Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 – The end of legal highs?

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From midnight (starting 26 May 2016) the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 comes into effect, aiming to stamp out the market in ‘legal highs’ or novel psychoactive substances.


The Act, which has seen several delays this year, will make it an offence to import, sell, supply or produce any substance knowing that it may be used to produce a psychoactive effect.  A psychoactive substance is defined in the Act as being capable of “producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it” if it acts by “stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, affecting the person’s mental functioning or emotional state“. So anything that affects your body or mind can be defined in this way, think alcohol, caffeine, nicotine… All of those three examples are actually expressly listed as exemptions to the Act, along with controlled drugs, medicinal drugs and foodstuffs.  Controlled drugs are those that are already listed in the Misuse of Drugs Act, which is not being changed. Medicinal drugs are those defined by the Human Medicines Regulations 2012. Foodstuffs are defined as anything that is usually used as a food or drink and does not contain a prohibited ingredient (an added drug). Nitrous oxide will fall under this Act when sold for recreational use, but not when sold as a propellant for whipped cream.

According to the Home Office Website the penalties that will be introduced include:

  • up to 7 years in prison for the supply, production, possession with intent to supply, importation or exportation of a psychoactive substance for human consumption
  • up to 2 years in prison for possessing a psychoactive substance in a custodial institution
  • prohibition and premises orders, which will allow police to shut down head shops and online dealers in the UK, with up to 2 years in prison for those who fail to comply
  • police powers to seize and destroy psychoactive substances, search people, premises and vehicles, and to search premises by warrant if necessary

There has been a big rise in ‘legal highs’, more recently defined as novel psychoactive substances (NPS), in the past ten years.  These NPS are drugs designed to mimic illicit drugs but avoid the legal controls. Mostly they are said to be similar to cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamine or cannabis. Most come from a laboratory straight to the high street with very few if any tests on them for safety or effect. There is little or no toxicology data available following tests on either humans or animals. These are generally not produced in the same type of controlled environment as medicinal drugs so the labels may not accurately reflect the contents.

The first legal high I was aware of was benzylpiperazine (BZP), said to give an amphetamine like effect. This was massive in New Zealand when I was there and I wrote about that here.  This was often used combined with another substance, called TFMPP, which produced an ecstasy like effect.  Then there was the development of the synthetic cannabinoids, which have been big news for the last few years. These are said to mimic cannabis, but are actually research chemicals produced in the lab rather than grown. Many of the synthetic cannabinoids are said to be more dangerous than the cannabis they are mimicking, having lead to many reports of hospitalisations and some reported deaths. Since then many have come and gone, being banned as they become popular. It was for this reason the government decided on a blanket approach rather than having to be reactive every time a drug comes onto the market.

What the act will mean for the consumer?  Many shops have been selling off their stocks cheaply to get rid befoer the ban comes into effect. This is fine as the possession for personal use is not an offence. Soon though there will be a big gap in the market where the ‘head shops’ and online shops sold these pills. There are a large number of people who wish to use NPS for recreation, will these people now stick to other legal drugs, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine or will there be a move to other, illegal, drugs? Pro legislation campaigners have said that the use of NPS has caused 400 deaths which wouldn’t have happened but head shop owners have pointed out many more people die each year from abuse of illegal drugs (mainly heroin and cocaine).

It’ll be interesting to see the trend of drug use in the next little while, when regular users have used up all of their stocks!

Thanks for reading – any thoughts on what will happen next?

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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.