Thursday 28 January 2016

12 things you should know about the Psychoactive Substances Bill

The Tory government's draconian Psychoactive Substances Bill is a shamefully irrational and anti-scientific piece of legislation that seeks to criminalise anyone who dares to attempt to alter their mood, other than through the use of government pre-approved drugs such as cigarettes, alcohol and prescription anti-depressants. 

The blanket ban on any substance that is not awarded a place on the government's pre-approved list (even substances that haven't even been discovered yet) demonstrates beyond any doubt whatever that the policy is driven by ideology, not evidence. Banning substances that don't even exist yet is about as far from evidence based drugs policy as it's possible to imagine because it's literally impossible to have any evidence about the relative harms of substances that don't even exist yet.

In this article I'm going to run through twelve considerations that are pertinent to the debate.

Prohibitionism just doesn't work

There is an absolute mountain of evidence that ideological prohibitionism doesn't work. From the abject failure of alcohol prohibition in the US, to the huge rise in availablilty and use of recreational drugs in the UK since the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs act in 1971. If the object of prohibitionism is to reduce, or even eliminate drugs and drug use, it's clearly a spectacularly unsuccessful approach.

Aside from the mountain of evidence that prohibitionism doesn't work, there's also evidence that drug use actually falls amongst teenagers and problem users when prohibitionism is abandoned, as it did after Portugal decriminalised drugs in 2001.

Prohibitionism is an example of spectacularly naive magical thinking. Instead of understanding that by prohibiting substances you just create an illegal, untaxed, unregulated market for those substances, the prohibitionist imagines that the substances will just magically go away. It really doesn't matter how much evidence they're presented with to prove that prohibitionism doesn't work, the ideological prohibitionist will tend to cling to their magical thinking like a toddler clings to their comfort blanket.


Anyone who gives the remotest damn about the evidence knows that ideological prohibitionism doesn't work, yet the Tories are pushing ahead with their ridiculous "let's just ban everything" agenda anyway.

What makes the Tory Psychoactive Substances Bill so much worse is the fact that a very similar "let's just ban everything" bill introduced in Ireland in 2010 led to a dramatic increase of synthetic designer drugs usage from 16 to 22% of the teenage population. Ireland has the second fastest rate of increased synthetic designer drug usage in the entire EU, and by far the highest overall rate of usage.

Anyone who naively assumes that the politicians pushing this ban actually looked at the available evidence from Ireland must conclude that the objective of the ban is not to reduce drugs associated harms as they like to repeatedly claim, but actually to get as many of our teenagers using synthetic designer drugs as possible!

The only other explanation is that they simply refused to look at the evidence from Ireland.

Not just "legal highs"

The Tory government and mainstream media have tried to create the narrative that this blanket ban is being introduced to combat synthetic designer drugs ("legal highs"), and all you'll get out of the kind of tabloid rote-learners who support the ban is feeble "legal highs are bad m'kay" platitudes, occasionally mixed with a few dollops of sketchy anecdotal evidence.

The fact is that this legislation not only bans a range of "legal highs", it also bans several other substances too including alkyl nitrates aka poppers (rated as one of the least harmful drugs in research published in the Lancet), salvia (a naturally occurring plant that has been used by humans for centuries), ayahuasca (another naturally occurring substance that has been used for centuries), and most ridiculously of all, every single psychoactive compound that hasn't even been discovered yet!

There's very little evidence to suggest that the variety of other substances that are being swept up by this legislation are seriously harmful, and there's obviously no evidence at all about whether substances that have yet to be discovered are harmful or not.

Why do novel designer drugs even exist?

Even if we neglect the fact that this botched piece of legislation sweeps up all kinds of substances instead of specifically tackling the problem of synthetic designer drugs, the slightest examination of the claim that it's meant to crack down on dangerous "legal highs", presents a huge problem for the ideologically driven prohibitionist to explain.

It's beyond doubt that the rise of synthetic drugs like Spice are a direct consequence of the prohibition of cannabis (the naturally occurring substance that Spice has been designed to imitate).

If people are taking potentially harmful synthetic drugs to imitate the effects of a relatively harmless naturally occurring substance that humans have been consuming for at least ten thousand years, surely the sensible solution is to end prohibition of the relatively harmless substance rather than hand control of the market for the synthetic substitute over to unregulated, untaxed criminal gangs too?

The justification is a lie

The fact that the bill bans a load of substances that are relatively harmless in comparison to killers like cigarettes and alcohol, as well as substances that don't even exist yet is an absolutely clear indicator that the stated harm reduction justification is an absolute lie. How is it even remotely possible to know anything about the relative harms of substances that don't even exist yet?

If the government really intended to address the harms associated with substance abuse, the first place to look would be the alcohol and cigarette industries. However they're sacred cows, so they get their exemptions to carry on selling government approved poisons to the masses.

If the government actually gave a damn about the stated problem of dangerous "legal highs", the really obvious solution would be to decriminalise the less harmful substances that these "legal highs" were designed to imitate instead of introducing an ideologically driven ban that will just drive the trade in "legal highs" underground and likely cause a massive upsurge in usage as was the case in Ireland. 

If it's so clear that the stated justification is a lie, then what is the real reason for the ban? One argument is that it's an effort to protect the territory of the alcohol industry from encroachment; another is that it's a convenient tool for the state to discriminate against and imprison non-conformist people; another is that it's just Victorian style moral puritanism causing revulsion amongst the political class that ordinary people are out there having fun; another is that the political class are so terrified of the tabloid press that they're afraid of adopting evidence based drugs policies for fear of the ensuing wave of character assassinations they'd suffer for it.

In reality it's probably a combination of all of those factors, but the one thing this appalling piece of legislation is certainly not inspired by is a genuine desire to reduce substance related harms. 

Evidence based drugs policy vs ideological puritanism

There are two schools of thought when it comes to the drugs debate. There are ideological puritans who believe in magical thinking (drugs problems will just go away if we ban the drugs and criminalise the users) and there are people who believe in evidence based drugs policies.

People who believe in evidence based drugs policy tend to believe that it's rational to set achievable objectives such as reducing the social and economic harms associated with drug use, while the ideological puritan tends to believe in the fantastical objective of eradicating drug use entirely through the strategy of handing control of the drugs market to criminal gangs!

An evidence based approach to the problem of "legal highs" would be to assess which of them are the most harmful, then introduce carefully considered measures to deter people from using the dangerous ones. The approach of the ideological puritan is to ban all legal highs, no matter how harmful, and just use magical thinking to assume that this will make the problem go away, rather than handing control of the "legal highs" market to unregulated, untaxed and likely unscrupulous criminal gangs.

Swimming against the tide

In seeking to further criminalise people who take psychoactive substances the Westminster political class are swimming against the political tide. Despite decades of fearmongering lies and rhetoric in the pages of the right-wing press, utterly bizarre government propaganda campaigns and absurd anti-drugs propaganda dressed up as independent drugs advice from organisations like Talk to Frank, public opinion is gradually moving against ideological prohibitionism and towards rational drugs policies.

The legislative tide is turning across the world. Several countries have decriminalised drug use and others have gone further, fully legalising the use of previously banned substances. Uruguay has fully legalised cannabis, Portugal has decriminalised all drugs (leading to a rapid decline in crime and drug related deaths), 
possession of small amounts of drugs has been decriminalised in Ecuador, the Czech Republic and Costa Rica too, Argentina has recognised the right to take psychoactive substances as a constitutional right, and even in the US (the country that pushed ideologically driven prohibitionism on the rest of the world in the first place) cannabis has been fully legalised in five states, decriminalised in fourteen other states and decriminalised for medical use in eleven others.

In October 2015 the United Nations were due to announce a relaxation in their stance on recreational drugs use, but apparently one country vetoed the change of policy towards the decriminalisation of recreational drugs use. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the country that vetoed the policy change announcement was the United Kingdom, given the way the Westminster establishment seem so desperately keen to swim against the global tide that is flowing towards rational drugs policy and away from ideologically driven prohibitionism.

Legislating against human nature

Human beings have searched out new ways of changing their conscious state since long before they developed the ability to write. The evidence is absolutely clear from preserved archaeological remains that humans have been taking psychoactive substances for thousands of years.

Criminalising people for taking psychoactive substances is to criminalise basic human nature.


Ideological prohibitionism defies economic logic. Given that it is human nature to seek out mood altering substances, there will always be economic demand for mood altering substances.

If the government intervenes to restrict the supply of such substances through prohibitionism, the logical economic consequence is a rise in price, not an elimination of demand. The worst thing about prohibitionism is that the price paid for society to fulfil the natural human tendency to take mood altering substances is increased, while the suppliers in the market do not pay anything back through taxation on their business interests.

Essentially what the cack-handed Psychoactive Substances Bill does is to exempt certain industries from the tax system. Instead of taking steps to regulate the sale of mood altering substances through legalisation, the government have decided to hand an even bigger share of the mood altering substances market over to untaxed, unregulated criminal gangs.

Psychoactive substances are useful

Banning psychoactive substances that haven't even been discovered yet is yet another attack on scientific progress, especially in the fields of neuroscience and psychology. There is an ever growing body of evidence that psychoactive substances are both important tools for understanding the working of the human brain, and also very useful in helping people overcome mental health issues such as PTSD, anxiety, stress, addiction and depression.

Professor David Nutt once said that attempting to do brain science without the use of psychoactive substances is the equivalent of attempting to do astronomy without a telescope, or biology without a microscope.

It should be completely unacceptable to anyone of a rational disposition that a political class, driven by 
ideological puritanism, tabloid hysteria and magical thinking, continues to put legislative obstacles in the way of extremely promising scientific research into the beneficial effects of psychoactive substances. 

Making an ass of the law

One of the most damaging aspects of this ill-conceived legislation is the way that it makes a complete ass out of the law. Not only does it criminalise people for using a wide range of relatively harmless substances, whilst exempting two of the most deadly and addictive substances of all (cigarettes and alcohol), it also bans substances that haven't even been discovered yet.

It's hard enough for ideologically driven moral puritans to justify the proposition that alcohol and cigarettes should remain legal, while users of demonstrably less harmful and addictive substances are criminalised, but the idea that substances that haven't even been discovered yet should be criminalised in order to keep people safe is the kind of ludicrous gibberish that must make any right thinking person begin questioning the validity of the law.

The Psychoactive Substances Bill makes a huge public demonstration that the political class continue to put ideologically driven anti-scientific magical thinking ahead of evidence and rational analysis when it comes to substance use. This ridiculous bill doesn't just show that our drug laws are completely unfit for purpose, it shows that the political class are hopelessly unfit for purpose too.

Moral puritanism and bigotry

Anyone who is familiar with the history of ideological prohibitionism knows that there is an undeniable link between the kind of interfering moral puritan who thinks they have a right to tell other people what they can do with their own bodies, and the kind of bigot who thinks that it's fine to persecute people for their ethnicity, sexual preferences, or theological beliefs.

Many of the first prohibition laws in the United States were introduced as a form of persecution against specific ethnic minorities. Cannabis was prohibited because it was used by the Mexican and Black communities, and opium was prohibited because it was used by Chinese immigrants.

Looking back to the "reefer madness" propaganda of the 1930s and '40s, there are countless examples of overt racism from the purveyors of ideological prohibitionism. Harry Anslinger who was the boss of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 until 1962 had a few interesting things to say about cannabis. According to Anslinger "
Marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes" and "Reefer makes the darkies think they’re as good as the white man…. I wish I could show you what a marijuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate, Spanish-speaking residents". Any politician pushing the prohibitionist agenda should be thoroughly ashamed to be continuing the socially and economically destructive legacy of a racist like Harry Anslinger.

The racist undertones of prohibitionism continue into the modern era. Theresa May's ban on the mild stimulant Khat (which is about as harmful and addictive as caffeine) clearly had more to do with the fact that the majority of users were Somalian than any real concerns about public safety.

On the day that the ridiculous Psychoactive substances Bill was voted through parliament an extremely homophobic message was posted onto the Another Angry Voice Facebook page complaining that poppers should be banned because gays use it to give themselves "sexual pleaser" and that the Tory MP Crispin Blunt is a disgusting degenerate who shouldn't be allowed to be an MP because he's a gay man who admits to using poppers.

It's not surprising that ideological prohibitionism and displays of overt bigotry go hand in hand. After all ideological prohibitionism is a manifestation of hatred towards perceived outsiders too. The prohibitionist hates the fact that some people like to do things that they don't, but instead of adopting a liberal "live and let live" attitude, they support efforts to criminalise 
the users of certain psychoactive substances and to turn them into social pariahs. 


The tide is turning against ideological prohibitionism elsewhere in the world, so hopefully one day the bigoted attitudes and magical thinking that drive absurd legislation like the Psychoactive Substances Bill onto the statute books will dissipate. However I advise the rational people amongst us not to hold their breath waiting for evidence based drugs policies while the most evidence averse right-wing authoritarian UK government in living memory controls the levers of power.

 Another Angry Voice  is a "Pay As You Feel" website. You can have access to all of my work for free, or you can choose to make a small donation to help me keep writing. The choice is entirely yours.

Ending the ideological "war on drugs"
Who are the real extremists?
There was nothing scientific about John Snow's whitey

How gullible would you have to be to believe the Tory "hardworking people" propaganda?
How the mainstream media frame the political debate
Why you should use your critical thinking skills 
(whatever the information source)
The Tory ideological mission
Margaret Thatcher's toxic neoliberal legacies

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