The Psychoactive Substance Bill and Parliament’s Scientific Deficit 

Large parts of the world are catching on to the idea that the war on drugs has been a costly monumental failure that continues fuel violence around the world and needlessly harms users. In the UK however, our elected representatives have instead chosen to take the whole thing one step further and carte blanche ban everything capable of producing a psychoactive effect. In doing so the government’s Psychoactive Substance Bill has enacted a war on both science and common sense, two ideas MP’s seem at odds to grasp at times.

A psychoactive effect according to the the new law is something that is “stimulating or depressing” that affects “the person’s mental functioning or emotional state”. Outright prohibition so ambiguous that it could theoretically cover an extraordinary wide range of substances, from church incense to high concentrations of oxygen. The Home Office claims the law is to ‘protect hard-working citizens’, because god forbid they find anything more enjoyable than work.


What do MP’s really know about drugs?

The bill, which comes into effect in April, could well be one of the worst pieces of legislation to pass through parliament. The Labour MP Paul Flyn referred to it as, “one of the stupidest, most dangerous and unscientific pieces of drugs legislation ever”. The debate on which was outmoded and didn’t befit the reality of modern Britain; attitudes that mostly exist to fawn over the hysteria around drugs brought about in the imaginary world of the Daily Mail rather than fact.

The government is going to provide a list of substances that are exempt from this authoritarian approach instead. The list will include alcohol, which according to the bill does not contain any psychoactive substances. Proof that alcohol is not a drug, but a drink. This could explain why the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow felt the need to cover up the level of alcoholism in Westminster’s bars subsidised by hard working taxpayers to the tune of £4 million a year. The government is practically satirising itself with its own rank hypocrisy.

Perhaps it all makes sense given that in the late 90’s the Conservative MP David Amess was duped into appearing on the sardonic T.V programme Brass Eye where he lambasted the fictional drug Cake, a giant yellow pill and a ‘made up drug’ abused by “custard gannet as the dealers call them”.  Even going as far as to raise a question about Cake in parliament. Drugs obviously being Amess’ métier made him the perfect choice for chairing the government’s Psychoactive Substances Bill Committee.

Or possibly because he, along with 205 other MP’s, signed an early day motion calling for the ‘positive recognition of NHS homeopathic hospitals’. It seems that an evidence based approach towards drug use is a step too far for some MP’s but advocating the scientifically baseless use of sugar pills to cure disease isn’t. 


David Amess MP and ‘Cake’, a made up drug.

There would seem to be a disconcerting level of scientific literacy in the houses of parliament that needs to be addressed. For example, the Conservative MP David Tredinnick, a member of both the health and science and technology committees has called for the use of astrology to help patients on the NHS. Yet he’s in a position to ‘scrutinise’ government policy.

It was only a matter of weeks ago the government was still suggesting that it would ban encryption. An idea so risible and out of touch with the reality of the internet that Apple’s CEO Tim Cook stated that such a ban would lead to “dire consequences”.

Sadly there is only one MP that has a background in science as a research scientist, but simply increasing the numbers may be no panacea. A study has shown that the link between scientific training and voting intention among MP’s is not straightforward. The work they do behind the scenes may be important in agenda setting but they may not vote with their own volition but instead with their party’s ideological dogmatism.

It isn’t as if science isn’t available to the government, scientific advisors work in every department, however marginalising expert opinion in favour of senseless politics sets a dangerous precedent. The changes in the world are increasing at an ever rapid rate and the means of dealing with them are going to get even more technical, and they will increasingly need solutions that are not party political but are based on evidence instead.