Psychoactive Substances


(The BMA [CC /Flickr])

It took the chair five minutes to get from “good afternoon” to finishing his explanation of why they were sitting round the table, by which time Karim was already conscious of his eyelids drooping.

“Let me get this straight,” said someone, what was his name? “The bill bans all psychoactive substances except the ones we list as exceptions?”

Karim rolled his eyes as the chair repeated the explanation he’d just given. Committees were always like this. Members of Parliament like Whatsisname turned up without reading any of the emails about it, while senior civil servants like the chair could quote the terms of reference in full and did so in reply to every question. Perhaps that was what twenty years of explaining the basics to MPs did to you. Karim resolved to open a café in Pembrokeshire if it happened to him. He wondered if the chair had made the same resolution when he’d been a junior civil servant.

He only noticed the chair had reached the end of the explanation for the second time when he heard Whatsisname’s voice again. “I think we should start with homeopathic remedies. They’re completely harmless and so many people swear by them.”

Karim decided his name may as well appear somewhere in the minutes. “Homeopathy isn’t psychoactive. It isn’t active at all.”

Whatsisname looked affronted, but Carol cut in. “That’s not strictly true. The pills are usually made of sugar. Sugar effects brain function. You know how you can’t think straight when you haven’t eaten and you have to get a Mars bar? Sugar’s psychoactive.”

“It’s a tiny amount of sugar,” said Whatsisname. “There isn’t enough in a homeopathic pill to have a psychoactive effect.”

Carol turned to the chair. “Do the terms of reference say anything about dose? I thought the question was whether the substance is psychoactive or not.”

As the chair shuffled through the draft of the bill in front of him, Karim caught on. Carol had a few years of experience on him, and she hadn’t wasted them. He met her eyes across the table. She winked.

The chair’s secretary arrived with a tray of cardboard coffee cups. Karim had heard horror stories from colleagues who remembered committees fuelled by instant coffee from the tea trolley. The concession downstairs made these meetings more bearable, though the secretaries may not have been so appreciative.

“Thank you, Sarah,” said the chair. “This should help focus our minds.”

Carol raised an eyebrow at Karim. Your turn.

Karim waited until each cup had shuffled its way to whoever it had ordered it before he spoke. “Should we be drinking coffee?”

“I’m sorry?” said the chair.

“It’s got caffeine, sugar, some have chocolate. They’re all psychoactive. Shouldn’t we refrain from anything psychoactive ourselves while we’re drafting a bill on psychoactive substances?”

All around the table, hands curled defensively around cups. Nobody got between people stuck in committees and their coffee.

“Oh well, that’s easy enough.” The chair scribbled notes. “Coffee, chocolate and sugar are at the top of the exclusion list. We can drink with a clear conscience.”

He forced a smile, going for the ‘let’s all be good chaps together’ approach.

Karim noticed the writing on Whatsisname’s cup.

“Hazelnut syrup,” he said.


“Some of them have hazelnut syrup. Is that psychoactive? I don’t know.”

Whatsisname frowned.

“I don’t know either,” said the chair. “Anyone?”

“I don’t think so…” Whatsisname’s voice lacked certainty.

“I’ll put it on the list. Better safe than sorry.”

“What about oxygen?” Carol looked at the ceiling and pitched her voice as if she was musing a philosophical point.

“Oxygen?” The chair’s voice was sounding strained.

“That’s psychoactive, right?” Asked Carol.

Whatsisname waved his arms around as though trying to produce a handful of oxygen to show everryone. “But that’s, like, air. It’s…”

“Yeah, Carol’s right,” said Karim. “I know my brain wouldn’t work very well without it. I’m not sure about anyone else’s.” He smiled as if he was joking and looked straight at Whatsisname. “But I think we need to be clear about whether we’re going to outlaw breathing. We’re not, are we?”

Carol raised her coffee cup as though she was just taking a sip, with just enough of a flourish that Karim saw she was toasting him. He replied with an infinitesimal nod. No one else had seen the exchange, but they had just agreed to keep this up until everyone forgot about the bill. It might even be fun.


Not remotely inspired by the UK’s absurd psychoactive substance bill.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

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