Cross Party Working Group on New Psychoactive Substances

A report summarising the work of the New Psychoactive Substances (NPS)Cross Party Working Group and recommendations for further action.

2. Background

2.1 NPS, misleadingly referred to as 'legal highs', is a description of a set of substances designed to mimic the effects of controlled drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy or cocaine but do not, by definition, fall within the current legal framework that prohibits the possession, sale or supply of drugs controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The contents and chemical composition of these substances can vary greatly and there is often no clear relationship between what and how substances are sold and the actual products being consumed. Some substances can be more potent and volatile than others and have different effects on those taking them, sometimes with fatal consequences. NPS are normally sold as powders, pills or capsules and can be smoked, snorted, swallowed, imbibed or injected.

Prevalence of NPS in Scotland

2.2 Overall, reported use of NPS in the general adult population in Scotland is relatively low compared with use of illicit drugs. In the most recent Scottish Crime and Justice Survey (SCJS), 0.5 per cent of all adults reported taking 'new drugs' in the year prior to the survey (conducted between April 2012 and March 2013). This compares to 6.2 per cent of adults who reported having used one or more illicit drugs over the same time period[1].

2.3 However, reported rates of use amongst younger age groups and some sub-sections of the population are higher[2],[3]. Four per cent of 15 year olds reported having used one or more NPS at least once in their lifetime in the most recent Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance User Survey (SALSUS). Of these, 2 per cent reported having taken at least one NPS in the month prior to completing the survey (conducted between September 2013 and March 2014[4]).

2.4 Stakeholders across Scotland have also raised concerns about the use of these substances amongst vulnerable young people, adults with mental health issues and injecting drug users. These groups are unlikely to be captured by national household or school surveys such as SCJS or SALSUS. Anecdotal reports suggest NPS use is on the increase amongst these groups, and there are concerns that the consequences of NPS use in these vulnerable subgroups may be more severe.


2.5 There are challenges in responding to the emergence of NPS which means that evidence on the harms of NPS use is currently limited[5]. However, there are indications that NPS can cause a range of physical and psychological symptoms, ranging from cardiovascular problems, hyperthermia, kidney failure and seizures to psychological disorders such as anxiety, agitation, memory loss, depression and psychosis[6]. These health risks vary depending on the manner, method and quantity of NPS consumed. There are increased risks where NPS are consumed with other products, such as alcohol, controlled drugs or prescribed medication[7]. Given the complexity of substances and the constantly evolving NPS market, it is difficult to predict the medium and long term harms associated with their use, particularly if combined with other substances, and where there are underlying medical conditions.

2.6 The Scottish Government has commissioned research to address some of the most important gaps in knowledge about NPS use in Scotland. The aim of the research is to provide data on the use, motivations and harms of NPS amongst a range of vulnerable groups. It is expected that the findings will be available in June 2016. This is covered in further detail in the Research chapter of this report.

Drug-related Deaths

2.7 There were 613 drug-related deaths registered in Scotland in 2014, 86 more than in 2013[8]. The number of deaths where NPS was present in the body has increased from 4 in 2009, (when the first Scottish deaths involving NPS were registered), to 114 in 2014. NPS were implicated in 62 of the 114 deaths registered in 2014. However, almost all deaths with NPS present in the body at time of death had co-presence of other drugs: NPS were the only substances present in 7 out of the 62 deaths in which NPS was implicated[9]. These figures highlight the risks when NPS are taken alongside other substances such as alcohol, controlled drugs and prescribed medication.

Report of the Expert Panel

2.8 The Home Office conducted a review into the effectiveness of the UK's current legislative and operational response to NPS and the ongoing challenges. The report of the Expert Panel[10] was published on 30 October 2014 and recommended a general prohibition on the distribution of NPS.

NPS Expert Review Group

2.9 The Scottish Government established a similar group of experts to examine the powers currently available in Scotland to tackle the sale and supply of NPS. The NPS Expert Review Group report[11] was published on 26 February 2015 and made six key recommendations, one of which was for the Scottish Government to work in partnership with the Home Office to create new UK-wide legislation that will be effective in Scotland.

Scottish Government Debate

2.10 The Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, Paul Wheelhouse MSP, led a parliamentary debate on 29 September 2015, where an update was given on progress to implement the recommendations of the NPS Expert Review Group. Members supported the motion[12].

The Psychoactive Substances Bill

2.11 The UK-wide Psychoactive Substances Bill was published on 29 May 2015[13]. The legislation will create a blanket ban across the UK. The legislation will make it an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, possess with intent to supply, import and export psychoactive substances. The Bill will also create an offence for possession of a psychoactive substance within a custodial setting.

2.12 The ban aims to help protect people from the risks posed by taking untested, unknown and harmful substances openly sold on the internet, high street in head shops and other commercial outlets. The Scottish Government have been working closely with the Home Office on the detail of the Bill to ensure it will work in the best interests of Scotland. The Bill has concluded its Parliamentary passage and is expected to become law from Spring 2016.

Cross Party Working Group

2.13 The Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, Paul Wheelhouse, MSP, welcomed the publication of the NPS Expert Review Group report in a Ministerial Statement to Parliament on 26 February 2015, and updated members on the latest developments on NPS. He said that the report showed that in some areas, the necessary powers to tackle NPS are available, but yet even these can be made more effective. In others, some new suggestions were made and that the Scottish Government will work closely with our agencies to identify how best to take them forward. He also announced his intention to establish and chair a CPWG to oversee the response to NPS. This included, amongst others, some of the work required to respond to the recommendations made by the NPS Expert Review Group.


2.14 The overall purpose of the CPWG was to build on the existing cross party consensus and to work together to address the challenges NPS present to communities across Scotland. It examined the work that is underway, built a shared understanding of the problem, and contributed ideas to work as it unfolded.

2.15 The group was an arena to discuss in more detail the range of work that is being carried out and to look for contributions and ideas from members to further inform work that could be done to tackle NPS. The group:

  • Gained an overview of the range of work on NPS under identified themes;
  • Received updates on the work being undertaken by the Scottish Government and partners on NPS across a wide range of areas including progress on the recommendations of the NPS Expert Review Group;
  • Heard evidence from experts in the field on various strands of work; and
  • Discussed and shared ideas on how NPS could be addressed further in Scotland.


2.16 The first meeting of the group was held on 17 June 2015. In approaching the work, members agreed that they should focus on specific themes where they would receive updates from Scottish Government officials and hear evidence from experts working in the field. The themes included information sharing, education and prevention, research, and trading standards. The CPWG met a total of five times through which members developed a greater understanding of each of the themes and engaged in constructive discussions resulting in the CPWG identifying areas where further action could be taken to tackle the challenges of NPS across Scotland. At its final meeting members considered this report.


2.17 The membership of the CPWG was drawn from each of the five main political parties in Scotland, which included the Scottish Labour Party, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, the Scottish National Party, the Scottish Green Party and the Scottish Liberal Democrats. The CPWG was chaired by the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, Paul Wheelhouse, MSP.

2.18 Expert evidence was heard from a range of organisations. A full list of the membership and speakers can be found below. Secretariat for the CPWG was provided by the Scottish Government.

Cross Party Working Group

Paul Wheelhouse MSP (Chair) - Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs

Hugh Henry MSP/Elaine Murray MSP - Scottish Labour Party

Margaret Mitchell MSP/Alex Johnstone MSP - Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party

Graeme Dey MSP - Scottish National Party

John Finnie MSP - Scottish Green/ Independent Party

Alison McInnes MSP - Scottish Liberal Democrats

Scottish Government

Beverley Francis - Drugs Policy Unit

Vicky Carmichael - Drugs Policy Unit

Isla Wallace - Drugs Research Team

Stella Fulton - Safer Communities Directorate


Katy MacLeod - Scottish Drugs Forum

Dr Hazel Torrance - Forensic Toxicology Service, University of Glasgow

Dr Richard Stevenson - NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde

Barry James - Scottish Police Authority Forensic Services

Detective Inspector Michael Miller - Police Scotland

Dr Lucy Pickering - University of Glasgow

Jordan Linden - Scottish Youth Parliament Chair

Katie Burke - Scottish Youth Parliament vice Chair

Ben McKendrick - Scottish Youth Parliament Chief Executive

Craig McClue - Trading Standards Scotland

Chief Inspector Gordon Milne - Police Scotland

Sergeant Grace Morrison - Police Scotland

Constable Michael Anderson - Police Scotland


Email: Vicky Carmichael

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