"Legal Highs" no longer legal
On 26 May 2016 the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 came into force criminalising the production, distribution, sale and supply of New Psychoactive Substances (‘NPS’), commonly known as ‘legal highs’. These measures ban a range of products including ‘Spice’, ‘Salvia’ and more notably nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and mephedrone ('meow meow').
The Act does not criminalise simple possession as such, although possession with the intent to supply and possession on custodial premises (e.g. a prison) are now prohibited. These offences carry a maximum sentence of seven years' imprisonment.
The Act empowers the police to search suspects premises and vehicles and seize and destroy substances The police and the courts also have the power to shut down ‘head shops’ and online websites selling legal highs and drug paraphernalia.
Due to the wide definition of the psychoactive substances in the Act, that being stimulators or depressors of the central nervous system affecting the person’s mental functioning or emotional state, the legislation provides for a range of exempt substances. These include medicines, alcohol, tobacco products and caffeine amongst others. 'Poppers' (alkyl nitrates) are not included in the schedule of exempt substances, although it is understood that Home Office does not consider them to be covered by the ban as the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs does not consider them to be psychoactive substances, rather that they produced "peripheral effects" on the brain.
The enactment of these criminal measures follows a number of incidents in recent years involving the use of legal highs. The BBC have reported that deaths linked to legal highs were in excess of 100 in the last year, whilst the Crime Survey for England and Wales have reported that 937,000 people have used a, now prohibited, substance. Simon Blackburn from the Local Government Association commented that the criminalisation of these activities “should help reduce anti-social behaviour”.
Although the legislation is expected to deter 'head shops' and supply of these drugs, The Guardian has suggested that sales might now increase on the Dark Web - a series of hidden sites where one can carry out untraceable activities.
The BBC have also observed that NPS have been linked to a rise in violent prison assaults. The Ministry of Justice have stated that they “must do more” in respect of tackling contraband items, including preventing delivery by drones. If prisoners are now found with legal highs the repercussions could include two years being added to their sentence.
Similar measures in Ireland have seen a decline in head shops and those using drug treatment services since 2010. Only time will tell whether the United Kingdom will follow suit.
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Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.