A loophole in a new law has sparked fears that retailers could be used as scapegoats for “PR prosecutions”.

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act, legal action can now be taken against retailers if they sell a psychoactive substance that’s likely to be misused by the purchaser or ‘some other person’.

The act came into effect on May 26, removing age restrictions from substances including solvents, aerosols and nitrous oxide. It’s now an offence to sell them to anyone of any age who might misuse them.

AF Blakemore’s loss prevention manager Mark Stevenson warned that the new legislation leaves retailers at risk of vilification. He suggested that if a person fatally misuses a product, press coverage could lead to a high-profile case and a demand for the supplier – or in this case, the retailer – to be prosecuted.

Retailers now face up to seven years imprisonment for selling substances to any person who is likely to misuse them

“There are plenty of examples of high-profile cases where the police want to do a PR prosecution,” he told Retail Express. “The issue is that the law expects retailers to detect a substance will be abused – which is generally an impossibility.”

Retailers now face up to seven years imprisonment for selling substances to any person who is likely to misuse them.

“If a teenager buys a single can of deodorant, how are we supposed to know that they’re going to misuse it?” Stevenson said. “There’s no way we can know it’s going to happen, but the law leaves that loophole open. All it takes is that one case, and the only person left vulnerable is the retailer.”

Addressing Stevenson’s concerns at a recent ACS event, Jamie McLellan, senior policy advisor at the Home Office’s Drugs and Alcohol Unit, said that he “can’t reassure [retailers] that that isn’t going to happen”.

David Worsfold, owner of Farrants in Cobham, Surrey, said the new system was “absolutely a concern for retailers”.

“But those items have always been restricted, so it shouldn’t be something people are unprepared for,” he added. “Responsible retailers will be used to using their judgement. It’s not illegal to sell matches to someone who’s under the age of 18, but none of my staff would.”

Find out how you can protect yourself from prosecution under the Psychoactive Substances Act.