The Intoxicating Substance (Supply) Act 1985 is a short piece of legislation, designed to prohibit the supply of drugs, not controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 – primarily volatile substances (glues and solvents), to people under the age of eighteen when it is likely that they will use them for the purposes of intoxication. The Act was recently repealed and succeeded by the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016.
1. Why was it introduced? (Political/Sociological Context)
The Act was enacted to address the growing public concern of the social problem of ‘glue sniffing’. The vast majority of young people who engaged in this practice, did so out of curiosity and in many cases it was a group activity. The rest did so because they were addicted to solvent abuse. Most of them came from disturbed families and this was their way of seeking attention or escaping the reality. Of those who have become addicted to solvent substances, a significant number went on to hard drugs.
There was a rise in the cases where a single trial sniff of a volatile substance had led to death. The acts of anti-social behaviour committed by people under the influence of volatile substances became more frequent.
At the same time, the volatile substances were cheap and easy to obtain. They were (and continue to be) available in every household as they include substances such as glue, fire extinguisher liquid, anti-perspirants, air fresheners, fly sprays, hair sprays, petrol, paint thinner, plaster remover, cleaning agents, etc.
The police were powerless to prevent the sale of glue to children for inhaling purposes as glue was sold in old crisp bags, known as ‘happy bags’.
2. What was the aim of the Act? (Legal Context)
Two years before the Intoxicating Substance (Supply) Act 1985, Scotland enacted the Solvent Abuse (Scotland) Act 1983. The Scottish Act made solvent sniffing one of the grounds for referring a young person to a Children’s Panel, which is a semi-judicial body to whom children who commit some offences can be referred. The Intoxicating Substance (Supply) Act 1985 sought to bring into the statute book of England and Wales similar rules to the ones, already applicable in Scotland.
Further to that, the Intoxicating Substance (Supply) Act 1985 sought to deter ill-intentioned shopkeepers from selling volatile substances to children by threatening them with the possibility of prison sentence. The police were aware of shops that were carrying out secret trade of glue, but had no legislative footing to act upon and the act gave them such footing.
Though useful, the Intoxicating Substance (Supply) Act 1985 was underutilised because the combination of education, legislation on the issues associated with drugs and the gradual substitution of volatile substances by legal highs, led to a reduction in the deaths from volatile substance use. The successful prosecutions under the Act were extremely low – there were only 64 convictions between 1985 and 2008.
3. What main changes did it make to the law?
The major change in the law that Intoxicating Substance (Supply) Act 1985 made was that it created the offence of supply of intoxicating substance under s. 1(1). In essence, it became illegal for a person to supply or offer to supply a substance other than a controlled drug to a person under the age of eighteen or to a person who is acting on behalf of the person under the age of eighteen, for whom the shopkeeper has a reasonable cause to suspect that he is acting so in order to supply the substance to the underage person for the purposes of intoxication. The exact wording of the act includes the likelihood of inhaling the substance for the purposes of intoxication. Currently, under the new Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, a zero tolerance approach towards the supply and offering to supply of psychoactive substances is adopted. In practice, this means that all sale of such substances across all age groups is prohibited.
S. 1(2) of the Intoxicating Substance (Supply) Act 1985 creates a defence against charges for the offence of supply of intoxicating substance. A person who is charged with this offence, can avoid conviction if he is able to show that at the time of supplying or offering to supply the substance, he was under the age of eighteen and was acting otherwise than with the purposes of pursuing his business interest.
S. 1(3) of the Intoxicating Substance (Supply) Act 1985 introduced a sentence or penalties for those found guilty of the offence of supplying or offering to supply volatile substances. The sentence cannot exceed 6 months and the fine – £2,000.
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