Policy blog: The Psychoactive Substances Act one year on

As we approach the first anniversary of the passing into law of the Psychoactive Substances Act, Mentor's Director of Policy and Communications Jeremy Sare reflects on the Act's effectiveness and how much harm to young people has been prevented.

17 May 2017 | Policy

Effective Measures on Supply – Time to Invest in Prevention

We are fast approaching the first anniversary of the passing into law of the Psychoactive Substances Act on 26 May.

Naturally, there has been plenty of conjecture regarding its effectiveness and how much harm to young people has been prevented.

The immediate impact was to cut off the supply of these substances from hundreds of headshops and online suppliers to young people. We should stop to think of the huge amount of psychedelics, stimulants and depressants those suppliers could have sold into the market over 12 months. The level of disruption has been substantial – the sale of ‘legal’ stimulants, for example, appears to have almost entirely collapsed. The previously regular incidences of students at school being overcome by the effects of synthetic cannabis appears to have largely ceased.

Of course, the legislation could not be expected to have delivered a perfect solution over night – that would be quite an unrealistically high standard to satisfy. Many of the significant harms among the homeless and prison populations have yet to be addressed, with some local services struggling. But often the impact of synthetic cannabis or ‘spice’ on these groups appears to be the only measure portrayed on the relative success of the Act. Its use is not spreading across into the wider population. The media concern for the human cost of taking spice would be all the more convincing if these most vulnerable people were not termed ‘zombies’.

The Drugwise report Highways and Buyways published in February is “a snapshot in time of what is happening with UK street drug markets” and includes probably the most comprehensive study of the impact of the new law. It recognises where there have been failings but concludes, “overall the indications are that the Act has achieved its primary purpose.” It also says some services, like North East Ambulance Service, “have since reported a significant reduction” in problems. The report also recognises the emergence of ‘spice’ as another “street drug” for those who may also have had dependency issues with alcohol and/or opiates.

Drug use is undoubtedly a complex equation, and the law is a blunt instrument, but there have been a great many unsubstantiated reports suggesting the Act has had little effect and the issue is “growing.” There is also sometimes an imprecise assessment about the degree to which NPS supply has gone underground – that the market has merely shifted from legal to illegal. Most people, even experienced drug-takers, would not contemplate taking such low-pleasure, high-risk chemical highs such as ‘spice’.

There is an obvious need for more objective analysis. Intelligence on the regional pattern of use shows very wide disparities of prevalence. We have been working with colleagues from the VSA charity Re-Solv in establishing an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) to monitor the progress of the legislation up to its statutory review in November 2018. Before the election was announced, the group had taken evidence from a range of experts to ensure all relevant material from all sectors was submitted to ensure an objective assessment of the Act. One issue to weigh up is the scale of stockpiling and whether a homeless population would create sufficient demand to replenish imported supplies or whether the market would begin to wither when stocks run low.

Throughout the passage of the Bill, Ministers were continually pressed on all sides about the need for more high quality drug education for young people. This should be our first response – to prevent the harms in the first place.

The best progress we can make is to prevent young people from feeling they wish to take those kinds of risks with substances, be they legal or illegal. Here at Mentor, we are embedding material about NPS into our evidence-based prevention programmes so young people will develop the necessary life skills to resist these dangers.  There also appears to be a growing recognition at Government level that good quality prevention and education is worth the cost. We welcome this recognition; however, it is yet to be seen whether sufficient investment into evidence-based prevention will happen.

A year ago young people could still walk into high street shops and buy unpredictable and often dangerous mixtures of substances – that was simply not a sustainable situation. Legislation like the Psychoactive Substances Act can only go so far in helping to find solutions. The Act has had the effect of removing a significant part of the supply chain, which exposed young people to very harmful but legal substances. The real challenge is to get sustained investment in drug prevention programmes, which are already making an impact in helping to reduce demand.