UPDATE 23rd Oct: Home Affairs Select Committee Findings just published: HERE

I wonder if the Government will read, listen and respond? Besides the fact that Psychoactive Substances Bill is one of the worst pieces of attempted legislation since the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971 as currently;

  • Psychoactive is not defined in a way which will satisfy the scientists or the courts
  • No one is exactly sure which things are legal and which things are not
  • No one has a clue how police are going to detect or enforce this

The second reading of the Psychoactive Substances Bill in the House of Commons was an eye opening demonstration of how our Government carefully select and accept evidence in support of their actions (or inactions) whilst omitting, ignoring or dismissing evidence that challenges them. Policy driven evidence over evidence driven policy.

NB: The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) (An Expert body who advise the government on drug misuse) strongly recommended the word "novel" be used so as to help with the definition of psychoactive. As they have with most of the ACMD's advice, the Government have chosen to ignore it. 

There are 2 main pieces of data acting as drivers for and underpinning this bill:

  • 129 People Lost their lives to a legal high in 2014
  • Republic of Ireland Implementation is a success as hospital admissions have reduced

Let's have a closer look at this data:

129 People Lost their lives to a legal high in 2014

In the opening words the owner of this Bill, Mike Penning MP, The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice stated; 

"Last year 129 people lost their lives in this country because of what they thought was a legal, safe high”

This figure has been taken from the following two documents:

Looking more closely at how these figures were reached tells a rather different story:

"Deaths were included where the underlying cause was drug related and one or more new psychoactive substances were mentioned on the death certificate."

So if a person dies with cocaine, alcohol AND a "legal high" in their system, this will be counted. It is merely an association. It is neither a cause, nor a reason. Then if we look at how "new psychoactive substance" is defined:

"Some of the more common NPS include synthetic cannabinoids (Eg: "spice"), GHB and its precursor GBL, piperazines, cathinones (Eg: mephedrone, benzofurans), and more recently, prescription-type drugs (Eg: benzodiazepine analogues) Most of these substances are now controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971)." 

This Bill seeks to ban all currently legal and harmful new psychoactive substances and as such should not count substances that are currently controlled, whether that be through regulation (Prescription medications, Tobacco, Caffeine and Alcohol) or through the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) (Cocaine, cannabis, heroin, and those recently added above). No further legislation is required for these.

In fact, only 18 of the 129 deaths in England Scotland and Wales involved substances not already controlled within the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971). Of those 18, there was only a single incident where a "legal high" was the only drug mentioned on the death certificate and as there is no autopsy information we do not know if there were any underlying conditions which could have played a part in that death.

So in terms of the headline figure for deaths in England, Scotland and Wales in 2014 that can be reasonably attributed to legal highs is a qualified 1 and not 129 that is being used to justify the need to act quickly. Many organisations, including the ACMD have tried to highlight this to the government on several occasions without success.  

Republic of Ireland Implementation is working

"There were 102 head shops in Ireland at the time [of implementation], according to the Irish police force, and they have now “virtually disappeared”. The number of clients attending drug treatment services had declined: 368 people received treatment for problems in 2011 and that number fell to 220 in 2012"

Ok, Headshops have certainly disappeared, the drugs, however, have not. The treatment figures have been provided by the NPS Expert Panel Review. No one quite understands why the government chose not to engage with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to provide this expertise on the misuse of some new drugs and instead set up a special hand-picked new panel of other "experts", on whose findings this bill was drawn up. However, according to the The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA); The EMCDDA exists to provide the EU and its Member States with a factual overview of European drug problems and a solid evidence base to support the drugs debate. Today it offers policymakers the data they need for drawing up informed drug laws and strategies. Its data is used frequently and is quoted in government briefings and the NPS Expert Panel Review documents

"Use of NPS amongst young people (aged 16-24) in Ireland is today the highest in the EU , and has increased since the 2010 ban, from reported lifetime use of 16% in 2011 to 22% in 2014, with reports of a shift to street and online markets" - Source Data


"In Poland where a similar blanket ban was implemented there was initially a rapid decrease in the number of reported ‘legal-high related poisonings’. However, three years after the ban the number of poisonings reports had increased above pre-ban levels, with reports of a shift to street and online markets" - Source Data HERE

To use the "success" of Republic of Ireland as a reason to support this bill is at the very best, irresponsible and rather stupid and at worst, dishonest, which will result in the deaths of many more young people in this country as it has in others.

The Reading of The Bill

So both pieces of data underpinning this bill are fundamentally inaccurate. One might reasonably expect that our Parliamentary process would highlight and address these concerns before the bill could pass - Surely that is what our representatives and commons readings and debates are for, yes?

Well, Monday's Reading of the bill was all the evidence you will ever need to work out the answer to that question: After Government spokesman, Mike Penning MP completely ignored the initial attempt by Caroline Lucas to raise such concerns, Norman Lamb was the next to try;

Does he not have any concern that if the effect of the legislation is to hand the entire industry over to organised crime, we may end up with unintended consequences?”

Mike Penning's answer was as short as it was utterly wrong; 

“It has not happened elsewhere; it did not happen in the Republic of Ireland”

Caroline then tries again;

“Why has the lifetime prevalence of the use of novel psychoactive substances among young people there increased from 16% to 22% in the past three years and would it not have been sensible to have done an impact assessment of the situation in Ireland before pressing ahead with the Bill?”

Mike's response is disrespectful, dismissive and irresponsible. He shows no interest whatsoever in the evidence that the bill might do more harm; “

The answer is no, because I do not want any more deaths, which will happen if we hold back now and wait for more studies, for more this and for more that.” 

Especially on the basis on 1 questionable death per year if you are not going to accept the evidence of increase in use and harm being presented to you, then taking a little more time to properly understand and confirm the true impact of this bill on the Republic of Ireland before implementing in the UK would surely be the prudent and intelligent path. It might just save some lives.

When Caroline pressed the point once again,  Mike, once again refused to answer or even discuss the data being presented and resorted to a personal insult; 

“She has a piece of paper in front of her that says that we are all wrong and that she is right....as usual, I am afraid that she is wrong.”

No Mike, she has brought pertinent and compelling evidence to the house which says that this Bill might cause more harm and damage people’s lives and health, and you are dismissing it without any consideration. Somewhat ironically, he adds; “

At the end of the day, what are we sent to this House to do? It is to protect people, and that is what we will do this evening!”

Long serving Paul Flynn (LAB) asked him about the “ban on khat?”, adding“ The reports are that its use continues, but it has gone underground and become more expensive."

Mike, once again, completely ignored that and all other questions and continued quoting his own unestablished facts and a few anecdotes of harm. He made the point that he knows best as he has been to the Republic of Ireland and "spoken to police and chemists" 

He appears to be implying that anecdotal conversations are worth more than evidence. Obviously if the opposition to the bill were to produce anecdotal evidence, it would be laughed out of the House. 

Lyn Brown (LAB) took the floor in support of the Bill and re-quoted the same figures as the government had, a number of similar questions were asked trying the other side of the House for a response; When Paul Flynn repeated the EMCDDA data Lyn did concede that; “it is too early to make a long-term judgement on the success of the Irish model” which is rather odd, being that this bill she is supporting actually makes exactly that judgement.

Norman Lamb asked her; 

“In Poland, where the same approach is being applied, the number of poisonings has gone up dramatically since the ban came in from 562 cases in 2010 to 1,600 in the first 10 months of 2014. Does that not give her cause to pause in supporting the Bill?

It obviously didn't as she dismissed it as being incomparable to the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

When Norman Lamb repeated the evidence from the EMCDDA on the Republic of Ireland added in the Polish Official Report and added a reference to the Home Office's own International Comparators Report then asked;

“Does that not cause the Government to stop and think about the implications of passing the Bill?”, 

John Mann MP jumped up to intervene, and whilst completely ignoring the other quoted sources, attempted to discredit the EMCDDA and its data. Whilst he was literally yelling about the lack of credibility of the evidence being presented, Norman added; 

The Government have not carried out any risk analysis of what happened in Ireland since it introduced a ban, but surely that is exactly what they ought to have done.”

John didn't have an answer to that and so sat down for a while before it was his speech during which he belittled and insulted all those opposing the bill and stated that Norman Lamb had “struggled to evidence his case tonight because the evidence is not there” stating that only "academic" sources were valid, then goes on to describe a number of anecdotes from his local constituency to evidence his own points and justifying the last 45 years of drug policy.

Our government have shown utter contempt for evidence based policy, have shown absolutely no compassion or intelligence and have shown that no matter how compelling evidence is, if it is against their policy they will dismiss or ignore it, no matter how many people might be harmed as a result. 

Whilst many people maybe rather unmoved by this particular subject matter, I would suggest that if the government are prepared to misguide the public with inaccurate statistics and will use policy to drive the evidence in this manner on this subject, imagine how far they might go on something you find really important?

Jeremy Hunt 'misrepresented weekend deaths data'

Jon Liebling – Political Director of United Patients Alliance

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