The Psychoactive Substances Act has failed

Matt Gillow

December 4, 2018

In the past week, the Home Office has published a review into the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) – continuing the policy of prohibition which this country has had for decades and which flies in the face of most advice and evidence. The PSA was simply a way to indicate that the Home Office is doing something about drugs, despite its failure to propose evidence-based policy. Shock horror: it’s failing.

The plan was to stamp out the use of what used to be legal substances. But this criminalisation has not worked – the review notes that the new psychoactive substances (NPS) drug trade has shifted to the dealer. In reality, this has made it more dangerous for users and has pushed the trade underground.

According to the review, the use of spice in prisons hasn’t just been allowed to continue, it has actually increased. Furthermore, the use of psychoactive substances among under-16s and the homeless has failed to fall. It makes you wonder how the Home Office hasn’t sat up, taken a look at other aspects of their failed drug policy and thought: “hang on, we need a serious rethink.”

The standard by which the Psychoactive Substances Act was supposed to stand or fall was on whether it would put a stop to the cat-and-mouse game of new drugs coming onto the market as others are banned.

The grand failure of the PSA will come as no surprise for those with a close eye on drug policy. The expert advice prior to the act was that it would hurt drug users the most, forcing them off their safer, more-regulated highs and on to cocaine, MDMA, and more dangerous substances. It was surprising, given the wealth of evidence accessible by the government, that Theresa May  – at the Home Office, when the act was first proposed – pressed ahead with it.

Ever since May became prime minister, however, that decision has become increasingly less surprising, as she’s presided over a party which has disregarded individual liberty as a guiding principle and has – against all the evidence – dived even deeper into the war on drugs.

No longer is this a Conservative party that, on domestic affairs, is staunchly pro-individual rights and evidence-based policymaking, but rather a party that is pro-populist rhetoric and half-baked recommendations from the book of Miliband.

The Psychoactive Substances Act made the concept of “legal until it isn’t” null and void, as it created a government-approved list of what you, as an adult, could put into your body without the full weight of the law crashing down upon you. It may not seem so, but it was a far darker move than most past policy decisions on drugs, which never made the default setting for any “psychoactive” substance “illegal until it isn’t”.

In 2015, sociologist Karenza Moore predicted that the PSA would be “just another war on drugs”, arguing that there isn’t anywhere near enough funding for drug education, harm reduction, outreach, and mental health and drug treatment services to help people who may be in trouble with psychoactive substances, not least those in our prisons.

There is now such a plethora of evidence in favour of comprehensive drug reform that it seems politicians deliberately choose to ignore facts just so they can continue their prejudices. Simply put, many of them wouldn’t know sensible drug policy if it smacked them in the face.

The Home Office itself, by its own admission, has failed to crack down on what it’s decided are psychoactive substances. If we stopped treating drug users as criminals and stopped wasting resources on sending the police after them, we would start making progress in addressing the problem of addiction and drug cartels. But, for as long as Theresa May remains in No 10, don’t hold your breath for “sensible”.


  • Matt Gillow

    Matt Gillow is co-founder of 1828 and communications and events manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.

Written by Matt Gillow

Matt Gillow is co-founder of 1828 and communications and events manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.


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