I recently took part in discussion on amendments to the Psychoactive Substances Bill, a measure introduced by Government to ban so-called ‘legal highs’. To achieve this, the Bill bans the production and supply of all psychoactive substances, but then proceeds to exempt certain substances from the ban. The exemptions include alcohol, which meets the criteria of a psychoactive substance as defined by the Bill and hence, without the exemption, would be banned.
It was not clear to me what the intellectual justification was for introducing a measure to ban psychoactive substances that are harmful (though the Bill introduces no concept of harm), but exempt from the ban the most harmful psychoactive substance of all. The damage caused by alcohol, both in human and financial terms, is enormous. Given that, I tabled an amendment to remove alcohol from the list of exemptions. I made clear that my purpose in doing so was to give the Government the opportunity to provide its intellectual justification for the exemption. You can read the debate on the amendment here. As you will see, I made clear the impact of alcohol abuse. I was well aware of practical and political arguments for the exemption, but I wanted to tease out the principled case for what the Government was doing.
The Opposition, which supports the Bill, offered no justification for the exemption, noting only that the Opposition did not support banning alcohol, and the minister, Lord Bates – who is very good, and listens and engages with the House – basically conceded that there was no intellectual case. The exemption was a practical matter – we are where we are and banning would not be feasible and alcohol duty brings in substantial revenue to the Treasury. The result is that the policy adopted towards alcohol abuse remains one of regulate and educate, whereas that towards ‘legal highs’ is one of banning them. I fear the Bill is a result of the ‘something must be done’ syndrome.