Many people have been very confused about what they can and cannot do under the law during ‘lock-down’. This is hardly surprising given the open textured drafting of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 (now heavily amended). Furthermore, discussions have conflated legal rules and “guidelines”. For my blog posting on this topic, see “Open textured legislation in the times of Covid-19: ‘reasonable excuse’ and legal certainty’” (which appears on the QMUL, Criminal Justice Centre blog) [Link].
See the contributions of other commentators and academics via the ‘Responding to the Covid-19 blog‘, Queen Mary University of London, Criminal Justice Centre: [Link].
Notwithstanding that the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee was constrained to limit its inquiry, its short Report “Drugs policy” (First Report of Session 2019–20: 23 Oct 2019) [Link] provides further support (if such were needed) that: (i) there is “clear need for evidence-led policy on drugs”, (ii) “Holistic, non-judgemental harm reduction approaches are needed which facilitate access to services”, and (iii) (among other matters) that on-site drug checking and “Drug Consumption Rooms should be introduced on a pilot basis in areas of high need, accompanied by robust evaluation of their outcomes”. The Committee urged the Government and other policy makers “not to shy away from the lessons from Portugal and Frankfurt, but to take a harm reduction approach and implement the recommendations set out in this report without delay” [p.25].
DCRs have long been of interest to this commentator: see [Link], noting certain legal issues that relate to them [Link].
Today has brought news of another tragic death, at a music festival, that is suspected to be drug-related – this time, at the Leeds music festival [Link]. “The Loop“, which provides onsite front-of-house drug-testing and counselling services, was not in attendance (and it had not been invited to attend). The Loop is renowned as the UK’s 1st and (currently) only ‘drug checking’ or ‘drug safety testing’ service to the public that is staffed by a team of volunteers that include chemists and pharmacists who are committed to reducing the UK’s record drug-related death rate [Link].
No drug-testing service could ever guarantee a death-free event, but the evidence is mounting of its effectiveness as a harm-reduction service. Most festival-goers have long passed into adulthood and they exercise personal autonomy. They do not want to be patronised, or advised “be careful about what you’re taking”. What they do want is information – even if that includes onsite drug testing.
New figures released today disclose that 1,187 people have died as a result of drug use in Scotland last year [BBC News]. This blog has previously mentioned the merits and issues associated with establishing medically supervised drug consumption facilities and, indeed, this author has written extensively about them (see for example, “Evidence and Issues Concerning Drug Consumption Rooms” [Link]. As stated in that paper “there is no single rule of law that forbids the creation and operation of such a facility. However, certain actions could expose organisers, managers, and staff at a facility to the risk of investigation, prosecution, conviction or civil suit. While the risk must not be overstated, it must not be understated.” There is much that could be achieved by a combination of Secondary Legislation and multi-agency protocols/agreements. The problem is persuading the UK Legislature to follow the path of other countries that operate such facilities (for a considerable period of time in some states) or even to pilot such a scheme.
The Home Office has published a commendably detailed review into the operation of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 since it came into force on 26 May 2016 [Link]. Its conclusions (only summarised below, p.69) are:
1. To put an end to the open sale of NPS: This appears to have been achieved although the main source of supply for NPS “is now likely to be street dealers, particularly for synthetic cannabinoids.”
2. To put an end to the game of ‘cat and mouse’. This does not appear to have been achieved (based on a small number of observations from the Forensic Early Warning System). “Novel drugs which are not controlled under the MDA have continued to emerge”.
3. To reduce the number of people using NPS. This appears to have been achieved for the general adult population, “with a significant reduction in NPS use since the Act, particularly among young adults”. However, what has not changed significantly is the use of nitrous oxide among adults and the use of NPS among children. As for NPS use among vulnerable users, including the homeless, the evidence “is mixed” with “some displacement from synthetic cannabinoids to ‘traditional’ controlled drugs”. In prisons, “the PSA does not appear to have restricted the prevalence of NPS, with use of synthetic cannabinoids in particular appearing to have increased since the Act was introduced”.
4. To reduce the various health and social harms associated with NPS. “This appears to have been achieved in the main, although there are some specific areas of concern…. [W]hile there has been a reduction in NPS-related deaths across England and Wales, there has been a considerable increase in Scotland since the Act has been introduced”.
The Review states that the decisions of the Court of Appeal in R v Chapman  EWCA Crim 319, and R v Rochester  EWCA Crim 1936, are “binding” (p.4, p.14). However, care must be taken when determining the points of legal principle that are truly “binding”. In Rochester, the Court made it clear that whether something is capable of producing a psychoactive effect “is a question of fact, no doubt sometimes assisted by expert evidence” [para.19; emphasis added]. The legal principle, which is ‘binding’, is that “section 2 of the 2016 Act does not distinguish between direct and indirect effect when it defines a psychoactive substance as one which produces a psychoactive effect” [para.25; emphasis added]. The potential implications of this decision extend beyond cases of nitrous oxide presented in canisters for catering use.