In January of 2016, a law enacted in the UK changed the landscape of the market for “smart drugs” known as “nootropics.” They are not prescription drugs, but rather over the counter supplements and formulations of different herbs, minerals and ingredients marketed as cognitive enhancing. It's not known how they act on the brain but the drugs are incredibly popular with students studying for comprehensive exams, shift workers and others who believe they help with concentration and focus.
The law, The Psychoactive Substance Act, was designed to stop the import of unstable medications, herbs and other drugs that are used to get a “legal high.” After being approved in Parliament, it took effect in May and companies that had previously carried certain substances had to reorganize their inventories. The drugs are advertised to otherwise healthy individuals not to treat any specific disease or condition, but to enhance memory, focus and cognitive performance by acting on the brain. Their use is a matter of debate in the neuroscience research community. The law in the UK bans any substance that stimulates or depresses the central nervous system and/or affects mental functioning or emotional state. The Act makes an exception for controlled drugs, medical products, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and food.
The market for these drugs globally is huge. In 2015 approximately $1 billion worth of the supplements and medications were sold. In the United States there are no laws banning their sale and the drugs are a favorite of Silicon Valley programmers and coders who work long days and nights and believe the drugs help them to focus.
Barbara J Sahakian, a professor of clinical neuropsychology in the Department of Psychiatry and Medical Research Council /Wellcome Trust Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge studies the effects of cognitive enhancing drugs on the brain. In an interview with Sky News she stated, "We could do with better drugs for people who really do have to stay awake and alert, for instance, in the military So long as they are safe in the long-term for healthy people to use, and if they are demonstrated to be effective, that would be good - but we don't have as yet these long-term safety studies.”
Many of the nootropic drugs fall into a grey area that some in the UK believe the Psychoactive Substance Act was not designed to cover. While the law will halt or at least reduce drugs like LSD, bath salts, Kratom and other mind altering substances from coming into the UK, substances that are for cognitive enhancement like Adrafinil, Sunifiram and Phenibut are all banned under the act. You can still find drugs such as Kratom for sale. They are meant to promote alertness, improve memory and relax a person during stress. None of these are meant to treat a disease or medical condition but because they act on the brain, the law makes them illegal to import.
Part of the backlash against the inclusion of nootropics in the new law was a result of the lack of information that Members of Parliament had about the substances. While there were efforts to make exceptions for nootropics in the law, they were unsuccessful largely because of the in-between area of medical, psychoactive and recreation that some of the substances fall into.
For now, citizens in the UK may have to go without their brain enhancing supplements, but with the growth of online retailers in other countries and the fact that enforcement will be difficult, the drugs will likely keep popping up. The video below explains more about nootropics, how they work in the brain and what the UK can expect with the ban.