local police force on 26th May to find out exactly what you’re allowed to ingest from now on. You wouldn’t want to accidentally drink some green tea only to be thrown in jail for purchasing an illegal substance (green tea contains L-theanine). In fact, many things you eat contain substances that technically will become illegal from the 26th of May.
The zealous nature of the Home Office’s drive to remove our personal freedoms has become clear in their recent advice regarding the new bill; they warn retailers that young, intoxicated, spotty delinquents are probably buying nitrous oxide to get high, but 50-year olds buying anti-freeze are probably just performing car maintenance. This insane profiling makes it clear that the government doesn’t care about what drugs they are banning; they have a warped view of drug culture and want to eradicate it entirely.
“A customer who looks over 25 attempts to buy several containers of whipped cream canisters containing nitrous oxide from a shop at 11pm. They are not buying anything else.
The cashier asks the customer why they’re buying whipped cream. The customer hesitates in replying and when they do they seem intoxicated, slurring their words.
In this scenario the cashier should consider not selling the goods”
-Excerpt from Home Office advice to retailers
Drugs have always been and will always be a part of our culture. A humane, rational approach to drug policy would involve regulating all drugs with an evidence-for-harm approach. If a drug is shown scientifically to be harmless, allow it to be sold through licensed vendors. If a drug is shown to be addictive and harmful, restrict its sale appropriately. Regardless of the status of a drug, its use should always be decriminalised. What is the point of throwing young people in jail for ingesting a substance? Drug use should be a health issue, not a criminal issue.
If you want to stand up to this bill, exercise your personal freedom to get high and engage in some potentially illegal activities. Walk outside and smell the freshly-cut grass on a summers morning. Breathe in the fresh alpine air on a country walk. Or inhale some laughing gas – you might as well, since it’s just as illegal as everything else now.
For more information about a rational, humane drug policy, see the Transform website.