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Flaws in rushed psychoactive substances legislation

23 October 2015

The Home Affairs Committee says the potentially "overwhelming" problem of new psychoactive substances (NPS) must be tackled, ahead of the Committee stages of the Bill. The speed at which the Government is proceeding with the legislation means that a number of serious concerns about the Bill have not been addressed.


The Committee's report made the following conclusions:


  • The speed at which the Government has brought this legislation forward, without any consultation on the specific detail of the Bill, has resulted in some weaknesses being identified.
  • The terminology used to describe substances of this nature has long been ill-defined. The use of the term ‘legal highs' is both misleading and inappropriate. It sends out a message to young people that these substances are both ‘legal' and will have a ‘desirable' effect. This has tempted people to experiment with these substances, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Alkyl Nitrites

  • Professor Iverson, Chair of the ACMD said that alkyl nitrites, also known as 'poppers' were "not seen to be capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a societal problem" and therefore we recommend they should not be banned.


  • If the legislation is to achieve its aims, it must deter producers and suppliers from making psychoactive substances available. According to Police Scotland, it is questionable how this will be done if these people cannot be successfully prosecuted. It appears that the ACMD might have provided a solution through their definition of psychoactive substances, and we call on the Government to assess whether this approach would result in more successful prosecutions.


  • Successive governments' spending on education on the dangers of NPS has been shockingly inadequate to date. Action must be taken now to educate young people about NPS through stronger and wider public information campaigns.
  • There is a lack of clarity in the Bill with regard to the relative harm associated with different types of NPS and the appropriate sentence commensurate with the offence.


  • There is substantial evidence that the market for NPS is already moving online, which, due to the anonymity that the internet can provide, is a challenge for prosecuting authorities to monitor and control. The Government and the police should publish an action plan setting out how they will tackle the challenges of displacement of sales to the internet, including by working with internet providers and overseas jurisdictions. We are particularly concerned about the importation of psychoactive substances via courier services.

Chair's comments

Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"Britain uses more psychoactive substances than any other country in Europe and is at risk of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of this problem. Legislating on this issue is the right thing to do, however doing so at speed without any consultation may be counterproductive. The concerns expressed have been dealt with in a piecemeal manner and there has been unsatisfactory communication with the Advisory Council, the very body that the Ministers should rely on for advice.

There should have been an impact assessment of the ban of NPS in Ireland before the Bill was published, which would have given us a complete picture of what was likely to happen in the UK. It is very disappointing that this did not take place.

A young person dying as a result of using these substances on a night out is every parent's worst nightmare. We are dealing with unscrupulous people, often involved in activities thousands of miles away, who care nothing about damaging health and lives and even causing death in the pursuit of profit. We should use every effort to ensure that the sale of NPS does not move en masse from the high street onto the internet. This would be disastrous. The absence of a public education campaign warning young people of the dangers of NPS is lamentable."

Further information

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