Psychoactive substances Contents

1 Introduction

Psychoactive substances

1.New psychoactive substances (NPS), more commonly and inappropriately referred to as ‘legal highs’, is an umbrella term for products intended to mimic the effects of controlled drugs. The ‘legal highs’ market is characterized by the speed with which suppliers circumvent drug controls by offering new alternatives to restricted products and advertise them with aggressive and sophisticated marketing strategies (as air fresheners, herbal incenses, bath salts, plant fertilizers, collectors’ items etc.). The term ‘legal high’ is also a successful marketing instrument in and of itself, as it implies that these substances are not as dangerous as controlled drugs, thus boosting their popularity and sales. Substances presented as ‘legal highs’ often also include controlled drugs.

Prevalence of NPS

2.The European Monitoring Centre of Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) is responsible for the European early warning system for NPS. Whenever a NPS is detected in a country, information on its manufacture, trafficking and use is sent by the State to Europol and EMCDDA. In 2014, 101 new substances were identified in the European Union, continuing the five year upward trend from 24 detections in 2009.1

3.In terms of popularity, a European survey of youth attitudes estimated that 5% of young Europeans (aged 15–24) had used NPS at some time. The highest estimates were reported by Ireland (16%) followed by Latvia, Poland and the UK (10%).2 The largest market for NPS in the EU is the UK (670,000 people in the age group 15 to 24, or 23% of the EU total), followed by Poland (17%) and France (14%). In some European countries (Ireland and Poland), the use of NPS among young people is greater than the use of other drugs, and in the UK, the levels are approaching those of other drugs, apart from cannabis.3

Public health concerns

4.Many NPS are only legal because they have not yet been assessed for their harms and considered for control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, not because they are inherently safe to use. Most will not have been tested on either humans or animals, and the purity of the products is unknown. Deaths related to NPS in England and Wales more than doubled from 26 to 60 between 2009 and 2013. In 2013, there were also 113 deaths in Scotland where NPS were present in the body (though this figure is not directly comparable with the figures for England and Wales).4

Background to our inquiry

5.Currently, under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) makes reports as to which substances should be “controlled drugs” (i.e. Class A, B and C), such as cocaine and heroin. The ACMD is also consulted when the Secretary of State wishes to make a temporary class drug order. This order was introduced specifically to enable the Government to temporarily control NPS through a faster parliamentary mechanism than under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

6.Home Affairs Committees in previous Parliaments have produced a number of Reports on drug control and related matters. In particular, our immediate predecessors published a report on Drugs: new psychoactive substances and prescription drugs in December 2013 which called for the introduction of tailored and specific legislation to shift the evidential responsibility for proving the safety and non-narcotic purpose of a substance onto the seller.5

7.In May 2015, the current Government introduced new legislation “to ban the new generation of psychoactive drugs”. Its stated purposes are to:

(1)Protect hard-working citizens from the risks posed by untested, unknown and potential harmful drugs.

(2)Create a blanket ban which would prohibit and disrupt the production, distribution, sale and supply of new psychoactive substances (NPS) in the UK.6

Under the Bill, new psychoactive substances will automatically be banned, unless they are exempted. The Secretary of State can add or vary the list of exempted substances, but only after consultation with appropriate persons, including the ACMD.

This inquiry and Report

8.We announced our terms of reference and issued a call for evidence in July 2015. We received around 50 written submissions from a range of organisations and individuals and held oral evidence sessions with four panels of witnesses. A full list of oral and written evidence is set out at the end of the report. In addition we visited the Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust Club Drug Clinic. We are grateful to everyone who contributed to our inquiry, and we hope that this Report will inform the Commons stages of the passage of this important legislation.

2 European Monitoring Centre of Drugs and Drug Addiction, The state of the drugs problem in Europe: Annual Report 2012, P91-92

3 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, World Drug Report 2013, P72

4 Explanatory Notes to the Psychoactive Substances Bill [Lords] [Bill 63 (2015–16) –EN], P4, and Home Office (PAS042)

5 Home Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2013–14, Drugs: new psychoactive substances and prescription drugs, HC 819, para 14

6 Prime Minister’s Office, Queen’s Speech 2015: background briefing notes, P72




© Parliamentary copyright 2015

Prepared 22 October 2015