The Conservatives might have gone in softer than Russell Brand and the gang predicted, with very little change announced in the Queen’s Speech last week, but they didn’t fail to cause a stir. The proposed ‘Psychoactive Substances Bill’ is designed to provide a blanket ban on all substances which produce a mind-altering effect, with several allowances made for booze, fags and chocolate. The idea is to protect the public from any psychoactive substance that ‘affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state’. Rather than replying to a public demand for such drastic measures, the Home Office stated the purpose of the bill was simply to ‘protect hard-working citizens’.
Admittedly, most of my knowledge of drugs comes from ‘The Wire’ or Talk to Frank adverts we were shown at school, but the proposed restrictions in the bill do seem a little extreme. Perhaps it is the broad scope of the proposed bill that makes it so hard to take it seriously; any substance which essentially alters your mood could potentially be illegal. This theoretically rules out cinnamon snorting (for any ‘Orange Is The New Black’ fans), and sniffing exotic plants (for any Chelsea Flower Show fans).
All new laws should be treated sceptically, especially ones that propose interference in people’s private lives. The anti-drugs bill seeks to cover areas the law does not currently reach, especially when it comes to so-called ‘legal highs’, which have proved fatal in a number of cases.
This doesn’t mean that I’m behind the pro-drugs argument. Legalising drugs in order to make them safer ignores the problem here: people take substances to escape reality. Besides, unlike the US, drugs aren’t a headline-grabbing problem in the UK. The social context of the US ‘war on drugs’ simply isn’t applicable to England. This bill, which is mainly an attack on legal highs, is primarily aimed at a culture of young recreational drug users. You could find them at bad techno nights, muddy festivals or in places like Scunthorpe where there is nothing else to do.
Bringing in draconian measures will not challenge the idea that it’s cool to get off your head. In fact, it may make it seem more enticing. Drugs will still be as easy to find as they currently are and, considering how wide the bill casts its net, officials will most likely be caught up in paperwork involving kids sniffing Pritt Stick rather than tackling actual drug problems. There isn’t much merit in taking drugs. It might be fun once in a while to be the only one still dancing at 7am, but the desire to continuously escape reality or artificially enhance your mood is ultimately a bit sad. The problem with drugs is not necessarily in the consumption of the substance; rather, it’s the desire to get out of your head instead of facing the real world.
The Psychoactive Substances Bill is framed as a precaution rather than a punishment. It’s supposedly meant to prevent mistakes and protect the public. Yet the public hasn’t demanded protection. There has been no campaign for stricter drug laws, no media frenzy and, crucially, no public discussion about drug taking. This proposed bill should be rejected on the grounds of individual freedom, not in the interest of getting high.