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Drugs Policy

Volume 587: debated on Thursday 30 October 2014

In December 2013, I commissioned an expert panel to look at the challenge of new psychoactive substances (NPS). In my written ministerial statement at that time, I made it clear that we are prepared to enhance our UK–wide legislative framework to ensure that our law enforcement agencies have the best available powers, sending out the clearest possible message that the trade in these substances is reckless and that these substances can be dangerous, even fatal. I also asked the expert panel to consider the education, prevention and treatment response to NPS and make recommendations.

Today I am pleased to publish the expert panel’s report and recommendations on this challenging issue alongside the Government’s response to those recommendations.

The expert panel is clear that new psychoactive substances—these so called “legal” highs—present a challenge that cannot be ignored. The UK has been quicker to respond to this challenge than most other countries, putting in place a forensic early warning system, banning more than 350 substances and leading the global response through the United Nations and G7. We have ensured that local authorities are aware of and use existing powers under drugs, medicines and consumer protection legislation to disrupt NPS supply. We have provided consistent and evidence-based messaging on the risks of NPS through guidance to schools, FRANK (the Government’s online drug awareness service) and targeted communications activity. We are also rapidly developing clinical responses to these substances via front-line services. However we recognise that there is more to do to tackle the issue of new psychoactive substances, which have claimed the lives of far too many young people.

The expert panel recognised that our current approach has real strengths that should be built on and not dismissed. In addition, they have made wide ranging recommendations across a number of areas including treatment and intervention, prevention, education and information sharing.

In response to these recommendations I am announcing today a range of actions. We will develop proposals for a blanket ban similar to that introduced in Ireland in 2010. This would give law enforcement greater powers to tackle the market in so called “legal” highs in general, instead of on a substance by substance basis. I have also commissioned the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to provide advice on a cutting edge way of basing legal controls for future synthetic drugs that mimic cannabis and on the effects these substances have on the brain rather than their chemical structure. The expert panel highlighted a number of factors that will need to be considered in taking these recommendations forward in the UK context. We therefore think it is important to take the time necessary to ensure that any legislation developed in response to the expert panel’s recommendations is carefully considered and will work in the UK.

In response to the expert panel’s wider recommendations, we will also implement a comprehensive action plan that includes strengthening training given to front-line NHS staff to deal with the effects of NPS use and the publication of new guidance by Public Health England for local authorities, including advice on integrating new psychoactive substances into local drugs education, prevention and treatment work.

In addition to the expert panel’s report and Government’s response we are publishing a wider Home Office evidence paper—“New Psychoactive Substances in England—A Review of the Evidence.” This paper builds on the evidence considered and set out in the expert panel’s report.

Alongside these publications, today we are also publishing the findings of the Government’s international study of drugs policies. The report, Drugs: International Comparators, describes a selection of policy and operational responses to drugs misuse in other countries. The approaches explored in the report were seen by Ministers and officials from the Home Office during international fact-finding activities that took place between May 2013 and March 2014. These included visits to, and discussions with: Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Uruguay. The report includes an assessment of the drugs situation in the UK and a description of the current and future challenges for policymakers.

The study has provided a sound base of evidence on approaches to drugs misuse and drug addiction in other countries. In many cases, the differences between the approach other countries have taken illustrate the complexity of the challenge, and demonstrate why we cannot simply adopt another country’s approach wholesale. The UK’s approach on drugs remains clear: we must prevent drug use in our communities, help dependent individuals through treatment and wider recovery support, while ensuring law enforcement protects society by stopping the supply and tackling the organised crime that is associated with the drugs trade. Based on what we have learned, the UK will continue to advocate a balanced, evidence-based approach to the misuse of drugs internationally.

All four of these publications can be found on the website and copies will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.