|Photo by Matthew Payne, on Upslash.|
significantly inhibited the use of new psychoactive substances (NPS, formerly known as
‘legal highs’) and other more traditional illicit drugs, according to experts. Researchers and
practitioners taking part in Oxford Brookes Criminology’s ‘Drugscapes’ seminar, on the 22nd
of May, and assessing the impact of the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) 2016, the last
significant piece of drugs legislation introduced and meant to criminalise all NPS, suggested
that more efficient prevention, education and harm-reduction measures might provide a more useful trajectory for drug policy rather than a dominant focus on law enforcement.
The very grouping of emerging synthetic compounds under the ‘NPS’ category has coincided
with a return from evidence-based policy to prohibition-geared approaches, as Dr Caroline
Chatwin, Reader in Criminology at the University of Kent, observed. ‘Blanket bans’ such as
the PSA illustrate the precautionary principle – faced with a ‘hare and hound’ game of ever-
faster innovation cycles in unregulated production and global supply chains, lacking reliable
data on the myriad compounds making their way to consumers, governments choose to equate all substances used for their psychoactive qualities with a presumed (and oftentimes
unproven) harm potential. Blaine Stothard, independent consultant and co-editor of the
academic journal Drugs and Alcohol Today, referred to this as more reflex without reflection,
another missed opportunity for fresh thinking on the matter.
But, as history shows, prohibition does not mean abstinence. Survey data presented by Dr
Lisa Lione, Senior Lecturer in Pharmacology at the University of Hertfordshire, indicated an
15 per cent increase in awareness of NPS for UK users and a 24 per cent percent increase in
use for (predominantly young and well-educated) male respondents, from 2015 to 2017. Dr
Paolo DeLuca, Reader in Addiction at King’s College London, pointed out that even if the
PSA was initially successful in closing down online shops selling NPS (only about a quarter
of UK-registered websites remained open after the PSA coming into force), it is not known to
what extent these have moved into the hidden web, as the general availability of NPS through
cryptomarkets seemed to grow in the months following the ban.
Further on, it is at times the most vulnerable in society who suffer from reconfigurations in
supply. Beccy Rawnsley, policy coordinator for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership
(LEAP UK), argued that the PSA pushed NPS such as synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists
(SCRAs or ‘Spice’) from ‘head shops’ onto the streets, enabling organised crime to expand
profits. Hardeep Matharu, writer and researcher for Volteface UK, also underlined this
displacement effect in terms of a “law of unintended consequences”. Rough sleepers have
been most affected by SCRA use and media clichés of ‘Spice zombies’ have only added to the
stigma they face, also making it harder for drug workers to deliver sensible information
among exaggerations and toxic pop culture tropes, as Professor Shane Blackman from
Canterbury Christ University emphasized.
Dr Emma Wincup, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Leeds, pointed out
that even if the UK government’s 2017 drug strategy focuses on vulnerable populations such
as young people, prison inmates or the homeless, without a deeper understanding of both the
lived experiences and the structural (socio-economic) causes of vulnerability, as wells as its
intersections with substance abuse, it is unlikely to inspire significant change. Lack of life
opportunities, for example, is why many young people are easily recruited by crime gangs in,
or sent to, small town areas to sell heroin or crack cocaine – what the press have been
reporting as the ‘county lines’ phenomenon. DCI Darran Hill, of the Thames Valley Police
Serious and Organised Crime division, stated that without community engagement and
prevention, “arresting our way out of the problem” is a false premise.
Academics and drug workers mentioned that even if the Act was successful in closing down
head shops and discouraging some potential users to try NPS without criminalising those who already did, it was also confusing for police, frontline treatment staff and the general public in its vague terminology – see the competing interpretations around the legal status of nitrous oxide under the PSA, for example. The focus on policing and supply did not leave much room for harm-reduction programmes either. From sustained investment and political support for statutory drug prevention programmes in schools to more radical thinking around how legal markets of recreational drugs might be regulated, forward-looking rather than backward policy inspired by unattainable moral ideals and sound bites (e.g. that of ‘the drug-free world’) seems like the only viable direction.
Dr Liviu Alexandrescu, Lecturer in Criminology at Oxford Brookes University