No clear intellectual case….

indexI 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.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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5 Responses to No clear intellectual case….

  1. I fear the Noble House has gone soft. I would argue that Christianity is constitutional to the United Kingdom and alcohol is constitutional to the practice of Christianity. I’m fairly sure broader anthropological arguments could be advanced to distinguish the chemical in question as well…
    Acrimony, acrimony wherefore art thou acrimony?

  2. By the way,
    Lord Norton may recall I prefer several substances to be regulated rather than banned.

  3. Jonathan says:

    I agree there’s no justification for an inconsistent approach. This applies equally to tobacco products, which not only are hugely harmful to the people who use them, but also to non-users around them.

    Alcohol and tobacco are a huge anomaly where drugs laws are concerned. The pro-cannabis lobby (and the decriminalisation of all drugs lobby) often use the argument that as alcohol and tobacco are legal, it makes no sense for cannabis use to be criminalised. In fact, it’s alcohol and tobacco that are the odd ones out. A more consistent approach would be to ban them too. For this reason, it’s highly unlikely there will ever be a comprehensive review of drugs laws. One can’t support a reform based on the relative harm of substances, only to exempt two of the most harmful from any scrutiny.

  4. tizres says:

    Westminster discussions on banning alcohol are likely be misinterpreted by our kilted neighbours. Mind you: https://www.gov.uk/premises-licence-scotland Awkward.

  5. maude elwes says:

    Prohibition never works for long.

    From a different point of view, adults should not be banned from consuming anything they feel they want or need to have. It is ‘their’ responsibility to take care of themselves. Isn’t it?

    The responsibilty of government is in the education of truth and graphic understanding of what drug taking does when you dabble in it to excess. What is so hypocritical with those who rule is, they always feel the need to cover truth with a lying softener. Take what is in our food that they will not legislate our knowledge of. Because it may upset the fat cats who shove it in there and don’t want to tell us in case we find it is a killer and it cuts their market take. The scientific analysis of legal highs, as well as illegal, cost the public a fortune, yet, they will not spend to detect the horse in our daily nosh.

    If you are a drunk you will suffer untold misery. If you tipple reasonably, on occasion, you will find delight in the substance. If you eat to the point of gluttony you suffer accordingly and find you will be unable to move from your bed. Which then, those around you, buying the fodder for you to stuff are the equivalent of drug dealers. They too are being paid to satisfy.

    Then we could move on to the health of the individual being down to them and their self control. Even sexual activity can give you horrfic illness if you delve in a maniacal way without caution. Or, if you give in to that which you know is likely to be seriously risky. So once again the only answer is information which ‘adults’ can then use to choose which way they go. In every sphere life or death depends on free choices.

    Those who smoke, knowing the deadly baccy is likely to suffocate them in the end, with one illness or another, once they have clear unadulterated truth, should be free to kill themsleves with it if they want to. Especially as we are ready to give people the freedom to take their life to someone who will put them out of their misery on any whim. What is the difference?

    If you ski, if you climb a mountain, if you travel to the jungles of the earth you are taking a very serious risk of losing your life. As you do when you get out of bed. Surely being an ‘adult’ means freedom to take all those chances and choices without government having any say. Other than filling you with the full information of what is likely to happen should you take the chances available to you.The only prohibition should be in deciding whether the NHS should spend our millions on trying to keep you from the horror you brought on yourself.

    And, no, I would never have thought I would write such things until seeing what has been stuffed down our throats with far worse consequences than frolicking with cocaine or heroin and being banged up for doing it. The Rolling Stone, Richard, continues chugging away ad inifinitum, as did the Queen Mother, smoking and drinking into her dotage.

    Freedom is a dangerous trait. Is it one we should be forbidden?

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