Last week, some amendments were quietly slipped into the disastrous Psychoactive Substances Bill that’s currently going through parliament. Surprisingly, a new list of permitted substances has been added. Almost all are poorly evidenced substances used informally as ‘smart drugs’.
The bill is an embarrassingly bad piece of legislation that aims to ban all psychoactive substances by relying on the scientific impossibility of adequately defining ‘psychoactive’. It allows for a ‘whitelist’ of approved drugs which until last week, only included alcohol, nicotine and caffeine.
On December 15th, an amendment was added that greatly increases that list. It now includes:
The list is followed by a note which says:
The substances in this amendment are commonly used to improve individuals’ cognitive performance and have been found to have positive effects in a number of academic studies.
The list almost entirely consists of drugs that are widely used by smart drug or nootropics enthusiasts. But to imply that there is good evidence that they have ‘positive effects’ on cognition is entirely misleading.
While some studies have claimed these effects we simply do not have the quality of evidence needed to demonstrate this. Most of the studies that have shown benefits are small and poorly designed.
We know that some of the substances are likely to be low risk in small doses. Oxitriptan, for example, is better known as 5-HTP and is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin and is present in, among other things, bananas. Sulbutiamine is essentially a slightly tweaked version of vitamin B1.
But several of the others are actually quite poorly researched in terms of safety. Typically, few side-effects were reported in the not-very-good-quality studies, but we really know very little about their long-term effects.
What is most striking about this sudden addition to the bill is how odd it is. Suddenly, a list of poorly tested and little understood drugs have been exempted from a ban if the bill becomes law.
The backers of the bill claim that it is needed to protect us from an influx of new poorly tested substances from grey market labs, and then have just exempted a bunch of them based on poorly evidenced claim that they improve cognition.
It’s like someone read the pop-up banner ads for a dodgy internet ‘smart drug’ store and decided to change the proposed law as a result.
The Psychoactive Substances Bill has gone from bizarre to baffling.