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The Psychoactive Substances Act, which was originally due to come into force on 6 April, but was delayed due to claims that its definition of “psychoactivity” was unenforceable, will officially come into force today (Thursday 26 May). 

Its purpose is to provide a blanket ban on the production, supply and importation of new psychoactive substances (NPS), otherwise known as ‘legal highs’. Crucially, for prisoners, it will be an offence for them to be found in possession of these.  

When the Home Office declared the delay in enforcing the new legislation back in March, it said it was in the final stages of a programme that can conclusively demonstrate a substance’s psychoactivity. Getting this aspect right is absolutely crucial. After all, the introduction of similar legislation in Ireland has been somewhat limited given the difficulties in proving whether a substance is indeed psychoactive. 

NPS incidents at an all-time high

Meanwhile, incidents involving so-called ‘legal-highs’ have sky-rocketed. In a freedom of information request from the BBC Look North, 23 police forces revealed 6,230 incidents in England involving legal highs in 2015-16. 

The data also revealed that Spice, a synthetic cannabinoid, was the most commonly cited NPS in police logs in that period with 384 separate mentions. 267 of these were in Merseyside, 61 in Lancashire and 34 in Suffolk. 

Certain areas in England have seen considerable increases in the number of police incidents, with South Yorkshire reporting a 300 fold increase and West Yorkshire a 200 fold increase from 2011-12 to 2015-16.

Those working on the frontline say that criminalising the production, supply and importation will help communicate the danger of the substances, as Superintendent Dave Houchin, chair of the Humberside strategic drugs group, said in the Scunthorpe Telegraph last week:

“The term ‘legal highs’ is interpreted by some as meaning safe. Nothing could be further from the truth and by making substances illegal that were previously sold legitimately reflects widely held concerns about long term health effects of these products.”

As is the case in Humberside, local areas are likely to give a short period of amnesty where people in possession of the substances can hand over their products to the police, including retailers who will be given the opportunity to safely dispose of outstanding stock.

Mounting scepticism 

As we approach the enforcement of the Act though, there’s considerable cynicism, with critics warning the new legislation could push the sale of NPS underground, essentially meaning that those already addicted to the substances could be exploited by dealers who would fill the gap left by head shops. 

Of course, only time will tell how effective the legislation will be. However, with a maximum 7 year prison sentence for the supply, production, possession with intent to supply, importation or exportation of a psychoactive substance, and a 2 year prison sentence for possession in a custodial sentence, it’s bound to make a considerable impact.   

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