A few days after the draft psychoactive substances bill was published, its full ramifications are still becoming clear. It is one of the weirdest pieces of law ever proposed by a British government. And at a stroke, it seems to criminalise the majority of households in the UK.
I've written the following using accepted common definitions of the phrases involved, a close reading of the key passages of the draft bill and a little bit of logic. Anyone who can see how these items aren't criminalised using a strict reading of the bill is very welcome to let me know. We're all in uncharted legislative water here.
The psychoactive substances bill bans the production or supply of any psychoactive substance unless it is granted a specific exception, such as tobacco, alcohol, medicine, food or drink.
According to the bill, a psychoactive substance is something which "is capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it". It defines 'psychoactive' as something which, "by stimulating or depressing the person's central nervous system, affects the person's mental functioning or emotional state".
The brain is part of the central nervous system and emotions are felt in the brain. Therefore anything you put inside you which changes your emotional or intellectual state satisfies this definition.
How do you take a psychoactive substance? The bill says:
"For the purposes of this Act a person consumes a substance if the person causes or allows the substance, or fumes given off by the substance, to enter the person's body in any way."
Now let us remind ourselves of what happens when we smell something. After all, smell involves molecules from something making it to our nose, at which point they bind to the neurons in our nasal passage and produce a sense of smell. You have ingested the substance.
With that in mind let's take a quick glance at the things the government is about to ban with this bill:
Presumably people do not buy air freshener because they feel completely neutral about it. It makes them happy when their house smells nice. The item therefore has a psychoactive effect and has been supplied on the basis that it will trigger it. It is ingested through the nasal cavity. According to a strict reading of the psychoactive substances bill, it will be illegal.
As above. The psychoactive effect is actually more subtle and complex here, but the hippies who use it in their houses and the priests who use it in their churches know it is meant to bring up certain emotions, the least of which is pleasure.
People like the smell of flowers. It makes them happy. When you smell the flower, you are ingesting it. They will now be illegal.
As above. The only counter-argument is that the perfume has no effect on your emotions. Remember the last time you smelt someone on the street who used the same perfume as an ex-girlfriend? Yeah, that is an emotional effect, a pretty big one actually. It will stop you in your tracks. In fact, perfume adverts are rather keen on emphasising the emotional effects – among them the seductive or even aphrodisiac qualities – of their products. Quite seriously, perfume is sold on the basis of making us more attractive to the opposite sex. That involves having some effect on the emotional and intellectual state of the person smelling it. Case closed.
The intention of breath spray is not to change the emotional feeling of the person breathing it in. It is to make their breath smell good. But what is the emotional repercussion of having breath which smells good? Happiness. So does breath spray "affect the person's mental functioning or emotional state"? Yes. Is it a food or a drink? No. Is it ingested? Yes. It is therefore illegal under this bill.
See above. It's not intended to change emotions – it is intended to address the problem of dry and tired eyes. But by doing so it will often make the person using it happy. Or else why buy it? Did it make you happy? Did it produce any sort of emotional or intellectual response at all? Then you know the drill.
For years a source of harmless fun. But now, if anyone senses you're buying it to talk funny and laugh with your mates, it is illegal and they can go to jail for seven years. The bill would also probably apply to someone selling it to a bunch of teenagers actually intending to use it for blowing up balloons, if they suspect, "or is reckless as to whether", they might breathe in a bit for a laugh. They should suspect that, because no balanced individual could resist the temptation of having at least a little bit of it while inflating loads of balloons.
If you’re vaping something with nicotine in it, you're fine. Nicotine, the harmless but addictive substance in tobacco, is exempted. But plenty of vapers don't take cartridges with nicotine. They get nicotine-free ones, usually with fruit flavouring. They just like the taste. And if they like it, well, they're experiencing an emotional reaction. So it is, by definition, a psychoactive substance.
Are the police really going to come after people with air freshener or flowers in their home? Plainly not. But that's precisely the problem. This is not law as we know it. It is the aspiration of a child-like intellect cloaked in the respectability of a government bill. Trying to ascertain the effects is like trying to sit down on an imaginary chair: it does not exist. It is not there. It is just words. You might as well legislate against sub-standard sausage sandwiches made by a deli in 2018.
The really depressing thing is that, with expected Tory, Labour and SNP support, this insane bill is likely to pass with barely any opposition at all. But it will at least serve as a symbol of how deranged our debate on drugs has become.