The government has announced a “blanket ban” on substances known as legal highs, with offences carrying potential jail terms of up to seven years. Draft laws, announced in the recent Queen’s Speech, are to be published soon and have been described by ministers as a “landmark.”
Legal highs are more properly called “new psychoactive substances.” They are, as their nickname suggests, not illegal under current laws and are therefore commonly sold online and even in brick-and-mortar shops in town and city centres. Some of these are recently-discovered substances not covered under current laws, and many are substances originally intended for purposes other than human consumption but which have been discovered to be able to produce drug-like effects. Many provide effects similar to substances such as cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine, and they have therefore been used by predominantly young people as a legal, more easily-obtainable way to experience these effects.
Many legal highs are dangerous when used in this manner, and they have been linked to a number of deaths. According to ministers, those who make use of such substances are “taking exceptional risks with their health.” A ban on legal highs was previously included by the Conservative party in their election manifesto. The Labour party also promised a ban on these substances in their own manifesto.
The psychoactive substance bill will, the government says, prohibit “any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect.” There will be exceptions for caffeine, alcohol and tobacco as well as for medical products and certain foods. Drugs that are already legally controlled will also be excluded from the new bill and instead will continue to be covered by the laws that already prohibit their use.
Nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas, will also be prohibited under the new bill when sold for casual human use. It will, however, still be legally obtainable for medical use, food processing, and use in industrial purposes.
The format of the new bill as a “blanket ban” is a response to the considerable difficulty that has come with policing these substances. The category is a very broad one, and new substances have been appearing on the market faster than they can be identified and outlawed by the government. A broad, general ban on psychoactive substances intended for human consumption has, therefore, come to be considered the only practical way to keep up.
The bill is intended to apply to the whole of the UK. It will provide police with search powers, relating to people, vehicles and premises, and with the ability to seize and destroy any such substances that they find.