Just under a year ago, on May 26th, 2016, the Psychoactive Substances Act finally came into force after months of delays.
Protests against the Act had come from all sides, with drug policy reform campaigners adamant that simply banning ‘legal highs’ would drive the trade underground and increase harm, pointing to similar legislation in the Republic of Ireland and Poland as evidence. The police, it was claimed, had voiced their own concerns about the enforceability of the Act, whilst scientists argued that its definition of ‘psychoactive’ made little sense, and would make prosecutions extremely difficult.
Editorials and blogs from journalists from all points on the political spectrum urged the government to reconsider their position, and I was among them. Across various publications I railed against the PSA, calling it, among other things, “a source of perplexed amusement [and] despair,” “the tardigrade of bad policy [that just won’t die], and “an affront to centuries of legal tradition”.
It would, I argued, lead to an increase in the harm caused by drugs such as Spice and Black Mamba, as the supply moved from regulated (albeit loosely) headshops to the streets. The vagueness of the Act’s wording would make policing impossible, leaving bathroom chemists free to produce ever-stronger and more untested chemicals to unleash upon communities made more vulnerable than ever by the erosion of their access to medical help.
Well, I was wrong.
Not about any of those things, of course. The use of Spice (or, more accurately, Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists, or SCRAs) has exploded among the homeless community in places like Manchester, Lincoln (which banned ‘Spice’ long before the PSA), and Liverpool, as well as in the UK’s already-stretched prison system. Images of people under the influence of these drugs (callously labelled ‘zombies’ by many outlets) have been all over the news in recent weeks. Many are calling it an epidemic.
Users report that the drugs are more readily available, cheaper, and more powerful than ever before. Homeless services are at a loss as to how to accommodate rough-sleeping addicts, who are often turned away from shelters and forced back onto the streets, whilst the police – despite the closure of many headshops – have successfully prosecuted only a handful of dealers in 12 months. As predicted by legal experts and scientists, they’ve found it nigh on impossible to demonstrate the psychoactivity of products in the absence of human subjects to test them on, and this lack of clarity over what is and isn’t banned has made it increasingly difficult for the police to uphold the law, whilst at the same time making lawyer’s jobs that much easier.
All of those predictions have come true within the first year of the ban’s introduction. Those of us who made such dire predictions have been proven depressingly, painfully correct. But I was still wrong. Despite predicting the failure of the Act and the harm it would cause, I still, unlike most, harboured a sliver of positivity.
In an article for politics.co.uk in January of last year, before the Act’s eventual introduction, I attempted to argue that despite its obvious flaws, the PSA could in fact end up triggering the end of the war on drugs. Essentially, my argument was that because the Act didn’t criminalise possession or use of legal highs, it represented a significant move in the right direction for British drug policy.
The situation in Ireland, to my mind, only added weight to my theory – since the Irish government had introduced their own legal high ban, the signs were that the campaign for real reform was gaining traction. Supervised injection facilities were planned, and there were rumblings – including from within the Garda – that further decriminalisation of all drugs was on the horizon. They’d had to suffer through the failure of their own ill-fated attempt to ban legal highs, but in the end it looked as though it might be worth it.
Sadly though, that momentum has not proven to be as strong as it looked. Supervised injection facilities are still on their way, as is – in theory – medical cannabis. But it hasn’t been the revolution that many hoped. What’s worse, the British government appear to have done almost the exact opposite.
My hope had been that they had finally seen the folly of criminalising drug users simply for being drug users – after all, one of the main architects of the Act, Mike Penning, had said as much in Parliament. In a rare moment of optimism I had imagined that this admission of the failure of prohibition might in fact lead to a Portugal-style decriminalisation of all drugs. As it turns out, I could hardly have been more wrong.
Instead, whilst the consequences of the PSA and the enormous harm it has caused have become clear for all to see; whilst users, despite not being criminalised, have been hit hardest by its failures, the reaction of Theresa May’s government has been to punish them again. Rather than reacting to a public health crisis with sympathy and humanity, they have once again shown their disdain for drug users by opting to move many of the most potentially harmful SCRAs – the active ingredients of the various ‘Spice’ mixes causing so much devastation – out of the Psychoactive Substances Act and into the remit of the Misuse of Drugs Act.
In doing so, they have criminalised the most vulnerable section of society in an effort to sweep their suffering out of sight. It is a callous act that will help nobody, and do nothing to address the failures of the PSA or the MoDA, but, perhaps more worryingly, it is an act which has gone largely unnoticed.
This is perhaps understandable. The government have been careful not to draw attention to their course of action. But whether people are aware or not, the decision has undoubtedly caused more harm to users, whilst making the job of enforcing our drug laws even more difficult for the police. As if it isn’t already hard enough for officers to know whether a particular user is in possession of a substance that is completely outlawed, or one that is only illegal to produce and/or supply, they’re now being told, less than a year after the PSA’s introduction, that everything’s changed again.
The really worrying thing about all of this is what might happen next. It’s entirely possible that should the government continue on this path, and continue to criminalise more and more users of SCRAs, they could succeed in getting the issue out of the public eye. But attempting to arrest their way out of this crisis is not going to help those who are suffering. The drugs will still be there, and our drug laws will still be causing nothing but harm to the people who use them.
It’s safe to say that any optimism I may once have felt about the long term consequences of the Psychoactive Substances Act has all but dried up. Instead, I’m now left with a sense of fear. The PSA’s only positive was that it didn’t criminalise users, but it now looks as though the government are quietly abandoning that path in favour of an old-fashioned clampdown, designed not to solve the problem, but to cover it up. I sincerely hope that I’m wrong once again.
Deej Sullivan is a journalist and campaigner. He regularly writes on drug policy for politics.co.uk, London Real, and many others, and is the Policy & Communications officer at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition UK. Tweets @sullivandeej