Psychoactive Substances Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) (PSB 23)

1) The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) is an independent, multi-disciplinary charity dedicated to the improvement of the public’s health and wellbeing. With a membership of over 6000 public health professionals, we help inform policy and practice, working to educate, empower and support communities and individuals to live healthily. We have previously called for this bill and are submitting evidence due to our desire to make sure that the outcome of the bill is the protection of individuals and the reduction of harm.

2) In March 2015, we published "Removing legal highs from the high street", which included calling for a ban on the import and sale of psychoactive substances. This recommendation was based on concerns that the legal status of these substances has enabled them to be sold on the high street, normalising their use and giving the false impression that they are safe or safer than other controlled substances. Given that the composition and safety of NPS varies enormously, research by the Angelus Foundation that a quarter of young people aged 16-24 years old believed that NPS are safer than illegal drugs was particularly worrying. In principle, we welcome the bill to close the legal loopholes tha t allow the development, production and sale of significantly harmful substances to members of the public for consumption.

3) While the legal status and visibility of head shops on the high street may have contributed to the rise in the use of NPS, some of the demand for psychoactive substances would no doubt remain after the bill came into force. This demand would logically be displaced to ‘underground’ sources of psychoactive substances, and more recent evidence from Ireland makes it unclear whether the ban there has reduced the use of NPS. The bill needs to create the right legal framework to minimise any adverse consequences for health. The RSPH therefore suggests the following:

4) We must avoid causing additional harm to individuals who use psychoactive substances. The bill should not criminalise individuals, es pecially young people, for using psychoactive substances. The bill did not aim to criminalise possession and there has been some confusion in debate around the status of buying NPS , for instance over the internet and in custodial institutions . The effect of a criminal record and/or prison sentence on the life opportunities, health and wellbeing of individuals would be disproportionate for personal use and would be counterproductive to protecting individuals from harm . As well as making this clear in the legislation, the government should make clear in communications that those who seek help for problem use will not receive criminal sanctions.

5) As a permanent solution, treating all psychoactive substances covered by the bill as the same in terms of sanctions would not reflect the difference in risks and harms from different substances. The blanket ban should help to rectify the current situation that incentivises new, often more dangerous formulations and gives the impression that NPS are safer than controlled drugs. But psychoactive substance use will persist and the structure of sanctions needs to shape this by linking them to evidence of harm. An evidence-based process should be established to determine appropriate sanctions for substances covered by the l egislation. It should be made clear how these cohere with the existing classification system for drugs controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

6) The bill should avoid preventing the development of new substances for recreational use that reduce or minimise the risks of harm. The enormous health costs of alcohol and tobacco for example , which this bill exempts, are well established and advances may allow for less harmful formulations that could displace them. It should be established that innovation and r esearch to this end would not be blocked .

7) The government should undertake an assessment of any additional burden that changes may place on the drug treatment system at a time when the Public Health Grant to local authorities has been cut by £200m in year. A survey of public health workers commissioned by the RSPH in July 2015 found that 26 out of 100 public health workers had seen rationing of drug treatment services. [1] Given this context, the government should make sure that sufficient resources are made available to deal with health problems caused by psychoactive substances.

October 2015

Prepared 29th October 2015