Psychoactive Substances Bill, law enforcement and NPS in prison

The Psychoactive Substances Bill, Law Enforcement and NPS in Prison: Problems and Solutions

University of Leicester, Tuesday 15th September 2015


Briefing Paper

The aim of this seminar was to discuss the problems novel psychoactive substances (NPS) and human enhancement drugs (HED) pose to law enforcement officials and the prison service, particularly in light of the provisions contained in the proposed Psychoactive Substances Bill. The seminar was split into two sessions. The first session focused on policing and law enforcement while the second session focused on NPS use in Her Majesty’s Prisons.

The Psychoactive Substances Bill was introduced in May 2015. The proposed Bill aims to ‘ban the new generation of psychoactive drugs’ by making it an offence to supply, import or export any substance capable of producing a psychoactive effect if consumed by humans. The problems arising from the proposed Bill alongside the problems associated with implementing an effective NPS/HED policy and policing strategy has proved controversial.

Professor Alex Stevens (University of Kent) introduced and chaired the event.

The Psychoactive Substances Bill and Enforcement

The four speakers in this session have been podcast and both the recordings and their presentations can be found here. Speakers on this topic included: Stephen Holme (Representing the National Police Chief’s Council, New Psychoactive Substances Working Group); Audrey Smith (Home Office, Centre for Applied Science and Technology); Joseph Ritchie (The University of Manchester); Dr James Martin (Macquarie University, Australia).

The Psychoactive Substances Bill was predominantly explored from a law enforcement perspective in this seminar, and the following issues were discussed and raised during this session:

  • No offence for possession of NPS creates a two tiered system that will cause confusion for both users and the police. It will also mean users found in possession of NPS will not be referred into treatment.
  • Brand names (even banned brands) are retained by retailers but the contents change. Products can contain a variety of different psychoactive substances (e.g. cathinones, piperazines, synthetic cannabinoids) but will this count as one offence or two separate offences under the new Bill? Forensic testing is needed to ascertain what the product contains as brand names are unreliable. The Home Office Forensic Early Warning System and sharing of information from the FEWS was discussed.
  • The Bill will alter retail methods. The Bill will lead to the closure of headshops but will not stop online internet sales or the sale of these substances on the illicit drug market.
  • The issues associated with policing the supply of drugs on cryptomarkets for customs and the police was also discussed alongside the issue of harm in relation to cryptomarkets (e.g. greater harm as higher quality substances and a greater range of products or reduced harm?). The problems associated with selling drugs online and exit scams (whereby cryptomarket sites suddenly close down and potential purchasers lost their money) were also emphasised.
  • Defining NPS and what constitutes a psychoactive substance will result in legal arguments and debates; there is no legal definition of psychoactive that can be proved in a court of law. There will also be legal wrangling over proving ‘knowing or being reckless to knowing’ whether the substance is being sold for human consumption.
  • Police powers (criminal and civil) and the ability of officers to actually enforce many of the provisions set out in the Bill was raised as a concern.
  • The Bill will ban substances that are not harmful, or not as harmful as some of the more traditional illicit drugs currently banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, further undermining the evidence base (science) underpinning drug policy and drug legislation.
  • The problems arising from the Bill and the uncertainty of its provisions in terms of efficacy and enforcing the law were outlined, including social supply, intention (importation and use) and the criminalisation of young people, particularly for importation of NPS for personal use.
  • A rewrite of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and a review of prohibition would have been preferable.
  • Some proposed the Bill might make using NPS, particularly in prison, less attractive as it will no longer be legal.


Novel Psychoactive Substances in Prison

From the five speakers in this session only four have been podcast and both the recordings and their presentations, where available, can be found here. The speakers on this topic included: Nick Hardwick (HM Chief Inspector of Prisons); Dr Kate Gooch and Dr James Treadwell (Birmingham University); Tony Margetts (Substance Misuse Manager, East Riding Public Health); Mike Rolf (Prison Officers Association, National Executive Committee).

The following issues were raised:

  • The use of NPS cannot be divorced from substance use in prison more generally. Many of the drivers are the same (e.g. boredom, self-medication, and availability), as are supply routes, debts, bullying and price inflation. Synthetic cannabis, despite being more expensive in prison than on the streets, is cheaper than other substances available in prison.
  • Similarities and differences between the supply and use of illicit drugs, alcohol and NPS in prison were discussed (e.g. debts, victimisation/bullying, boredom, safety, supply routes, MDT, displacement of substances being used).
  • The use of synthetic cannibinoids creates problems in prison for the staff, healthcare and other prisoners.
  • The use of synthetic cannabis by prisoners for entertainment was highlighted and discussed including ‘Spice Pigs’ and ‘Mamba Muppets’ (people coerced into taking excessive amounts of synthetic cannabis for the entertainment of other prisoners). ‘Spice Pigs’ are also used to test batches of the product to ascertain safety and its effects before it is distributed for more general consumption.
  • Link between NPS and violence against both staff and other prisoners were identified and discussed both as a consequence of the psychopharmacological effect on the user and as a form of leisure and entertainment. Contrasting views in relation to NPS and violence were presented. It was noted that the type of establishment, category of prison and the population (e.g. YOI or adult) influenced which drugs were being used/popular.
  • The advantages of synthetic cannabinoids over illicit cannabis in prison were discussed, including the lack of smell, price (cheap), availability (legal) and the fact it is undetectable in drug tests.
  • The problems associated with the manufacturing and supply of NPS were discussed both generally and in relation to prison/the prison estate
  • The manufacturing of NPS in the UK and its links to organised crime were outlined using a case study. It was identified that organised crime groups involved in the manufacture of NPS were actually not that organised and were just groups of young criminal entrepreneurs in the local area. The case study was discussed in detail and the importance of multi-agency co-operation was emphasised (e.g. Police, Home Office Forensic Early Warning System, drug treatment agencies, Trading Standards).
  • Police prosecutions are often based on trading standards or financial crimes not drug offences.


General Questions Arising From The Day:

  • Why is possession for NPS not criminalised under the Bill but possession of illicit drugs is and what sort of problems will this have for the police (NPS or illicit white powder)?
  • Why did the Novel Psychoactive Substances Bill not include a possession offence?
  • Is the Novel Psychoactive Substance Bill a response to populist demand?
  • How is misinformation about substances (e.g. effects, use, contents) to be controlled on the internet?
  • How can we encourage safer trading on cryptomarkets?
  • What is the best way to communicate harm reduction tactics to users?
  • Where do we go from here?

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