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Drug Classification

Volume 508: debated on Tuesday 30 March 2010

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on what plans he has to classify any drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Following the receipt of advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has laid a draft order today for Parliament to approve his proposal to control mephedrone and other cathinone derivatives. The chair of the advisory council, Professor Les Iversen, has made it clear to my right hon. Friend that the harms that those drugs undertake justify control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 as class B drugs.

The harms associated with those drugs include hallucinations, blood circulation problems, rashes, anxiety, paranoia, fits and delusions, and they have been linked to a number of deaths. Given the risks to public health, there is strong cross-party support for getting those measures through Parliament, and we hope that the draft order can come into effect as soon as possible, on 16 April 2010.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has rightly waited for the advice from independent expert advisers. The council has provided its assessment of the harms of those drugs having undertaken a full assessment and having reviewed their status through the examination of their use, pharmacology, physical and societal harms. Based on the advisory council’s advice and very much in keeping with our approach for the control of synthetic substances, we are also introducing generic legislation that will capture the family of related compounds and other derivatives as well as mephedrone. We have seen a number of those already, but our controls are also aimed at future trends to stop organised criminals and dealers tweaking substances to get around the law.

In addition, the Government are taking immediate action to control mephedrone’s availability and to reduce its harm, first by banning importation and, secondly, by targeting head shops. Thirdly, we are informing young people through the FRANK campaign. Fourthly, we are warning suppliers and, fifthly, we are issuing health warnings and a health alert through public health warning systems. The House will have a further opportunity to discuss that draft order shortly, which is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, and I commend it to the House.

If the ACMD has advised that mephedrone and other cathinones be regulated as a class B drug, I support that recommendation, but does the Minister believe that he or his colleague the Home Secretary are compliant with the newly published principles for the treatment of independent scientific advice, which the Government published last week? They state that the Government must give adequate consideration time for published advice, but the ACMD report has not even been published and the Government have announced legislation. If the Home Secretary received a verbal report yesterday from the ACMD chair, why was it not available at the same time to the media, since the public have a right to know, and indeed to Members of this House? Further, why was there no statement or written ministerial statement today, and why did it take an urgent question to bring the Minister to the House to make this announcement?

May I ask whether, beyond classification, the report contains any other recommendations to which the Minister will respond, and when does he intend to respond to them? Given that it was the actions of the Home Secretary that led to the resignation of six of the scientific members of the council—undoubtedly delaying the work of the council and resulting in its not being legally constituted at the time that this advice was given—how can the Minister be certain that the regulations that he is now laying are in order, cannot be challenged and will deal with the problem that we both agree exists?

My right hon. Friend has taken the right decision, and that is the key issue for the House today. He has taken that decision on the basis of advice from the advisory council. He received a verbal report from Professor Iversen yesterday afternoon and a report in writing will be presented to the House before consideration of the orders, which I hope will be next week.

This is not a new issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), when Home Secretary, was aware of this matter in March last year, and she discussed action on it with the advisory council, which commissioned some work. I wish to kill stone-dead the suggestion that the action by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in relation to the sacking of Professor Nutt has delayed publication of the report. The intention was always to produce a report for the meeting of the council on 29 March, and that report was delivered verbally to my right hon. Friend yesterday. He has taken the view that it was of sufficient importance and urgency to take urgent action, so he has laid an order and I hope that the House will in due course support it.

The tragic cases of those who are thought to have died as a consequence of taking mephedrone have highlighted the dangers of the drug. As many as 25 deaths have been linked to it. We welcome yesterday’s recommendation by the ACMD that mephedrone should be classified.

However, the Government need to explain why they reacted so late in the day to the dangers of mephedrone and the connected group of drugs. In a letter to the Home Secretary on 22 December, Professor Les Iversen, the chairman of the ACMD, said:

“The ACMD explained in a previous letter to you that it has concerns about the apparent prevalence and potential harms of these compounds.”

If the Government’s own specialist advisers had concerns months ago, why did the Home Secretary not take action then? Just when did he first know of those concerns?

The Home Secretary’s relationship with the ACMD and the resignations of several members have been highlighted as a cause of delay in dealing with the classification of mephedrone, and previously it was suggested that it would be dealt with in the early part of the year. At the last Home Office questions, the Home Secretary rejected the suggestion that this delayed the process by six months. Just how long was consideration extended as a result of the depleted membership of the ACMD and the Home Secretary’s inept handling of the resignation of David Nutt?

Looking forward, does the Minister agree that it is time to introduce a new, temporary classification, as we propose, to provide a means to respond more quickly to emerging new psychoactive substances while enabling specialist input to be provided? Classification should not be seen in isolation. The Government’s drugs advice line, FRANK, was initially slow to provide advice on mephedrone because it was not a controlled substance. What systems have been put in place to address that in the future, and more generally what public health campaigns do the Government envisage having on the classification of mephedrone and the message that because a drug is legal does not make it safe?

The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s initial question is similar to the one that I gave to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), in that as there is a process, that process must be followed. That is done so that we ensure that we do not ban substances that could have a legitimate use, but on the basis of medical advice in accordance with the legal basis for an order. Had I taken the advice of the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire), I would have been criticised even more by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon for rushing the matter through. We have to do things in accordance with the process that has been set up by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the previous Home Secretary. The matter has been the subject of much consideration and was not delayed by Professor Nutt’s resignation. We had a full complement of existing members, who considered this matter and gave their advice. That was relayed verbally to my right hon. Friend yesterday, and he has taken a decision accordingly for debate.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned what steps we need to take to ensure that this ban is understood widely and that advice is given. In my statement, I indicated that we are placing facts about the use of mephedrone on the FRANK website and we will be distributing a new fact card on the drug so that potential users and suppliers are aware of the ban. The ban will, if approved by both Houses, lead to a potential 14-year maximum jail penalty. We are also issuing health warnings through the public health system. The associated discussions around this order, my right hon. Friend’s statement yesterday and the action that we are taking should raise awareness of the dangers of the drug—if they had not been raised already—and show that the Government have taken action on this drug based on legally constituted advice.

The Liberal Democrats certainly welcome the Government’s intention to classify mephedrone, but the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs started looking at the drug a year ago. The Home Secretary must surely accept that, if it were not for his meddling in the work of the ACMD and the subsequent resignation of, among others, Dr. Les King—not any old ACMD member, but the person chairing the council’s working group on mephedrone—this harmful and possibly fatal substance could have been banned months ago.

Now that Dr. Polly Taylor has also resigned from the ACMD, can the Minister be confident that any ban that he imposes has been, or can be, reached in a lawful manner, and that it will not be subject to challenge in the courts? Finally, can he draw any other lessons from this episode, such as, for example, the need to introduce a pending category, ahead of the full deliberation, of the sort that exists—I understand—in New Zealand and Sweden?

First, Dr. Taylor’s resignation has had no material effect on yesterday’s decision, which we believe is legally accountable and enforceable, and which, when approved by both Houses, will be operational. Dr. Taylor had the opportunity to contribute to the decision, as part of the council, and will have played her part accordingly.

Professor Nutt’s resignation has also—

Professor Nutt’s resignation, and indeed Dr. King’s and those of other members, have not had a material effect on the consideration of these issues. These matters have been considered by the ACMD, and yesterday, for the first time, it presented a recommendation to the Home Secretary, and my right hon. Friend accepted it. I believe that that was the right decision and one that this House should accept, and rather than looking over the trails of resignations, the hon. Gentleman should support the decision and look at how we implement and, indeed, enforce it.

Order. A lot of colleagues wish to contribute. I am keen to accommodate them, but time is precious. We have an important debate to follow, in which many people wish to take part, so pithy exchanges are the order of the day.

May I welcome the Minister’s statement and the decision that has been taken? It is absolutely in keeping with the wishes of the Home Affairs Select Committee—we wrote to him last week on this matter. Party politics aside, however, the fact is that this has taken a very long time. As he just said, the former Home Secretary was alerted to the matter in March 2009. Since then, a number of young people have died, including three teenagers and one young person in the past 10 days. Can we please look at this process, from the time of referral to the time of decision, so that it is as speedy as possible? After all, this drug has been banned in Denmark and Sweden already.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and his Committee for their consideration of these matters. In answer both to him, and to the third point made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), we have considered a possible pending category, but again we must ensure that we have a legal basis for such a decision, and that it does not ultimately impact on any possible legal use for a particular product that could fall into that pending category. We must also determine whether a pending category would lead to confusion about the use of a particular product awaiting a decision.

We must examine those issues in the round. We have looked at this issue, we have waited for the decision of the advisory council, and I believe that the decision has been effective. We accepted that verbal decision, and within a couple of hours of receiving it, we acted to place an order before the House. We will publish the report in due course, and I hope that that will satisfy the House as a whole.

The Minister says that cross-party support is required for the classification of mephedrone to be implemented before Dissolution. He will know that my party has given its unambiguous support for what he says, but can he indicate what discussions he has had with the Liberal Democrats, and, given the different strands of their opinion, will he say whether they support early action or whether they think that action should be delayed, as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) indicated yesterday?

I hope that we shall be able to pass both orders through both Houses before Dissolution, which could still happen well into early May for all we know, so there will be every opportunity to consider them. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary spoke to the hon. Members for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) and for Eastleigh yesterday evening about his decision and has received full support for it, which has been reflected in the House today. I hope that the orders will achieve early passage.

The Tories and Liberals are both now nicking my ideas. Considering that the ACMD has never had a majority of scientists on it and considering that new compounds and synthetic drugs—legal highs—are now liable to be created all the time in laboratories, does the Minister agree that one of the priorities of the next Parliament will have to be to update the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 in full?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion. He has been a sturdy campaigner against drugs in his constituency and throughout the country at large. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary keeps all such matters under review, and we will certainly examine all suggestions for ensuring that we have effective measures in place to protect the British public against illegal drugs that cause death and injury, but which, with the support of this House, will ultimately be banned, so that people will be protected.

I entirely agree with the Minister that due process is important, for all the obvious reasons, but it has taken quite a long time to ban mephedrone. Will he look again at the legislation to see whether the statutory procedures mean that the process takes too long and whether we should review the process with a view to introducing interim orders?

I appreciate the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s view on this matter. As I have said previously, we are trying to ensure that we proceed in a way that not only is legally sound and based on evidence, but ensures that we take the right decision for the benefit of protecting the British people from these dangerous drugs. That unfortunately means that, on occasion, we have to take some time to achieve those objectives. However, we will certainly look at whether there are lessons to be learned, because the bottom line for the House is about protecting people from injury and from drugs that are used by people to make money for themselves and exploit our citizens.

As the principal psychoactive ingredients of the natural product khat are cathinones, will the proposed order also criminalise those who use khat?

If I may, I might have to write to my hon. Friend about that in due course. I know that the order covers generic legislation relating to the control of a number of synthetic substances, and it will look at related compounds, including cathinone derivatives. However, I shall have to reflect in due course on whether the particular item that my hon. Friend mentioned is covered.

In the light of the number of young people who have died through the use of mephedrone and the number of families who have been destroyed because of the loss of their loved ones, please can the Government look again at the processes, because this drug could surely have been controlled a lot earlier? Let me also thank the Minister for completely ignoring the advice of David Nutt. We already know from what he has said previously about cannabis, totally ignoring the mental disorders caused by its constant use, that he is totally out of touch with the people of this country.

As I have said, the purpose of the process is to ensure that we do things legally and as speedily as possible, but that we do them on medical advice. We will certainly reflect on that, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will examine those issues. The circumstances of the resignation of Professor Nutt—

are such that Ministers minister and advisers advise. That is the principal policy on this issue.

Having reflected very carefully on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) raised, I can categorically state that khat will not be covered by the order.

I welcome this announcement, although I share the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) about the way in which the decision was taken. Will the Minister pass on the Government’s advice to the police, schools and student unions in my area? This substance is available in schools at the moment, and leaflets openly advertising the drug for sale are being delivered all round the Headingley and Hyde Park areas. In the interim period, what is the advice on how to stop this unlicensed selling?

As I said in my statement, the banning of importation with immediate effect will mean that the UK Border Agency will be able to seize and destroy shipments of mephedrone at the border. That is the starting point in cutting off supply. We are also giving health warnings to public health departments, to the police and to other health services, as well as through the FRANK website. We are also distributing a new fact card immediately. The Minister for Schools and Learners has written to all head teachers about this. In the event of the orders being enacted, the severe penalty of 14 years in prison for the supply of these drugs will be introduced, and the police will be able to enforce it accordingly.

The great majority of online financial transactions for the sale and purchase of mephedrone are processed by a Canadian company called AlertPay. Pending the classification of this drug, will the Minister undertake to alert the Canadian authorities to the involvement of AlertPay in this grubby and dangerous trade?

I will certainly look at that issue and take advice accordingly from our colleagues on the practicalities involved. It is self-evident that our intention is to stop the supply of this product in the United Kingdom, and we will therefore use all legal means to do so, once the orders are approved.

The Minister mentioned future trends. It seems to be the way things work in society that the use of these drugs becomes more widespread much more quickly these days. Is it not inevitable, therefore, that our processes also need to become quicker?

I have already said that we will look at the pace of activity governing the matter’s consideration. The key point is that we needed to take this action based on evidence, and I am sure that the House would have criticised us had we not done so. Evidence takes time to accumulate, and it needs to be assessed. We also needed to look into the implications of the decision before we took it. We obviously had to look at how we should process the evidence in this case, but I believe that the right decision has been taken, and I hope that the House will support it.

I wholeheartedly welcome the Minister’s statement today. Many lives have been blighted and many homes wrecked by these drugs. Can he assure us that, when this becomes law, the police will rigorously and vigorously take action right across the United Kingdom?

I support the hon. Gentleman’s contention, and I know how hard he has worked with the Police Service of Northern Ireland to tackle the issue of drugs in his own constituency. When legislation is passed, it is important that the police enforce it. The supply of these illegal drugs will carry severe penalties, and the new legislation will be enforced by the police, should both Houses approve it. I hope that, before Dissolution, the power will be given to the police in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom to execute the orders effectively.

As one who has called for the banning of this drug for some time, I ask the Minister to accept that we all welcome his statement. However, the sane voice of Professor Iversen on the “Today” programme this morning suggested that a great deal of internecine warfare had been going on behind the scenes. That is an additional reason for ensuring that procedures such as these are speeded up. Unfortunately, it looks as though some people might have died unnecessarily.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept my assurance that there was no delay due to the challenges that we faced in relation to the advisory council over the past few months. This decision was expected at the end of March, and it has been delivered to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the end of March. He has taken his decision urgently, based on that advice, and the order was tabled as soon as was practicable after the receipt of that advice in order to expedite the outcome that the hon. Gentleman wishes to see.

Will the Minister make it clear in relation to any new, unclassified drugs that suppliers will not be able to hide behind descriptions such as “plant food” or terms such as “not for human consumption”, because those terms do not give suppliers protection under the Medicines Act 1968? Will he assure the House that those suppliers will always be prosecuted to the full extent?

Again, we have to look at the potential legal use of products, which is part of the advisory council’s role. In the case of mephedrone, there is no legal use, so those descriptions are misleading. If the orders are approved, the police will act in a strong and effective way to ensure that we stop the supply.