Psychoactive Substances Act 2016
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act to make provision about psychoactive substances; and for connected purposes.
Citation2016 c. 2
Introduced byMichael Bates and Theresa May.[1]
Territorial extent England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland.[2]
Royal assent28 January 2016
  • 26 May 2016. Full enforcement across the United Kingdom [1]
Other legislation
Repeals/revokesIntoxicating Substances (Supply) Act 1985
History of passage through Parliament
Text of statute as originally enacted
Revised text of statute as amended

The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 (c. 2)[3] is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom intended to restrict the production, sale and supply of a new class of psychoactive substances often referred to as "legal highs". The bill was given Royal Assent on 28 January 2016,[4] and came into force on 26 May 2016 across the entire United Kingdom.


The law defines as a "psychoactive substance" anything which "by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system ... affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state". The law bans all such substances but exempts alcohol, tobacco or nicotine-based products, caffeine, food and drink, medicinal products and any drug that is already regulated under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.[5]

The Act:

The act also makes those offences punishable by a fine, or by up to a year in prison (six months in Northern Ireland) if convicted as a summary offence, or up to seven years if convicted under indictment. The Act also defines an offence of possession in a custodial institution (prison, young offenders institution etc.) which has the same penalties as the other offences, except the maximum prison term if convicted under indictment is two years.

The Act also describes a series of aggravating factors which judges or magistrates are obliged to consider in sentencing. These are:


In 2015, Home Office minister Mike Penning wrote a letter to representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England to try to reassure them that incense would not fall under the jurisdiction of the bill and that churches would not face prosecution for the use of incense during worship.[6]

The Act was due to come into force on 6 April 2016. It was delayed indefinitely due to a lack of clarity as to what the meaning of "psychoactive" is, and what substances are covered by the law. It eventually came into effect on 26 May 2016.[4] The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs also told the Government that alkyl nitrites (poppers) were not covered by the law as they were not considered psychoactive, as they affected the muscles and not the central nervous system. The Government accepted this advice and has stated that poppers are not unlawful under the Act,[7] but nevertheless poppers are not listed as exempted substances in Schedule 1 of the Act; however, this is unnecessary because of how they do not affect the central nervous system.[5]


The law has been criticised as an infringement on civil liberties. Barrister Matthew Scott described the act as an attempt to "ban pleasure", saying it could drastically overreach by banning areca nuts, additives used in vaporisers and electronic cigarettes, hop pillows, and the sale of toads and salamanders that naturally produce psychoactive substances. Scott went further and suggested it may also ban flowers and perfumes as the scents can produce an emotional response. He described it as "bad legislation", compared its drafting with the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, and described it as incompatible with a conservative philosophy of only banning something when there is clear evidence of harm.[8]

The government's own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) said the law was unworkable as "the psychoactivity of a substance cannot be unequivocally proven", and that it would potentially impede scientific progress by restricting medical research.[9][10]

Psychopharmacologist and former member of the ACMD, David Nutt, said that the law's apparent ban on poppers (alkyl nitrites) and nitrous oxide was difficult to reconcile with how safe those drugs are in practice, and argued that the (then presumed) ban on poppers was specifically aimed at gay men.[11] The gay rights campaigning group Stonewall said that unless evidence suggested that poppers did any harm, they should be excluded from the ban.[12]

Drugs reformer and founder of the Beckley Foundation, Amanda Feilding claimed the act is bad legislation and a mistake for multiple reasons. She criticised the act for pushing the market underground, meaning users and addicts will have to resort to purchasing from criminals. She also stated the act hampers legitimate research, such as varying drugs effects on illnesses such as depression. Along with these issues she criticised the legislation and the government for trampling on people's personal freedoms and liberties.[13]


  1. ^ Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. Parliament. Retrieved 22 May 2017.
  2. ^ According to section 62, amendments and repeals from this act to section 75 the Armed Forces Act 2006 ("power of service policeman to stop and search persons, vehicles etc") may also be extended to the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and British Overseas Territories under the provisions of the Armed Forces Act 2006.
  3. ^ "Psychoactive Substances Act 2016". Retrieved 25 May 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g "Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 - GOV.UK". Retrieved 25 May 2016.
  5. ^ a b "Psychoactive Substances Act 2016". Retrieved 25 May 2016.
  6. ^ Travis, Alan (2 October 2015). "Incense in churches safe from new substances bill, say ministers". The Guardian.
  7. ^ Dunt, Ian (30 March 2016). "Psychoactive Substances Act delayed while the Home Office works out what it has banned".
  8. ^ Scott, Matthew (2 June 2015). "Theresa May wants to ban pleasure". The Daily Telegraph.
  9. ^ Brooks-Pollock, Tom (3 July 2015). "Theresa May's legal highs ban has been savaged as 'impossible' — by her own advisers". The Independent.
  10. ^ Travis, Alan (5 July 2015). "Theresa May's legal highs ban is unenforceable, say government advisers". The Guardian.
  11. ^ Nutt, David (21 March 2016). "The poppers ban is a veiled attack on pleasure". The Guardian.
  12. ^ "Poppers should not be banned until the evidence is reviewed". Stonewall. 20 January 2016.
  13. ^ Save us from this Act: Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is a bad piece of legislation, says leading expert. Daily Mirror. Published 25 May 2016. Retrieved 12 July 2017.