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As substance misuse professionals on the government’s New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) Expert Panel go through the motions of looking at what other countries have done to control new psychoactive substances, we take a look at the international landscape. 


America has adopted an analogue approach. This involves banning a drug based on its similarity to drugs that are already controlled. Brought in during 1986, the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act makes it an offence to supply a substance that is deemed a controlled substance analogue if meant for human consumption. Legally, it has to be proven that the drug was meant for human consumption and that it is chemically similar to another controlled drug. The most difficult part is that it has to be proven that the defendant or represented intended that the substance has a similar or greater effect on the central nervous system as a controlled substance. 

Understandably, this approach has led to prosecutions that have been extremely resource intensive. As the UK government has already been quick to point out – it’s highly unlikely this approach would take the UK any further. It would pretty much remain in a similar situation – as soon as one psychoactive substance is banned, another would emerge. 

New Zealand

New Zealand has adopted more of a regulatory approach and in 2013 introduced the Psychoactive Substances Act. It places the responsibility with manufacturers to evidence that their NPS products present a low risk of harm. Once proven they are low risk they are then allowed to lawfully manufacture and sell the products. 

The sale of those NPS products are subject to a range of restrictions, including sale through licensed premises, with advertising restrictions and a ban on selling to those under 18 years old. 

Interestingly, the number of retail outlets selling NPS fell from 3,000-4,000, to 156 specialist retailers in 2013. These premises had a negative impact though, causing anti-social behaviour. This resulted in the passage of the Psychoactive Substances Amendment Act 2014 which revoked licences and stopped the testing on animals in clinical trials to show the level of harm posed by NPSs. 

Much more in-depth product testing requirements were introduced and the application process for licences was opened in November 2014. As of last month though, no applications had been made. In effect, the result has been largely a prohibitive one. 

Our understanding is that in considering this approach, it’s clear that there are many risks associated with introducing the model in the UK. Not only would it be incredibly difficult to define low risk, it would be a lengthy process to introduce (upwards on 12 months) and could lead to conflicting perceptions of risk in taking NPS in the interim. This would ultimately make it more difficult for substance misuse recovery workers.


The most likely model the UK will take is going to be similar to Ireland, Poland and Romania – all of which have tackled NPS with a general prohibition on the distribution of non-controlled NPS. 

The Irish Republic’s Criminal Justice Psychoactive Substances Act 2010 was introduced as a response to the sheer number of head shops. The Act makes it an offence to sell, supply, advertise, import or export psychoactive substance, knowing or being reckless that it was for human consumption. 

The Act does not include a production offence, possession for personal use since it targets those involved in trading in NPS. 

Before the Act was passed there were 120 head shops in Ireland. Now this trade has reportedly disappeared entirely. 

But would this work for the UK? It appears that the NPS Expert Panel is in favour of the Irish model. In its international comparators research, it clearly states that “it would tackle the NPS market by responding to the ease of availability of NPS in everyday high-street/retail environments”. 

There is of course an underling counter-argument still very much rumbling along. Those against the introduction of such measures argue that those users of NPS would simply turn to other drugs to fuel their addiction. 

Evidence from the Eurobarometer figures that the highest percentage of young people that have used psychoactive substances in the last 12 months were in Ireland (9%), which is alarming given the presence of the blanket ban since 2010. Ireland was closely followed by France (8%), with the UK being behind Slovenia and Spain at 6%. 

Of course, these are isolated figures, but they do suggest that the ‘fight’ against the use of NPS will very much be an ongoing one. The introduction of a blanket ban in the UK will need to be accompanied by a structured approach to supporting young adults as well as those under 18 with much needed assistance from substance misuse professionals. 
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