Britain’s parliament is getting closer to passing a controversial bill banning all substances that affect the brain, with a further round of debating set to take place in the House of Commons this Wednesday, January 20. The so-called Psychoactive Substances Bill ostensibly aims to prevent the sale of legal highs, which are designed to mimic the effects of illegal drugs, although the bill has been accused of being overly political and anti-scientific by some experts.
Among the proposed legislation’s critics is Professor David Nutt, current chair of DrugScience (formerly the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs), and director of the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit at Imperial College’s Division of Brain Sciences. “It’s going to have massive unintended consequences in terms of research, because anyone working with substances that affect the brain will have to presume that [their research] is illegal,” he told IFLScience.
A number of psychoactive drugs, such as alcohol, caffeine and nicotine, have been exempted from the bill, meaning they will remain legal. However, as Nutt explains, “the default position for all new substances is that they are illegal until the government says they should be exempt.” Consequently, he believes that research into new, safer alternatives to these recreational drugs will become impossible.
For instance, Nutt previously worked on the production of a drug called alcosynth, which provides the same subjective effects as alcohol but is non-toxic. Yet under the Psychoactive Substances Bill, he claims that “people will be forced to use drugs like alcohol which could easily be replaced by safer alternatives if the law allows it. So it confines us now to a mindset where the only recreational drugs are ones we know to be very toxic.”
Proponents of the bill, however, claim it will bring an end to the current “cat-and-mouse” situation whereby new psychoactive substances (NPSs) hit the market before they can be banned, hence their status as legal highs. Rather than having to retrospectively outlaw these drugs on an individual basis, the new law will automatically prohibit all such compounds before they are even invented.
For this reason, government ministers including Mike Penning – the minister of state for policing, crime, criminal justice and victims – claim that the new legislation will help to protect the British public from the "exceptional risks" associated with legal highs, which many people consider to be safe simply because they are not illegal. According to Keith Vaz, chairman of the committe supporting the bill, "Britain uses more psychoactive substances than any other country in Europe and is at risk of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of this problem."
Nitrous oxide (laughing gas) is one of the drugs that the new bill will outlaw. Lenscap Photography/Shutterstock
However, Nutt claims that by focusing on NPSs, the government is over-representing the danger posed by these compounds, and could provoke greater risk-taking among the general public. For instance, while official figures point to a steady rise in deaths involving legal highs, Nutt says that most of these incidents were more likely produced by a combination of factors, such as mixing NPSs with other illegal drugs. As such, he claims that “there were actually only five deaths caused by legal highs last year.”
He therefore predicts that “the bill might reduce the number of legal high deaths from five to nothing, but there’ll almost certainly be a big increase in cocaine deaths, because if all the safe alternatives are illegal anyway then people will just go for the strongest stuff.”
Emphatically summarizing his opinion on the proposed bill, Nutt describes it as “the worst piece of legislation relating to moral behaviour since Elizabeth I banned the Catholic Communion in 1558,” adding that it could be “the final nail in the coffin of neuroscience innovation in this country.”