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New laws to tackle legal highs

Published 29/05/2015

Peddling nitrous oxide will be made a criminal offence under new laws
Peddling nitrous oxide will be made a criminal offence under new laws

Sellers of "hippy crack" for recreational use will face up to seven years in prison under a Government crackdown on legal highs.

Peddling nitrous oxide - also known as laughing gas - will be made a criminal offence under new laws published today.

The move is one of a string of tough proposals to tackle the trade in legal highs in the UK, with ministers also announcing that police will be given powers to shut down websites which sell them.

As well as newly created synthetic drugs, the legislation will cover the sale of "psychoactive" substances which have been used as intoxicants for several years - such as nitrous oxide and the party drug known as "poppers".

Sold in balloons for around £2 per dose, users breathe in laughing gas to feel euphoric and relaxed.

A number of footballers have been photographed apparently inhaling the substance, which is not illegal but is seen as potentially dangerous by experts.

The Home Office said selling nitrous oxide for legitimate food processing, medicinal and industrial purposes will not be affected by the ban. Personal possession will not be an offence under the new laws.

The Psychoactive Substances Bill, which follows similar legislation in Ireland, will introduce a blanket ban on the production, distribution, sale and supply of legal highs - officially known as new psychoactive substances (NPSs) - after they were linked to scores of deaths.

More than 500 new drugs have been banned by the Government but the current system is seen as laborious as substances have to be assessed individually before they can be outlawed and manufacturers often produce new versions almost immediately after a previous form has been prohibited.

Figures released earlier this year showed two new psychoactive substances were identified in Europe every week last year.

Policing Minister Mike Penning said: " Young people who take these substances are taking exceptional risks with their health and those who profit from their sale have a complete disregard for the potential consequences. That's why we are targeting the suppliers.

"The landmark Bill will fundamentally change the way we tackle new psychoactive substances - and put an end to the game of cat and mouse in which new drugs appear on the market more quickly than Government can identify and ban them.

"The blanket ban will give police and other law enforcement agencies greater powers to tackle the reckless trade in psychoactive substances, instead of having to take a substance-by-substance approach."

Under the legislation:

:: It will be an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, possess with intent to supply, import or export psychoactive substances. The maximum sentence will be seven years in prison.

::The whole of the United Kingdom will be affected by the ban and l aw enforcement powers will be extended to all NPS supply from UK websites, so they could be shut down.

:: Substances such as alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, food and medical products will be excluded from the scope of the offence, as will controlled drugs which are already covered by older legislation. The Home Secretary will have the power to vary the list of exemptions as appropriate in future.

:: Authorities will be given powers to seize and destroy substances and search people, premises and cars.

:: Civil sanctions will be available to police and local authorities to adopt a "proportionate response" to the supply of NPSs in some cases.

:: The legislation will capture substances that, although not new, are psychoactive, have been used as intoxicants for many years and are not harm free, such as "poppers" or salvia, which is marketed as a "herbal high".

Commander Simon Bray, the National Police Chiefs' Council lead for new psychoactive substances, said: " When people buy dangerous drugs they will generally have little idea how potent the drug is or what it may contain.

"Sadly we have seen too many people losing their lives or becoming seriously ill after taking so-called 'legal highs' under the impression that they are safe.

"A blanket ban on new psychoactive substances (NPS) will make it simpler for law enforcement to deal with those drugs which are potentially unsafe but which may not yet be controlled."

Maryon Stewart, who founded the Angelus Foundation after her daughter Hester, 21, died after consuming the then legal GBL, backed the move.

" We expect the law to impact very significantly on the high street trade," she said.

"The open sale of NPS has led to dangerous experimentation with many young people being badly affected by their unpredictable effects and some ending up in hospital.

"Sadly, too many have paid the ultimate price from taking these risky substances and this change will go a long way to stop further deaths."

Rosanna O'Connor, director of alcohol, drugs and tobacco at Public Health England, said: "The risks for users of new psychoactive substances can be particularly high especially when so little is known about their content, which can be dangerous and in some cases lead to death.

"A ban would aim to reduce the easy availability of these substances, but we also crucially need to continue to focus on preventing and treating the harms that they can cause."

Professor David Nutt, former chief drugs adviser to the Government, described the move as "utterly pointless".

He said: "It will make no difference. People will just go back to cocaine and heroin.

"If you close down the head shops, people will just go to the back streets and it will all be underground.

"It is an extraordinarily simplistic and retrograde step. It won't reduce harms, it may well increase harms."

He said legal highs are "considerably safer" than illegal Class A drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

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