Psychoactive Substances Act 2016- United Kingdom

20 May 2016
Psychoactive Substances Act 2016- United Kingdom

Last week, alarming statistics were reported regarding the increase in the number of incidents involving ‘legal’ highs that police forces in England have dealt with in 2015-16. Data made available from 23 out of 39 police forces reported 6,230 incidents involving ‘legal’ highs; this is up from 111 incidents in 2011-12 (BBC News, 2016a). New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) are a widespread problem in the UK, with Scottish ambulance crews dealing with 2,229 related incidents last year, compared to 150 in 2009 (STV, 2015). Similarly, figures in Wales suggest there was a 700% rise in emergency calls to the Welsh Ambulance Service relating to NPS in 2015 (BBC News, 2015).

It is anticipated that the Psychoactive Substances Act will come into force across the UK on 26th May 2016 (GOV.UK, 2016). Although personal possession of a New Psychoactive Substance will not be illegal, the act is being implemented in a bid to shut down shops and websites that sell these potentially lethal substances. The act will however make it an offence to produce, supply or offer supply any psychoactive substance if it is likely to be used for its psychoactive effects (Drug Watch, 2016). An exception to the act will make it an offence to possess a psychoactive substance if the person is in a custodial institution (Drug Watch, 2016). This news will be welcomed by many UK prisons, as the Chief Inspector of Prisons recently stated that that legal highs are having a “devastating” impact and are “destabilising some prisons, making it difficult for normal prison life to continue” (BBC News, 2016b).

Due to a globalised supply chain, there has been a rapid increase in the number and type of new psychoactive substances available across the world. In Europe alone, UNODC recently reported that in 2015, the EU Early Warning System was monitoring 643 new psychoactive substances (Central Narcotics Bureau, 2016).  The rapid turnover of new substances is down to the nature of the market, producers are quick to react to changes in law and have the ability to slightly alter the chemical structure to avoid legal constraints.  Branding of NPS is vast; substances can fall under the category of legal highs, research chemicals, food supplements or designer drugs- all competing directly with illegal drugs, but having the advantage of being legal and readily available (EMCDDA, 2016). No matter what they are referred to, legal highs are dangerous substances that have the ability to cause acute poisoning and death.

Although previously postponed, the act is thought to be in place by the end of May. Previous confusion as to what would be defined as a psychoactive substance held up the process of the act being implemented on the 6th April 2016. The confusion may have been sparked due to the fact there is a list of exemptions of everyday substances such as alcohol, nicotine and caffeine that will not be included, yet still have an impact on the brain which may be problematic when attempting to convict people (Travis, 2016).  

Despite the criticisms of the new act, there is no doubt that it is a starting point to ensure new psychoactive substances are not readily available to be purchased in high street shops. Similar legislation introduced in the Republic of Ireland saw 102 head shops shut down overnight. Although there are no figures that evaluate the implementation of this legislation, the An Garda Síochána have said that the act has done what it was designed to do and there is evidence of less harmful use of NPS, with decreased numbers of clients attending drug treatment services for new psychoactive substances (McVeigh, 2015). If introduced on 26th May 2016, it will be some time before statistics are available to show the impact the act has had. However it is anticipated that it will have a positive effect in reducing the availability of NPS and may help ease the problem legal highs are currently causing in UK prisons.


BBC News (2015) 700% rise in ‘legal highs’ 999 calls to Welsh Ambulance Service. BBC News. Available from: [Accessed: 17th May 2016]
BBC News (2016a) Legal highs: Police handle surge in incidents ahead of ban. BBC News. Available from: [Accessed: 17th May 2016]
BBC News (2016b) Legal highs ‘destablising prisons’, chief inspector warns. BBC News. Available from: [Accessed: 17th May 2016]
Central Narcotics Bureau (2016) Misuse of Drugs Act. CNB News Release. Available from: [Accessed: 17th May 2016]
Drug Watch (2016) A simple (ish) guide to the Psychoactive Substances Act.  Drug Watch. Available from:  [Accessed: 17th May 2016]
EMCDDA (2016) EU Drug Markets Report. In-depth Analysis. Available from: [Accessed: 17th May 2016]
GOV.UK (2016) Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. Home Office. Available from: [Accessed: 17th May 2016]
McVeigh, K. (2015) Is Irish Ban on legal highs driving markets underground? The Guardian.  Available from: [Accessed: 17th May 2016]
STV (2015) Ambulance crews dealing with six ‘legal high’ call-outs every day. STV News. Available from: [Accessed: 17th May 2016]
Travis, A. (2016) Ban on legal highs delayed over concerns law is not enforceable. The Guardian. Available from: [Accessed: 17th May 2016]

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