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U.K. Bill Banning Psychoactive Drugs Could Stifle Scientific Research

Critics say the bill banning “legal highs” is too broad to be enforceable

Legal Highs

The UK bill would ban new psychoactive drugs, or "legal highs."

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A U.K. bill announced this week in the 2015 Queen’s Speech aims to curb the manufacturing of “legal highs” sold both in head shops and on the streets with a blanket ban on any and all new psychoactive drugs.

The far-reaching proposal is intended to “ban the new generation of psychoactive drugs” – commonly called “legal highs” or “synthetics” due to their mimicking of banned substances – by pre-emptively criminalizing the manufacturing and sale, but not possession of, new mind-altering substances.

“The landmark psychoactive substances bill will fundamentally change the way we tackle new psychoactive substances – and put an end to the game of cat and mouse in which new drugs appear on the market more quickly than government can identify and ban them,” Mike Penning, minister of state at the Home Office, said in a statement.

The new legislation would result in a seven-year jail sentence for anyone found guilty of manufacturing or distributing “any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect.”

But critics say the bill is too broad to be enforceable, let alone effective, and may stifle research that employs new psychoactive substances.

“The definition of what’s considered psychoactive is so broad as to be unworkable,” Stefanie Jones, Nightlife Community Engagement Manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, tells Rolling Stone. “It demonstrates a complete disregard for the question of whether or not any new psychoactive substances actually carry risks.”

The bill follows the U.K. government’s difficulty enforcing existing bans on new psychoactive drugs like synthetic cathinones (“bath salts,” such as mephedrone) and synthetic marijuana (“Spice”), which are already illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act. When it comes to the emergence of new psychoactive substances that are not already explicitly banned, the U.K. government has the power to temporarily ban the manufacture and sale of psychoactive substances not covered in the Misuse of Drugs Act. 

The blanket-ban proposal comes despite a poor track record when it comes to banning new psychoactive drugs in the U.K.

Studies on the effect of the mephedrone ban, for example, have found that club goers continue to use the drug unabated.

“Since we carried out our first study [in 2010] the purity of mephedrone has fallen, the price has risen, yet the results of our second study showed both use and popularity had increased in the year since the ban,” Dr. Fiona Measham, senior lecturer in criminology at Lancaster University, told The Guardian in 2012.

“The results of our two studies showed that not only were club-goers undeterred by the change in law, but the drug had in fact increased in popularity among our sample.”

The ban will also have a chilling effect on research in the U.K., according to Professor David Nutt, who was chairman to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs until he was fired for comments about the harmlessness of ecstasy. A neuropsychopharmacologist studying how drugs affect the brain, Nutt has served as an advisor to multiple U.K. government offices, and was head of the Psychopharmacology Unit at the University of Bristol before becoming the Edmond J. Safra chair in neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London.

Speaking with The Guardian, Nutt called the blanket ban “disastrous,” and said, “It’s going to end brain research in this country.”

“[T]he only drug for Parkinson’s is a cathinone [a class of drugs, including mephedrone, which was banned in 2010],” Nutt said, “We’ve already seen massive impediment to research of interesting compounds by current law.”

James Rucker, a lecturer in psychiatry at King’s College London, also told The Guardian that current laws are stifling research, particularly into LSD and psilocybin, or “magic mushrooms.”

“U.K. pharmaceutical research into psychiatric disorders has rapidly diminished over the last decade or so anyway, and this regulation will not help,” Rucker told the paper. “We derive no benefit from this approach. It stymies research and we are unlikely to be able to discover which of these new psychoactive substances might have medical benefits.”

A blanket ban that may stifle research, however, is not the only way to curb the production and use of new psychoactive substances.

“What would actually make more sense [than a blanket ban] in terms of reducing harm and restricting access,” Jones tells Rolling Stone, “would be to create a health and safety-tested system of regulation for new psychoactive substances – something along the lines of what New Zealand is in the process of putting in place.”

In New Zealand, the government has taken a wildly different approach, choosing to accept the prevalence of new psychoactive substances and to test and then approve them for regulated sale – rather than attempt to ban them repeatedly.

“Rather than us banning it after the event, you prove it’s safe,” Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne said in a 2013 speech to a United Nations commission.

But the reform promised has been bogged down by logistical issues and public outcry about the alleged safety of approved drugs, causing a second wave of bans on substances that were on sale and prohibiting animal testing in new trials.

“In theory, the New Zealand Psychoactive Substance Act 2013 introduced this option in respect of [new psychoactive substances], provided they could be proved low risk,” Julian Buchanan, associate professor of criminology at Victoria University of Wellington tells Rolling Stone, adding that the purpose was actually to extend prohibition, not curb it. “Perhaps not surprisingly, given the main focus of the act, not a single [new psychoactive substance] has been approved for sale here in New Zealand.”

“We must end penalties for all personal possession, not extend them as we have done here in New Zealand,” Buchanan says. “We cannot construct a new model for drug regulation on the foundations of prohibition in which people are encouraged to consume state-approved products and punished for possessing unapproved products. We need to concentrate on developing strict regulation on businesses, not people, and ultimately this process should not be confined to [new psychoactive substances] but include all substances currently listed under the Misuse of Drugs Act.”

Stefanie Jones of the Drug Policy Alliance suggests legally regulating MDMA and marijuana. Going down that path, she says, “would immediately make a huge dent in the new psychoactive substance market.” 

“The vast majority of what is put out is meant to mimic the effects of these two drugs,” Jones tells Rolling Stone. “Regulating these two ‘classics’ – both of which have decades of research about their use and relative risks – would satisfy market demand and would likely greatly undercut the production of new psychoactive substances.”

This article has been updated with additional information about New Zealand’s drug policy.

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