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New British Law Makes Psychoactive Substances Presumptively Illegal

Food is exempted, but what about catnip and flowers?

flickr/Jennifer Boyerflickr/Jennifer BoyerYesterday a new Britiish law aimed at counteracting the creativity of black-market chemists took effect, making all psychoactive substances presumptively illegal. Weary of banning new drugs only to see yet another batch of legal intoxicants take their place, members of Parliament this year approved the Psychoactive Substances Act, which takes a radically different approach to prohibition, banning substances that do not yet exist. But the catchall law, which criminalizes production and distribution of psychoactive substances unless they are specifically exempted, also seems to ban myriad common products that can be used to get high, even if that is not their primary purpose. 

The act covers any substance that "produces a psychoactive effect in a person," meaning that "it affects the person's mental functioning or emotional state" by "stimulating or depressing the person's central nervous system." The law does not apply to "medicinal products" or the already-prohibited drugs in Britain's Schedule 1, which as in the United States includes cannabis, LSD, and MDMA. The law also specifically exempts alcohol, tobacco, nicotine, caffeine, and food or beverages, provided they do not contain a "prohibited ingredient," meaning a psychoactive substance "which is not naturally occurring" and "the use of which in or on food is not authorised by an EU instrument."

Producing, importing, distributing, or possessing with intent to distribute a nonexempt psychoactive substance is punishable by up to seven years in prison. Mere possession is not a crime, except in a "custodial institution," where it can get you up to two years. 

Given the exception for food and the lack of penalties for simple possession, some criticism of the new law seems misplaced. "Tea contains caffeine, which is exempt from the ban," notes Ayman Al-Juzi in a Vice article published yesterday, "but it also contains L-Theanine, which is not exempt, and reportedly has psychoactive properties." But L-Theanine, while not specifically mentioned, occurs naturally in tea and is therefore exempt in that context. Likewise theobramine, a lesser-known stimulant in tea and chocolate. Al-Juzi also mentions nutmeg, which is psychoactive in very large doses but presumably qualifies as a food.

Still, the law on its face bans catnip, which is psychoactive but is not "ordinarily consumed as food," along with common products such as paint, gasoline, and solvents that can be huffed for a high. The law says a product qualifies as contraband if "fumes given off by the substance" have a psychoactive effect. Traditional inhalants are not the only products that fit the law's definition of "psychoactive substance." Al-Juzi notes that "flowers contain terpenes, which can cause psychoactive effects." In fact, the law arguably applies to any nonedible substance that stimulates the senses in a way that affects one's mood or mental processes: the perfume of an ex-girlfriend, say, or chlorine reminiscent of a bad childhood experience with swimming lessons.

Facebook campaign urges critics of the Psychoactive Substances Act to protest it by pestering police with questions about what now counts as contraband. While most of the examples cited (including tea, chocolate, sugar, energy drinks, and fruit) qualify for the food and beverage exemption, it's not a bad idea to highlight the uncertainty that the law creates for both citizens and law enforcement agencies. Can pet shops legally sell catnip toys? Are florists and incense dealers in trouble? Are substances that indirectly stimulate or depress the central nervous system grounds for arrest if possessed in large enough quantities to suggest an intent to distribute?

While it seems unlikely that police will start seizing catnip, paint thinner, or perfume as contraband, the theoretical possibility is troubling, to say the least. Writing in the New Statesman, Leo Barasi says churches that burn incense "should be safe from prosecution because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren't the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act." Whatever the intent, laws are enforced as written, and it is dangerous to give police and prosecutors such wide discretion.

British drug policy reformer Amanda Feilding notes that the Psychoactive Substances Act "tramples on a precious principle of liberty: that your choices are by default legal except when they are banned for a proper reason, after open Parliamentary debate." Under the new law, she says, "your choices are to be illegal by default, except when government-approved."

Feilding worries that the law will drive consumers of heretofore legal highs toward old-fashioned black-market drugs, which in some cases may be more hazardous. It will also drive distributors of newer drugs underground, which surely will not enhance safety. "We know little about these substances," Feilding notes. "No generalizations can be made. Some seem fairly innocuous, certainly no more risky than alcohol, [while] others are really very nasty, and because they are new, and unlabeled, doctors have no way of knowing how best to manage any harmful effects." A wholesale ban on all current and future synthetic psychoactives will make it all the more difficult to learn about their hazards and benefits, leaving consumers ignorant of what they are taking and what it might do to or for them.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    This is dumb and bound to fail. They need to stop with the half measures and outright ban altered states. So some dementia patients get transitioned from the NHS to prison. It's a lateral move, really.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    This is dumb and bound to fail. They need to stop with the half measures and ban altered states already. So some dementia patients get transitioned from the NHS to prison. It's a lateral move, really.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Speaking of dementia...

  • Microaggressor||

    I'm seeing double. Should I call the cops on myself?

  • ||

    Sounds like Squirrelzheimer's to me

  • ||

    They need to stop with the half measures and ban altered states

    Paddy Chayefsky wept.

  • SugarFree||

    "You're supposed to be reputable scientists! Not two dorm kids freaking on Mexican mushrooms!"

  • Rhywun||

    While it seems unlikely that police will start seizing catnip, paint thinner, or perfume as contraband

    If they can, they will.

  • pan fried wylie||

    "While it seems unlikely that police will pass up an opportunity to harass, detain, and harm people for no legitimate reason..."

  • Eternal Blue Sky||

    "I saw a cat toy in the car, probable cause"

  • SusanM||

    Looks like the Brits have hit peak Self-Loathing.

  • DEATFBIRSECIA||

    Butt Hash? Asking for a friend.

  • Chipper Morning Wood||

    Finally, not flushing is a crime.

  • sarcasmic||

    A Facebook campaign urges critics of the Psychoactive Substances Act to protest it by pestering police with questions about what now counts as contraband.

    I don't know what cops are like in Britain, but doing that in The Land of the Free is a great way to get arrested for Pissing Off the Police.

  • Rational Exuberance||

    Next: chemists produce psychoactive precursors that need to be turned into their active form by the user by heating with baking soda, boiling with vinegar, letting sit in alcohol, etc. Parliament then passes the Psychoactive Precursor Act and hilarity ensues.

  • invisible finger||

    I thought Britain already banned practicing chemistry without a license.

  • DENTAL PLAN (née commodious)||

  • Free Market Socialist $park¥||

    Does this mean no more kittens hanging out behind the litter box and gettin a few hits of the ole 'nip?

  • GILMORE™||

    Political Bravery =


    Leader of Nation with 80% of the World's Actually-Functioning Nuclear Weapons Stockpile "Calls for End to Nuclear Weapons"

    - Rest of world looks at each other, asks,"...Is he @#&*($ talking to Us"?

    This "calls for" bullshit suggests that there is some gigantic collective, cooperative effort required for what is effectively a US-dictated global policy. No one on Earth - including the Russians whose stockpiles have been secured with US-money for like the last 30 years - has any say at all in the matter.

    I get the whole "hypocritical moral posturing" being Obama's forte and all.... its just for @#(*@# sake, pick something less brain-bendingly stupid. Unless he announces that the US is unilaterally disarming, there's nothing to fucking say.

  • DENTAL PLAN (née commodious)||

    Who's holding him to account? He pushes the right buttons for the right people, the media gives it a pass, and his critics can go pound sand. It's effortless, no-cost pandering to idiots.

  • DenverJ||

    Well, you know what Ozzy said.

  • SugarFree||

    "Hel don gelizze herble, Charin." ?

  • DenverJ||

    Yeah, when he sings I can understand him quite well, but when he talks it is just gibberish.
    Although, I don't think I ever heard him talk before whenever the TV thing was on, so maybe he's just lost the ability to speak clearly, all the drugs finally catching up to him.

  • GILMORE™||

    He pushes the right buttons for the right people, the media gives it a pass, and his critics can go pound sand. It's effortless, no-cost pandering to idiots.

    Yes, i know.

    I was thinking that the whole time = why NOT do this sort of thing? People just eat it up. Its the entire point of this whole 'trip to Hiroshima' thing. People want to believe he's the Great Healer, so he feeds their desire.

    If i compare it to other similar things he's done - the Global Warming 'agreement' with China was possibly one the most bullshit PR events in US diplomatic history - it probably ranks fairly low. The concern is that he uses this theme to demand billions of dollars for some bullshit "summit" where heads of state can get together and pretend to pay attention while the US pontificates about how 'concerning' it is that the US has all these Nuclear Weapons and wow maybe we should do something about that = but hey, you first, China.

  • invisible finger||

    At least the gun-grabbers are consistent. Guns for me but not for thee.

  • SugarFree||

    Yay! Whole new bogus reasons to hassle anyone that looks at the police cross-eyed.

    "He had gasoline in his car, Your Honor. It's a known inhalant."

    "Where was the inhalant?"

    "In the tank, sir. Scum like him always hides it there."

  • Free Market Socialist $park¥||

    Petrol, speak English.

  • SugarFree||

    Fuck that. I speak American, you nutter.

  • DENTAL PLAN (née commodious)||

    PETRIL.

    CHEESE.

  • Hugh Akston||

    This is England, SugarFree. So it's petrol, not gasoline; My Lord rather than Your Honor, and Scum has an extraneous o.

  • ||

    Actually in some parts scumme can be acceptable.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Hey Doc, I haven't yet had the chance to welcome you back. I'm glad to see you're none the worse for your stint in Putin's sex gulags.

  • ||

    Thank you, Hugh! You are on the list of people to whom I need to write back, since you did send one my way whilst I was occupied (yeah, in every sense of the word).

    Putin's Dr. Zhena Groovova's sex gulags

    FTFY. DIABEETUS Alert: I still fall in love with her every day.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Nothing saccharine about it, broheim. That's how you should feel about your domestic partner.

    Swing by the gryll when you get a chance. I'm sure everyone will be glad to see you.

  • Free Market Socialist $park¥||

    Maybe reason.com is being hacked by some douchebag collective.

  • DenverJ||

    The NSA?

  • DEATFBIRSECIA||

  • ||

    The law also specifically exempts alcohol, tobacco, nicotine,

    In other words, the law specifically exempts only the most clearly harmful of psychoactive chemicals.

    Jolly good show!

  • Acosmist||

    Nicotine? Rly? lolwut

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    A Facebook campaign urges critics of the Psychoactive Substances Act to protest it by pestering police with questions about what now counts as contraband.

    Yeah, that works. You go down that road.

    We passed i594, which makes the "transfer of any firearm without a background check a felony".

    The people who crafted the law, the people tasked with enforcement of the law, the attorney general, prosecuting attorneys nor judges have been able to define, when pestered, what constitutes a transfer. Not one person has been able to define "transfer". No cop, no sheriff, no judge, no lawyer, no one can define "transfer". Yet it's black letter law.

  • Eman||

    ugh there was a story in my local paper a week or so ago about how we need to crack down on "research chemicals". I was like do they even understand what the point of those is to begin with? are we just gonna assume that anything foreign in your body is illegal until proven otherwise? well, apparently that's exactly what we're going to do. gross.

  • Free Market Socialist $park¥||

    You don't own your body. If you're caught putting substances that the state hasn't approved into your body, you'll be clapped in irons and thrown into a cage. For your own good, of course.

  • Eman||

    my favorite part is how "research chemicals" are a thing to begin with because of the WOD. of course banning more stuff is the solution!

  • Granny Weatherwax||

    Look, everyone knows the only proper way to achieve states of altered consciousness is the old-timey prophet way: sun-stroke, dehydration, sleep-deprivation, starvation, oh and the occasional really tasty looking mushroom I found while wandering around the desert for 40 days...

  • How You Like Me Now?||

    Goddammit Sullum. That scrumptious kitten nose had me giving many gentle kisses to my computer screen and now my coworkers are looking at me like I'm weird.

  • Ornithorhynchus||

    Remember the good old days when Britain would actually go to war to keep drugs legal?

  • Robert||

    Does it include a provision for the maker of a new psychoactive to gain an exemption?

  • sarahevelynn||

    Check out this article about the present state of bills around the US pertaining to the War on Drugs and another overview of the issue. It gives great context to the current state of this war in US legislation.
    http://bit.ly/28YHQJR

  • lukashik||

    This application is really good and very easy to use because you can never get an app which streams way of the latest and even the oldest videos. showbox

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