You cannot be blamed if it seems to you that legislators have a particularly narrow view of what drugs are for, especially if you look at the treatment of nootropics in the UK. The laws in most countries would prevent the citizens from getting high. Some of the same drugs that are used to get high are also used to treat people who have health issues. In this part, legislators would agree with doctors — drugs should only be used when they indicated, and for specific purposes. Using drugs just to get high is not productive. It doesn’t solve a medical problem. It brings the possibility of severe, debilitating side effects, and it often comes with the potential for severe addiction.

This is the commonsense part that most people can agree on. However, there is another side to using drugs: using them for improvement. That is what the nootropics community is about — how to safely use drugs or natural supplements in a way that does not get you high, but makes you think clearer, faster, and better. It is about safe performance enchantment, not getting addicted to something that will ruin your life, trying to escape reality, or risking severe side effects.

But the usage of smart drugs in the UK is not seen as something that is all too different from using other types of illegal drugs. At least that is the impression UK legislators gave at the time when they were adopting the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. The bill effectively bundled some nootropics with other dangerous drugs, making it difficult to sell some of them.

How The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 Was Born

The Psychoactive Substances Act was devised as a blanket ban on selling psychoactive substances in the United Kingdom. The Act had a large concern it needed to deal with that went beyond the traditionally banned psychoactive substances like hard drugs. The United Kingdom, like many other countries, have been having difficulties with designer drugs. So much so, in fact, that Britain was at one point called the “designer drug capital of Europe.” The reason? More than a third of all Internet retailers of designer drugs were based in the UK, according to the European Union’s drug agency.

And the retailers were not interested only in exporting designer drugs. The UK had a problem of its own with designer drugs. The synthetic cannabinoid Spice and the amphetamine alternative BZP were among the most prominent examples of the problems designer drugs presented both legally and health-wise. After being banned in 2009 because they were causing numerous side effects which included seizures and acute psychosis, they were soon replaced by alternative legal highs which might not have been any safer. Banning these dangerous drugs turned into a game of legal whack-a-mole. Seven years after Spice was banned, the UK opted for a blanket ban as a way to deal with the problem. The side effect of the ban was that it roped in nootropics sold legally in the UK with the designer drugs.

The 2016 Act and Nootropics in the UK

The main issues with the 2016 Act were that it was effectively banning every substance that produces a psychoactive effect in the person consuming if the substance isn’t on the list of exempt substances. The Act also took a step to define more closely what a psychoactive effect is:

For the purposes of this Act a substance produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state; and references to a substance’s psychoactive effects are to be read accordingly.

The substances that were exempt from the Act included controlled drugs, medicinal products, alcohol, nicotine and other tobacco products, caffeine, and food. It’s clear that any law that needs to specify that it isn’t trying to outlaw food has a wide reach.

Such a broad ban came under fire from many different sides. Some questioned how the government plans to enforce such a ban. Others called the banning of virtually any substance that affects the brain anti-scientific. And there were also those who saw this a step back in drug reform, and yes, unnecessarily hurtful to the nootropics consumers in the UK. There were some calls to add nootropics to the list of exempt classes, and they manage to catch the attention of some Members of the Parliament, but it was all too little, too late. As of 2016, nootropics in the UK have been in limbo, the legally grey area between medicinal products and illegal substances.

Nootropics UK: The Current Status

One of the first reactions of the nootropics community was to stockpile on products before the ban came into effect. The marketers would rather not risk the consequences, which caused the withdrawal of many of the more popular nootropics products, especially among the racetam class. Under the legislation, possession of these drugs is not illegal unless if it is possession with the intent to supply others. The nootropics which were previously available on prescription can still be accessed when prescribed by a doctor.

It is still possible to get some nootropics over the counter. Vitamins and minerals are largely unaffected by the ban. Sulbutiamine, basically vitamin B1, is still available over the counter. The same goes for amino-acids, antioxidants, and herbal supplements. However, the really good stuff can be very hard to come by. With further study of nootropics, we can hope to see their status in the UK change. But there will need to be a push for it because just proving that they are not harmful is not going to be enough. If harmfulness was the deciding criterion, tobacco would not be on the list of exemptions.