The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 – no laughing matter?
The Act makes it an offence to possess psychoactive substances with intent to supply. In a certain number of limited cases, just possession a psychoactive substance alone is also an offence.
The appeals came about because of some cases reported in August 2017. In those case, Judges had ruled that laughing gas remained exempt from control under the Act.
The issue for the appeal was whether Nitrous Oxide was a ‘medicinal product’. If it was, then the offence could not have been committed.
In the four cases before the Court of Appeal, two appellants had been convicted after trial. The remaining two had pleaded guilty.
Following the hearing of the appeals the court ruled:
‘We are satisfied that in the circumstances of these cases the nitrous oxide in question could not be categorised as a medicinal product and therefore was not an exempted substance. In our judgment, the matter is clear on existing authority.’
So, is the matter settled?
The key words in the judgment are ‘…in the circumstances of these cases.’
So, to answer this question you need to understand a little more about the purposes of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. The Act applies to substances by reference to their effects. As a result there isn’t a list made up of substances and their individual chemical composition. The law is drafted to only criminalise their supply for the purpose of recreational drugs.
The argument has been put that because Nitrous Oxide is undoubtedly used for medical purposes, it would fall squarely within the medicinal products exemption in the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016.
The prosecution must prove an important ingredient of the offence. This is that any defendant in question intended to supply the substance for consumption for its psychoactive effects rather than for medicinal purposes.
As a result, liability under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 does not depend solely on the chemical composition or the effect of the substance, but also on the intent of the person possessing it.
In one of the appeals, the court held:
‘…the purpose for which it was intended to supply the canisters was purely recreational with nothing whatsoever to do with health. This last feature coupled with the fact that the gas was intended to be used in circumstances which were not beneficial to health, indeed import some risk to health, was sufficient to take it outside the definition of medicinal product whatever label may have been on the boxes in which the canisters were originally packed.’
This case by case approach entails the possibility that different products with precisely the same chemical composition may fall within or outside the definition of medicinal product. This will depend on the circumstances of the individual case before the court.
Seek expert criminal advice if you are investigated for offences under the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016
These cases illustrate how complex the criminal law can be. Headlines in newspapers or online can be confusing, particularly when even the courts can come to different conclusions on the same set of facts. In cases such as this there will be differences of scientific opinion. It also takes some time for an appeal court to clarify the law.
In relation to Nitrous Oxide, it may be that further appeals will follow which may again alter the interpretation of the law.
If you are being investigated for any drug allegation then you will want expert advice from a criminal law specialist who is up to date with the current law. Please contact your nearest office to discuss your case.
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