Parliamentary Briefing on Psychoactive Substances Bill – Report Stage
1) The Angelus Foundation is a charity which raises awareness of the harms of ‘legal highs’/NPS to young people, particularly in schools, universities and at festivals. We make internet films, visit schools and work with communities to reduce the harm from these untested and unpredictable substances. The charity was founded by Maryon Stewart who lost her daughter, Hester, to a legal high in April 2009.
2) There is a perception among some young people that the term ‘legal high’ implies there has been some process of assessment deeming them safe for consumption. This misconception around risk has led to dangerous and problematic use. Their sale has become widespread through high street shops (headshops) or online. The inexorable growth in their availability cannot be allowed to continue on the grounds of public safety. Angelus supports the main objectives of the Psychoactive Substances Bill but wishes to see the legislation introduced alongside a comprehensive education and public awareness programme.
3) We would have preferred the legislation to have better targeted the most harmful substances. This could have been achieved by amending the original definition of ‘psychoactivity’ in line with proposals from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) such as ensuring they were synthetic substances. As it stands, the definition captures substances already considered low-risk by ACMD. Having no reference to the relative harms of substances will make communicating the reasoning behind the legislation to young people considerably more difficult.
4) Measures of Harm and Prevalence
- Drug deaths in England and Wales (ONS) from NPS have risen from 29 in 2011 to 60 in 2013 and in 2014 they reached 67. Figures from Scotland show there were 62 deaths in 2014 (National Records of Scotland).
- The numbers and types of new substances have continued to rise rapidly. The latest figures from European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction show 101 new substances identified in 2014.
- Data recently compiled by the Centre for Social Justice showed officers from 32 forces in England attended 3,807 NPS incidents in 2014 – up from 1,431 the previous year (over 170%).
- Evidence from A&E admissions is not currently being captured in any systematic manner. However, a study carried out by the Edinburgh Toxins Unit 2014 showed, over six months, 114 NPS related admissions out of total of 835 drugs related admissions (about 14%).
- Angelus’s University Fresher’s survey from September 2014 showed 61% had a friend who had tried NPS, 36% had been offered them and 19% had tried them. Our schools survey (16-18 year olds) showed 87% had heard of ‘legal highs’, 30% had been offered one and 14% had tried one.
- Last week In 72 hours, (5-7 January) the North East Ambulance Service dealt with more than 40 emergency calls relating to the overpowering effects of NPS.
- There have been many incidents in schools where students (often 14-16) have been overcome by the potent effects of the substances, typically synthetic cannabis known as ‘spice’. Examples include Blackpool, Luton and Pembroke. Effects include collapse, unconsciousness, seizures, racing and irregular heartbeat, paranoid states and psychosis.
Legislative Impact on Supply
5) Angelus supports the legislation as a marked improvement over the free availability of NPS. The number of headshops estimated to be selling NPS is around 350 according to Home Office figures. They tend to label their products as ‘Research Chemicals’ and evade prosecution under the Medicines Act by declaring the products as ‘Not for Human Consumption’. Angelus’s engagement with the headshop industry would indicate a group of suppliers driven by profit in a highly lucrative business with scant regard for the health or well-being of their customers. We have not yet been made aware of any headshop or chain, withdrawing products from sale on the grounds of safety, nor investing any of their considerable revenue in the testing of products.
6) We anticipate these legal measures will disrupt the NPS market considerably. We have become increasingly aware of the reckless methods used to promote the sale of these products and the impact they have had on the physical and mental health of young people. Substances are routinely offered with discounts for students, loyalty cards and free samples. There are many reports of NPS misuse leading to serious anti-social behaviour, crime and violence. We are also strongly supportive of the view that the legislation alone cannot be expected to affect behaviour and lift the general understanding of the risks of taking untested chemical highs. Legislative change should be enhanced with a concerted programme of awareness and educational provision.
Home Affairs Committee Report
7) The Committee’s report was published on 23 October. It was supportive of the objectives of the legislation but criticised the haste and the apparent lack of consultation in the legislative process. Recommendation 14 of the Home Affairs Committee Report referred to the issue of public awareness.
“Successive governments’ spending on education on the dangers of NPS has been shockingly inadequate to date. Action must be taken now, to educate young people about NPS, through stronger and wider public information campaigns. There is already a range of materials, produced by voluntary sector organisations, notably the Angelus Foundation, which could be used more effectively. We recommend that the Government oblige schools, with the assistance of the voluntary sector, to promulgate these existing resources as a matter of urgency. (Paragraph 76)”
8) The HAC report made several other recommendations.
i) ACMD’s definition of psychoactive substances would result in more successful prosecutions.
ii) Poppers’ were “not seen to be capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a societal problem” and should not be banned.
iii) There is a lack of clarity in the Bill with regard to the relative harm associated with different types of NPS and the appropriate sentence commensurate with the offence.
iv) There is substantial evidence that the market for NPS is already moving online. The Government and the police should publish an action plan setting out how they will tackle the challenges of displacement of sales to the internet.
9) In November, Mike Penning MP, Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice, set out in a letter to Bill Committee members some existing small-scale initiatives and a Strategic Communications Plan around NPS. At Second Reading he said, “[the Bill] is only one part of a campaign to make sure that people understand the dangers and the change in legislation.”
10) He cited the following as measures to help address awareness issues around NPS:
- Rise Above
- Resource Pack for informal educators
- PHE toolkit for commissioners
- Drugs Education Science Curriculum Key Stage 2 and 3
- Mentor’s ADEPIS
11) Angelus feel these are welcome elements of an awareness programme but are not strategically placed nor sufficiently resourced to have sufficient impact on public consciousness about the legal changes contained in the Psychoactive Substances Bill nor the ongoing requirement on NPS education.
12) It should be noted:
- The Rise Above website makes no reference to NPS
- The Education resource pack is not aimed at schools
- PHE toolkit’s purpose is focused on treatment provision not education
- The Science Curriculum does not put drugs education in a social context
- The investment in Mentor’s ADEPIS will run out in March 2016.
Public Awareness and Education
13) Angelus founder, Maryon Stewart, said in the Home Office press release announcing the legislation in May, “No law can offer the perfect solution to protect people from drugs; it is equally vital we all concentrate our efforts of making the public, young people in particular, more aware of the harms of these substances in schools, at university and during festivals.”
14) Angelus is of the view that the legal change is an ideal opportunity to challenge the term ‘legal high’ as many young people are led to believe there is a correlation between legality and safety. We would also like to make clear our support for the proposals recommended by the Government for Wales Health and Social Care Committee (March 2015). The Committee’s comprehensive report recommended a targeted public awareness campaign for young people and also one specifically for parents, an evaluation of current education programmes, investment more generally on drugs education for schools and NPS training for frontline staff.
15) A Parliamentary Question (15805) tabled by Lyn Brown MP on awareness resources was answered by Drugs Minister Mike Penning MP on 18 November. It revealed no budget had been allocated to raising awareness generally and of the offences contained in the Bill.
Home Office Drugs: Publicity
Lyn Brown MP
To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, what funding her Department has allocated to work on the strategic communications plan for making (a) young and (b) other people aware of the blanket ban on legal highs proposed in the Psychoactive Substances Bill.
Mike Penning MP
A strategic communications plan to make people aware of the intended blanket ban on psychoactive substances is currently being developed. We are working with key partners and agencies such as Pubic Health England to develop a comprehensive plan that will explain the legislative changes and consequences to sellers, young people and other users and signpost support and advice. A budget has not yet been allocated for this work.
16) The Ministry of Transport spent £1.95m on recent changes to the law on drug-driving – an equivalent sum could also be invested in NPS public awareness. There is still no commitment by the lead Department (Home Office) to carry out a funded public awareness programme at the point of commencement nor any commitment by Education Ministers to help schools to better deliver on drugs education more generally. At Committee Stage, Mike Penning announced a meeting with his counterpart in DoE, Ed Timpson MP to discuss these matters. Our understanding is that this meeting has still not taken place.
17) There have been widespread reports of very high prevalence among prison inmates of ‘spice’ or ‘mamba’ (slang for synthetic cannabis). Many prisoners are showing signs of severe dependence leading to very erratic behaviour caused by deteriorating mental health. HM Inspectorate of Prisons reports show high levels of use of ‘spice’ have led to “a number of medical emergencies….and debts enforced by violence.” Examples include HMPs Guy’s Marsh, Altcourse and Blantyre House. In effect the high use of synthetic cannabis in prisons is equally a threat to the health of the inmates and the security of the establishments.
18) Service provider organisations have also reported increased and problematic NPS use by homeless people and street drug users. Some have switched from opiates to NPS and have been injecting stimulants. It has also been reported that a small number of high street suppliers have exploited vulnerable individuals to test the potency of new batches of synthetic cannabis. Angelus would like to see some greater commitment to warning and persuading offenders around risk of addiction, mental health issues as well as debt and violence.
Drugs Education in Schools and Angelus
19) There remains a considerable gap around NPS education for young people in school. Currently only 15% of schools teach drugs and alcohol education for one hour or more per term (Mentor figures). Angelus argues this should be the minimum standard for all schools. Many PSHE teachers are unable to teach effectively on NPS. More could be done by the Department for Education to assist schools in preparing lessons around NPS harms and drugs more generally. Angelus has developed a Schools Pack to be delivered to 14-18 year olds for assemblies and PSHE lessons. It is being delivered across schools to reduce the harms from NPS and build resilience.
20) There is also a strong case for overhauling the drug information service FRANK to make it more interactive and work in line with young people’s trends of using social media. Angelus has sent a costed proposal to the Home Office to redevelop and re-vitalise FRANK which would make greater use of film and social media. The estimated cost is £118,500.
Director for Communications and Operations, Angelus Foundation
07747 727 993