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Senior figures in the scientific world have raised their concerns over the proposed Psychoactive Substances Bill (the Bill). Theresa May is under mounting pressure to make revisions to the Bill following pressure from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which has largely slipped under the radar. In an initial letter to the government, the ACMD detailed eight areas that need addressing, or else the Bill could result in serious unintended consequences. 



Currently making its passage through parliament, the Bill aims to ban psychoactive substances not currently controlled by UK legislation. However, the ACMD has serious concerns over the ambiguity of what is meant by ‘new psychoactive substances’. It has made it clear that it would not support a ban that broadens the scope beyond what was originally intended. As it stands, the council argues it would be almost impossible to list all the exemptions, which would therefore render the Bill ineffectual.

More than a description 


The ACMD believe the scope of the Psychoactive Substance Bill needs to be focused on a group of substances, which the Council refers to as “Novel Psychoactive Substances”. However, by its own omission, simply renaming the Bill with the word ‘novel’ at the forefront, would not be workable; a point strongly reiterated by the Home Secretary herself. 

Since its letter to the government on 13th July, the council has been working on “a suitable definition which fulfils the intention of the legislation”. 

In its latest published correspondence (17th August), it provides three workable definitions. Its preference is for ‘Psychoactive substances which are not prohibited by the United Nations Drug Conventions of 1961 and 1971, or by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, but which may pose a public health threat comparable to that posed by substances listed in these conventions.’

Inclusion of ‘which may pose a public health threat’ might well help appease medical scientists who have expressed their concerns that the Bill as it stands could signal a threat to neuroscientific research. It was only at the end of June that The Academy of Medical Scientists (AMS) wrote to the Home Secretary expressing its concerns. Certain substances with psychoactive properties, it argues, “are important tools in helping scientists to understand a variety of phenomena, including consciousness, memory, addiction and mental illness.” In making its point, the AMS uses the example of a novel compound that has mild psychoactive effects being used by researchers to identify a pathway linked to depression. The researcher, with approval from a Research Ethics Committee, might wish to continue their work with human volunteers to better understand the impact on the human brain. With the current Bill, if the ‘substance is purely experimental’ and is not expected to have a therapeutic effect, it will not qualify as an investigational medicinal product. Technically, the researcher could be at risk of prosecution for manufacturing a psychoactive substance with intent to supply it for human consumption. 

Determining Psychoactivity


As the professional substance misuse and mental health community will understand, it is very difficult to definitively establish psychoactivity in humans, especially in a court of law.  Whilst numerous tests exist, there is currently “no way to define psychoactivity through a biochemical test”.  The ACMD points out that “The only definitive way of determining psychoactivity is via human experience, which is usually not documented”. It has said though that it will help the government establish guidance on how to predict whether a substance is likely to be psychoactive and has already set up a Working Group to facilitate this.  Whether this would stand up to scrutiny in a court of law is yet to be seen though. 

Government response to amending the Psychoactive Substances Bill


It appears as if the government is heeding the Council’s advice. In discussions over amends to the bill in the House of Lords on 20th July 2015, Lord Paddick said:

“We hope that, with the assistance of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the Bill will be further improved... so that the harmful effects that could possibly arise from it are at least lessened.”

The Home Affairs Committee has announced that an inquiry will take place in the autumn into ‘new psychoactive substances’.  This will inform the passage of the Bill through parliament. The inquiry will consider a number of issues that will be of great interest to those working in substance misuse. 

It will consider which groups will be affected by a ban, what can be done to educate people, and how the government will go about explaining the change in legal status of the substances. This by itself is no mean feat.

The inquiry is also expected to explore what specialist treatment users of psychoactive substances require, and how user attention can be shifted away from controlled drugs once the ban is in place. Whilst there’s likely to be much more research, we also expect to hear the government’s views on whether the authorities have the resources to enforce the proposed change in law, and what the impact on substance misuse roles is likely to be. 

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