Psychoactive Substances

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Let’s start the year on a high – a legal high! The Psychoactive Substances Bill is currently in Parliament and likely to reach the statute books in the spring.

The underlying issue is that our legislature is trying to catch up with a social milieu in which people can achieve “legal highs” through the abuse of substances which are not banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act. These substances are freely available, particularly online where they might be sold as plant food, incense or even bath salts.

An EU early warning system was established in 1997 to identify new substances coming into Europe.  In a report dated March 2015 the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction records that In 2014 it identified 101 new compounds and that a further 450 new substances were being monitored. Also that in 2013 it undertook 46,730 substance seizures. Substances are being formulated and marketed faster than they can be identified by watchdogs and much faster than legislation can ban them. Anecdotal evidence suggests the market for these substances may be particularly large in this country.

When it’s enacted the bill will make it an offence to produce, supply, possess, import or export a psychoactive substance. A psychoactive substance is anything (including fumes) which is capable of producing a psychoactive effect on a consumer. This is in turn defined as stimulating or depressing a person’s central nervous system to affect the persons mental functioning or emotional state. As you would expect the bill also provides for exemptions because of course it’s recognised that bone fide medication, alcohol (notwithstanding today’s advice from the Chief Medical Officer) and yes, coffee, can have psychoactive effects.

There is some debate as to whether the bill can be effective but the points for employers are to be aware of the phenomenon and consider their response.

Clearly there are serious safety and disciplinary issues if someone is high at work and the starting point is to deal with this in the same way as one would deal with someone who’s drunk. However if you have an alcohol and drugs policy it would be prudent to check this covers psychoactive substances. If it is limited to illegal drugs someone will challenge it on the basis that nothing unlawful has taken place. Of course that completely misses the point but the argument is best avoided. Also, if you test for drugs, will your tests detect the ever changing compounds now available?