Former government drugs minister argues against legal high ban

Other | Friday 10th July 2015 | Christina

Former government drugs minister Professor David Nutt has penned an open letter to the Prime Minister asking him to reconsider legislation that would put a ban on all legal highs. More than 40 campaigners, academics and professionals have also signed the letter. 

Professor Nutt has been critical of government drug policy in the past, and now he argues that the 'blanket ban' on legal highs, as outlined in the Psychoactive Substances Bill is unworkable. Read his open letter below:

Dear Prime Minister,

We the undersigned request that HM Government immediately reconsiders the proposed Psychoactive Substances Bill (2015).

Parliament is responsible for protecting citizens against the harms of drugs. However, the enactment of the Psychoactive Substances Bill would be deleterious to the freedoms, well-being and ultimate safety of UK citizens. The UN Drug Conventions were established under the assumption that prohibition would reduce drug use and therefore minimise drug-related harms. Instead, global drug use has increased significantly in the decades since these policies were incorporated into law. Many countries have witnessed the unintended and damaging consequences related to the dangers of an unregulated criminal market and the criminalisation of a large number of otherwise law-abiding citizens.

If enacted, the Psychoactive Substances Bill would be unlikely to reduce the market for new psychoactive substances (NPS), which are mostly sold “not for human consumption”. The law will place the market in the hands of unregulated criminal organisations; increasing the likelihood of violence between competitors over market control as well as driving market focus on products that are higher in price and potency. Unregulated illegal markets have no incentive to comply with quality assurance protocols and accurate labelling of products, resulting in increased health risks for users and a greater strain on the already overburdened National Health Service.

Medical science will suffer from the proposed legislation, just as it continues to suffer from the over rigid regulation of other controlled psychoactive substances. Scheduling psychoactive agents in a blanket ban will impede the development of novel psychiatric medicines and prevent vulnerable members of society from potentially benefiting from new treatments.

Furthermore, any legislation that prohibits the sale of all psychoactive compounds without proper consideration of their relative harms and benefits presents an unwarranted threat to the long-standing freedoms of UK citizens. It is not possible to legislate against all psychoactive agents without criminalising the sale of dozens of harmless, everyday products that produce changes in mood and behaviour, from fresh flowers and herbs to spices and incense.

If the Government is genuinely serious about reducing drug-related harms, it should ensure that policy-makers focus their attention on public health campaigns, wide-ranging educational initiatives, effective drug treatment strategies, and the adequate funding of relevant medical and scientific research.

Despite these concerns we welcome the fact that the Psychoactive Substances Bill does not target NPS possession for personal use and would strongly encourage the extension of this approach to the regulation of other psychoactive drugs. In general, however, we believe the bill to be very poorly drafted, unethical in principle, unenforceable in practice, and likely to constitute a real danger to the health and well-being of our nation’s citizens.

Yours sincerely,

Prof. David Nutt
Edmond J Safra Chair in Neuropsychopharmacology
Imperial College, London