One of the Conservative government’s flagship laws has been left on the brink of collapse, as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced a “full review” of the legislation. But experts are calling for more action to be taken, as they say that the Tories’ “ideological” war has left them with “blood on their hands”.
Not fit for purpose
The Psychoactive Substances Act became law in 2016. It made it:
an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, possess with intent to supply, possess on custodial premises, import or export psychoactive substances; that is, any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect. The maximum sentence will be 7 years’ imprisonment
It covered anything considered a previously so-called “legal high“; that is a drug which contains chemicals producing the same effect as an illegal substance. But after two ‘test cases’ for prosecutions under the law both collapsed, the BBC has reported that the CPS is to carry out a full review of the law. The Canary contacted the CPS for clarification, but received no response by the time of publication.
The CPS review comes after two attempted prosecutions for intent to supply nitrous oxide, or ‘laughing gas’, fell apart. The courts found the two separate defendants not guilty. This was because judges ruled that laughing gas was legally exempt from the 2016 Act. They agreed that nitrous oxide can be classed as a “medicinal product”, and therefore exempt under the law.
The BBC reported that around 50 people had so far pleaded guilty to supplying laughing gas; meaning that others could have their convictions quashed on appeal due to the two not guilty verdicts. But experts believe that the CPS review does not go far enough.
An expert speaks
Release is the UK’s centre of expertise on drugs and drug laws. Executive director Niamh Eastwood told The Canary that she welcomes the CPS review but that it also needs to clarify what will be done about the previous 50 prosecutions:
Release’s view is that all current prosecutions should be stayed or dropped, and that the convictions secured to date are unsafe. More broadly, the CPS’s review must also consider the problems within the Act of establishing the psychoactivity of any substance. The definition of psychoactivity of a substance is that it must interact with the central nervous system so as to affect ‘mental functioning’ or ‘emotional state’ – these are uniquely human experiences that cannot be proved in a lab.
Eastwood is not the only expert concerned about the CPS review. Neil Woods, a retired Detective Sergeant and undercover operative who is Chairman of drug reform network LEAP UK, told The Canary:
The Act was always an ill-informed and dreadful piece of legislation. I hope and wish that this ruling about the relatively harmless nitrous oxide causes a pause for thought about some of the riskier drugs banned by the Act. But let’s be honest about this situation, since the Act, police calls in relation to this have gone through the roof. The situation has got out of control. Vulnerable people who are more likely to use them, are being exploited by organised criminals who have happily taken up the supply.
This ruling on ‘laughing gas’ will make no difference, 800,000 people will still be using it regularly whether it’s banned or not, but at least less people will be getting criminalised while there is this pause.
But Eastwood believes that reviewing the Psychoactive Substances Act is not enough; as drug policy in the UK is “tragically” failing.
As The Canary previously reported, the government is adamant that its drug policy is working. But the statistics surrounding recreational drugs tell a different story.
The most recent comparable data available shows that death rates due to drugs in 2015 were the following in England and Wales:
- Tobacco [pdf] – 79,000 in 2015, or around 16% of all registered deaths – up from 2014.
- Alcohol – 8,758 in 2015, or 14.2 deaths per 100,000 people. (Note: these are direct deaths from alcohol-related diseases, not indirect).
- Illegal drugs – 2,479 in 2015, or 4.38 deaths per 100,000 people.
In short, both tobacco and alcohol are far more of a public health concern than illegal drugs. But aside from overall drug-related deaths rising by 67%, and heroin-related deaths by 107% between 2012 and 2015, further statistics seem to contradict the government’s ‘success’; as almost a third of all drug overdoses in Europe happened in the UK. Additionally, Britain has the highest proportion of heroin addicts in the EU – 8 in every 1,000 people. Also, the overall UK (including Scotland and Northern Ireland) drug mortality rate for 2016 was three times the EU average, at 60.3 deaths per million people.
“Blood on its hands”
And Eastwood is damning in her verdict on the government’s approach to this crisis:
If the government continues to ignore this tragedy it will have more blood on its hands. They must adopt the recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, their own advisors, who in 2016 said that the government should implement a national heroin-assisted treatment programme, and set up drug consumption rooms in areas where there is a need. As usual this advice was rejected.
The UK need only look at Portugal to see what can happen when drugs are treated as a health issue rather than a criminal justice one. The Portuguese ended criminal sanctions in 2001 and invested heavily in harm reduction – their rate of drug related deaths is six per million whereas in England and Wales it is 60.3 per million; in Scotland it is around 150 per million. Clearly we are doing something terribly wrong.
The Tories’ “ideological” war on drugs
Eastwood says that currently, the government still insists on a criminal justice-based approach to drug law. But she says this “evidence-free” attitude needs to change. Because it is “obsessed” with measuring its effectiveness based on the number of people using drugs; whereas, she says, government policy should measure success “based on the reduction of harms associated with drugs”, and that:
It is ideological in its approach and terrified of doing anything that does not fit a ‘tough on drugs’ rhetoric.
The CPS review of the Psychoactive Substances Act is a welcome step in the right direction. But it is small succour in terms of a ‘war on drugs’ that is failing in the most devastating way. When you have a government (and a system) that doesn’t grasp the subject it is legislating on, then problems will arise. But the challenge facing anyone affected by drug laws is that those making them are coming from an archaic and totally alien viewpoint. It is time the government began to listen to drug users, addicts and experts. Because its ‘war’ is failing. And too many lives are being lost.
– For advice on drugs or drugs and the law contact Release on 020 7324 2989.
– If it is a medical emergency, call 999.
Featured image via Flickr
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