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Now that the government is proposing an amendment to the Psychoactive Substances Bill that will exempt all homeopathic and herbal products from the bill, we take a look at how far impending legislation has progressed. 

It appears as if the government has headed the scientific community’s concerns since we published our last blog that analysed the issues raised by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). 

Formal response issued to the scientific community

Having read the letter from Home Secretary Theresa May to Professor Les Iversen at the ACMD, we’re glad to see that there’s more clarity over what will essentially be seen as a banned substance. Theresa May quite rightly points out that there are some natural psychoactive substances that are harmful, such as Kratom and Ibogaine, the effects of which completely depend on the individual. If the bill was to only cover synthetic products, which it was originally intended to do, the market would more than likely be steered towards those natural products. This is, as Theresa May points out, something the government wishes to avoid. She says, in her letter to the ACMD:

“I have no desire to create this loophole and drive this market, just as the Misuses of Drugs Act 1971 has done with synthetic substances with new substances emerging which have been designed to evade controls.”

Ensuring homeopathic and herbal products are exempt

A number of government bodies are now working on a practical, and most importantly, robust solution to ensure that homeopathic and herbal products are exempt from the bill, whilst natural and synthetic psychoactive substances are not.

The debate over evidencing harm of psychoactive substances

The ACMD’s recommendations for narrowing the definition of psychoactive substances to focus on those that have a pharmacologically similar response and comparable health threat to that of controlled drugs has been rejected by the government’s advisory panel. It’s fairly clear why this has been strongly refuted. Proving that a synthetic drug is ‘similar’ could be incredibly difficult to verify with certainty and troublesome to regulate. 

Even agreeing to the introduction of a harm assessment to be included in the Bill so it only captures psychoactive substances that are proven to pose a public health threat, has been dismissed by the Psychoactive Substances Review Expert Panel. 

The panel’s advice is not surprising given research findings from New Zealand, where they introduced such a threshold, and found it incredibly difficult to establish the short and long term effects of each substance, and overall harm. 

Defining psychoactivity

The current definition of psychoactivity in the Bill provides that a substance must be capable of producing a psychoactive effect, and the government has stood firm on its decision not to change this definition. This was perhaps to be expected, especially since it would be highly unusual to set out in legislation how an offence is to be evidenced. If you take the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, there is no mention as to what tests are required to prove whether a drug is controlled. 

It’s our understanding that the science and testing will be key elements of the Bill’s implementation, but the legislation will in Theresa May’s words, be “technology-neutral”.
A date is yet to be set for the report stage of the Bill in the House of Commons, where we’re expected to hear more about various aspects of the Bill and which issues remain as ‘sticking-points’. We’ll keep you posted.

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