Skip to main content

Legal Highs

Volume 569: debated on Monday 28 October 2013

We already control hundreds of so-called legal highs and are working with law enforcement partners to disrupt the supply of these often dangerous substances. The Home Office has led communications activity targeting young people and students to advise of the risks of legal highs. We also regularly update public health messaging on those risks. We are not complacent, and we continue to look at ways in which we can enhance our response.

The UK is fast becoming a hub for the European legal highs market, and a recent report from the all-party group on drug policy reform claimed that more than one new substance was coming to Britain each week. Does the Minister share my concern that many legal highs are now purchased online and delivered direct to people’s homes? Will he also look again at the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to see whether it is still fit for purpose, given the new web-based market for legal highs?

I am not sure that I accept my hon. Friend’s premise that we are a hub for that activity. First, however, let me say how sorry I was to learn of the recent incident in which one of his young constituents died, possibly as a result of taking a substance known as AMT. The cause of death has yet to be confirmed. That particular substance is legal, but as a result of that case I asked officials on Friday to look at the matter urgently, and action was taken under our drugs early-warning system at 6 pm on that day. My hon. Friend mentioned internet sales, but only about 1% of drugs are sourced in that way. Nevertheless, we take that avenue seriously and the National Crime Agency is undertaking operational activity accordingly.

The Minister will be aware that there are shops on our high streets, such as UK Skunkworks in Chatham, that sell legal highs alongside other drug paraphernalia. Those shops abandon any responsibility for the sometimes tragic consequences of their activities by labelling the products as being unfit for human consumption. Will he commit to including the over-the-counter sales, and the labelling, of legal highs in his review, so that we can prevent further deaths similar to that of Jimmy Guichard?

I entirely agree with the premise of my hon. Friend’s question. Those so-called head shops often behave irresponsibly. She will know that a study of international comparisons is currently under way, and the consideration of legal highs is very much part of that process.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the three deaths in Kent, two of which were in my constituency. I welcome his early-warning system and temporary banning orders, but may I suggest that the best way to cope with this is simply to say that if someone dies or becomes severely ill as a result of taking a drug that is a close chemical cousin of a banned drug, that should throw up a criminal offence?

The Home Office already takes steps to ensure that when a new substance appears that could be injurious to health, we seek to ban analogous drugs—the family of drugs—as a consequence. Some of the banned drugs have often not yet been created, but if and when they are created, they are already covered. We are trying to deal with this through anticipatory methods as well as by other means. We also try to have an early response system, so that when a substance appears, it can be picked up and banned very quickly.