Psychoactive substances bill may lead to lack of clarity over whether or not suspects are breaking the law, says Durham PCC Ron Hogg
Northumbria University research found the main market for legal highs was vulnerable young people. Photograph: Alamy
Police could face extra expense and confusion as a result of discrepancies in the laws banning the possession of drugs that will emerge once the psychoactive substances bill comes into force, a police and crime commissioner has warned.
Ron Hogg, police and crime commissioner for Durham, said he found it bizarre that the new law to ban the trade in any substances that have a psychoactive effect will not also make possession an offence, and that this could cause problems for investigating officers.
“On the ground that might mean that people are arrested, drugs seized and taken for testing, and then people are not prosecuted,” Hogg said. It costs about £100 to test a single sample of suspected drugs, one expert told the Guardian.
Amid controversy and impassioned debate, the psychoactive substances bill passed its final stages in parliament this week and is expected to be signed into law by the Queen in April.
The law is intended to shut down the trade in legal highs, also known as novel psychoactive substances (NPSs), which are designer drugs concocted to have similar effects to controlled drugs, while circumventing drugs laws.
However, there are reports that the trade in some legal highs is already moving underground and that use, particularly of synthetic versions of cannabis, has already become embedded in groups of problem drug users such as prisoners, the homeless and disadvantaged young people.
Hogg has previously called for the decriminalisation of all drug possession to allow police to focus on dealers, but he said that the discrepancy in the ban between controlled drugs and NPSs meant that it would be increasingly unclear to officers whether or not suspects were breaking the law.
“It depends how much time and energy that forces are willing to put into this. The legislation doesn’t help for not making possession a criminal offence, or taking the converse view and decriminalising possession of all drugs,” he said.
“I suspect we will find a mixed bag and it will make it very difficult for operational officers to make a decision.” The current Acpo guidance on dealing with drugs crime says that suspect substances should be treated as controlled drugs until proven otherwise.
Nevertheless, Hogg welcomed the new powers the law would give police, particularly around search and seizure, that will allow them to tackle distribution of NPSs, which are leading to a rise in antisocial behaviour in many communities.
Vera Baird, PCC for Northumbria, said her region was one of the worst affected by use of NPSs and she also welcomed the new powers. Police in Newcastle have launched a task force specifically to tackle the problem after they received 96 calls for antisocial behaviour linked to use of legal highs in just two weeks.
Research commissioned by Baird and carried out by Northumbria University found that the main market for legal highs was vulnerable young people, in particular young boys who were in local authority care.
Supt Richie Jackson, who is leading Newcastle’s task force, said the city’s problems were focused on a form of synthetic cannabinoid called methoxetamine or MXE, which is traded on the street and in so-called headshops under various names, including Black Mamba and Pandora.
Aside from erratic and antisocial behaviour, incidents linked to the substance included users found unconscious in the street and subsequently suffering breathing problems. In one case a man who had to be talked down after threatening to leap from a local landmark ended up in hospital coughing up blood.
Local police intelligence was suggesting that the substances were being imported into the area then locally cut with unknown chemicals, Jackson said. Samples of the drugs had been seized and the force was awaiting the results of sample tests to find out what they contained.
Michael Linnell, founder of DrugWatch, a forum for drugs workers and professionals, said he expected legitimate retailers to start selling off their remaining stocks of NPSs at big discounts ahead of the ban. After that, the results of the ban were unpredictable, although it is likely that the trade would continue in some form underground, he said.
“It’s important to remember it’s a market, so for a lot of people it doesn’t really matter whether it’s illegal or not,” Linnell said. “It’s a matter of if it’s desirable and whether they can get hold of it.”