Sunday, 11 June 2017

Reflections on the Psychoactive Substances Act one year on

One of the most interesting developments in UK drug policy in the last few years has been the introduction of the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA), which came into force just over a year ago in response to the emergence of 'new psychoactive substances', often known as 'legal highs'.

As this anniversary has come round, there's been quite a bit of media and policy discussions about how well it's worked, and whether it can be viewed as a positive development.

I've been involved in several discussions about this.

First, there are several recorded interviews or snippets of mine that have been broadcast on BBC Radio Solent:

Second, I've commented on an excellent event, the Psychoactive Supper, held around the time of the introduction of the Act.  The organisers put together a short film describing what happened, and then asked me and the excellent Neil Woods of LEAP to comment on it.  You can find this if you scroll down a bit here.  What I try to do in this piece is describe how the supper highlights the inconsistencies in the Act, and reflect on how well the Act may have worked in practical terms.

But if you want a more complete outline of my personal (optimistic) opinion, please read my recent piece on VolteFace, which was itself prompted by the most recent meeting of that group of academics.  I set the scene for a discussion of the Act by suggesting that we're kidding ourselves if we think we can have a perfect, neat, objective drug policy based on reducing 'harm'.  Harm is a really complicated concept that we can't use to put a single value on a substance, and if we try to identify substances we're going to legislate as 'drugs' then we've already begged the question: what is a drug?

And so I think the PSA is a potentially positive development because it's more open and honest: substances are banned and controlled not on the basis of some objective idea of harm, but simply because they alter our mental state - because they are psychoactive.  That means there's much more scope for discussion and disagreement when compared with a debate about drugs and 'harm'.  It's hard to disagree that something scientifically decreed to be 'harmful' should be closely regulated, and even illegal, but it's not so clear that everything that alters our mental state can or should be outlawed as a matter of course.

I look forward to the possibility of that more open debate about the aims and effects of 'drug' policy, but being very aware that public debate doesn't always lead to the kind of clear and open discussions I'd prefer.

I hope some of this at least is of interest.  I think there's no doubt that in terms of policy relating to alcohol and other drugs - or whatever we're going to call psychoactive substances - we live in interesting times.

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