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A councillors’ guide to tackling new psychoactive substances

The last decade has seen the emergence of a number of new drugs which have similar effects to ones that are prohibited by international agreement.

These new substances have driven a change in drug use in the UK. Illegal drugs like heroin, cocaine and cannabis were dominant in the mid-1990s. Since then use of these drugs has declined across a range of age groups. At the same time use of new psychoactive substances (NPS) has grown, with increasing rates of use among young people.
Manufacture, distribution and sale of these new psychoactive substances is international. They are used in a diverse range of countries, and products sold in the UK are very likely to have been made abroad and then shipped here in a variety of ways. The market for NPS is, as a result, very dynamic.

As the UK and other governments add NPS to the list of prohibited drugs, retailers have anticipated the changes and often have arranged with their suppliers for new products to be ready for sale before the ban is in place. In the main these substances are not wholly new drugs but are new variants within existing groups of substances, in particular ones that mimic cannabis in their effects.

The fast pace of evolution in products is one of the key difficulties for governments in regulating NPS. The UK has added novel substances as they emerge to the legislative framework of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 by listing individual substances and also by placing controls on groups of drugs. Currently over 500 NPS are controlled in the UK.

The Home Office has also supplemented the existing procedures by introducing temporary class drug orders to speed up the process so new drugs can be controlled. Two orders covering 15 substances have been made so far.

The UK process is dependent on establishing that a substance is harmful. Evidence of this has to be available and may take some time to accumulate. It also takes time and resources to classify a drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act. As a result there can be a delay between a product appearing on the market and a government response.

The UK is not alone in facing this problem, with the United States, Ireland and New Zealand amongst others all struggling to find mechanisms that allow them to keep up-todate with changes in the NPS market.

NPS retailers have exploited this situation. The most visible indicator of this has been the growth in the number of shops openly selling NPS. In the main these are ones selling ‘counter-culture’ and drugs paraphernalia related goods, commonly referred to as ‘headshops’. Some are individually run stores, while others are part of a chain, and they are often well informed about the legal position of the NPS they sell. Many are careful to ensure they operate within the law, so the products they sell do not contain illegal drugs, and will carry warnings stating the product is not fit for human consumption, to avoid being caught by the medicines and food regimes within the UK.

This approach has made it difficult for the police to bring charges that result in a successful prosecution. As a consequence the police have sought to involve colleagues in local authorities, especially in trading standards departments. However making use of consumer protection legislation to encourage headshops to stop stocking and selling NPS is not ideal. Although councils are being innovative in their use of consumer protection legislation, better tools are needed to tackle the sale of NPS, which is why the LGA has called for new legislation similar to that successfully used in Ireland in 2010 to close headshops.