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Fentanyl: Sentencing

Volume 643: debated on Tuesday 26 June 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered sentences for supplying Fentanyl.

I am delighted to have secured this debate on the evils of fentanyl. It all came about because of a tragedy that took place one morning in 2016, when every parent’s worst nightmare came true for a family in my constituency. Graeme Fraser was getting ready to walk his dog. He went to ask his son if he wanted to join him. On entering his son’s bedroom, he found his son’s body on the bed, pale, rigid and lifeless. Robert Fraser was just 18 years old. Beside Robert’s body, on a book cover, was a clear plastic bag containing white powder. The police did not know what it was. Only several weeks later did tests identify it as a substance called fentanyl.

Robert was one of the first people in Britain to be killed by this dangerous and incredibly toxic drug. Since that day, at least 120 deaths in this country have been attributed to fentanyl, and since that day I have been working with Robert’s family to raise awareness, to try to save other young lives and prevent other parents going through what Michelle and Graeme have gone through. I am delighted that Michelle, Robert’s mother, is here in the public gallery today.

Ultimately, we are fighting for tougher jail terms for people who are caught supplying fentanyl. We are calling it Robert’s law, in memory of Robert, and I will explain why it is so incredibly important. Fentanyl is a class A drug, yet it is vastly more dangerous than any other substance in that category. Kent’s top drug detective told me that it was more like a poison. It is extremely powerful—50 times stronger than heroin.

Does my hon. Friend agree that due to its intense potency, when fentanyl is cut with heroin and cocaine those drugs become far more addictive? Fentanyl is therefore ideal for drug dealers, because it is very addictive and their clients become very dependent.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. He is absolutely right. He is a true champion of his constituency, and he will recall that his own constituent, Jed Spooner, who was just 27 years old, died from fentanyl on 2 December 2017 in Clacton. It is an appalling drug and a real, evil poison, 50 times stronger than heroin. It is a synthetic opioid, often produced in China, smuggled out in shipping containers and sold domestically on the dark web. Over in America, fentanyl has claimed 20,000 lives.

Those numbers are remarkable, not because they are so large and rising so quickly but because our top police people at the National Crime Agency say they have seen no evidence that drug users are demanding fentanyl. It is not a drug that people are craving and demanding at all. Robert did not demand it. He was no drug addict. He would get together with friends at weekends and experiment; I would not recommend that young people do that, but we all know that they do, and what happened to Robert could happen to any of our kids.

Other fentanyl deaths have involved even greater deception. In the north-east of England, only last year, heroin suppliers began secretly mixing fentanyl with their usual supplies to increase profits, exactly as my hon. Friend pointed out. There has been a surge in overdoses in the region. In Teesside, at least six people have died. Again, the National Crime Agency said that it has seen no evidence of users demanding fentanyl-laced heroin.

Why do dealers get involved in it? The answer is simple: it is cheap and versatile. It is a great cutting agent, it is difficult to detect and it has extreme potency, which means that drug users believe they have consumed a pure, powerful and strong substance, yet for the supplier it is a fraction of the cost. For most drugs, supply is dictated by demand—people will always supply them because there is so much to gain from doing so —but fentanyl is not being demanded. It is a choice, which until now has been tipped one way by the desire for profit on the part of drug pushers and dealers, not by users seeking that toxic and dangerous substance. Given the lack of demand for fentanyl, its obvious dangers and its capacity to kill, dealers should be punished more harshly for supplying it. Today, they know that they will not be, which is why I am making the case for updating our justice system.

Some will argue that a whole new class should be created for fentanyl, but I do not think that would be the right thing to do. That would send the wrong message about other class A drugs, which are incredibly harmful. Michelle and I want the existing sentencing guidelines to be strengthened. Right now, they mention drugs such as cannabis, heroin and all the rest of it, but they do not mention fentanyl. The result is that we do not send a strong enough message to drug dealers. One recently convicted supplier was handed a jail term of just 18 months, despite the fact that his batch of fentanyl was directly linked to a death. That shows that the existing guidance is not strong enough. Until it is, drug dealers across our country will not be sent a strong enough message. They do not think our justice system will punish them fully for the level of misery they inflict.

Some people will say that tougher sentencing does not work. Again, I disagree. Let us look at gun control. Two decades ago, we introduced legislation to stop Britain heading down the American route of rampant gun ownership. Ten years later, the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 went even further and introduced still tougher sentences. Today, Britain has one of the lowest rates of gun homicide in the world. We have a history of looking across the Atlantic, taking note of alarming trends, and taking action to stop them gathering pace here. Over there, they know things are already very serious, and a number of states have started bringing in second-degree murder charges against fentanyl dealers. Let us do what we did with guns. Let us look at the fentanyl problems in America, look at the growing numbers here and take action now before it is too late.

I believe that a good start would be to place any quantity of fentanyl in the top of our sentencing categories of harm. After all, a quantity of fentanyl the size of a grain of sugar can be fatal. High or extreme potency should be added to the list of aggravating factors. Purity is already on the list. In terms of danger and capacity to kill, potency is far more significant than purity. The measure that I suggest would increase minimum jail terms from three years to six. After accounting for aggravating factors, most fentanyl suppliers would be looking at a minimum of 10 years behind bars. That is the kind of strong message we want to send to dealers who think nothing of taking the lives of our kids.

I can see that there are arguments against this campaign. People will say, “The war on drugs is lost”—the usual defeatism. They will say, “We can never win the war on drugs. We can never stop drug addicts putting dangerous substances in their bodies. We can never stop dealers trying to make a buck off the back of them.” I say that the war on drugs is not lost. We must fight back. The number of drug deaths in Kent—the county of my constituency—has doubled in the past three years. In Canterbury, two young men recently lost their lives because of fentanyl.

Last year, some 60 deaths were recorded, and that number has now doubled. In comparison with the number of deaths caused by the misuse of many other drugs, that is relatively small. Is it not right that we get on top of this now and nip it in the bud before it spreads even further?

I completely agree, which is why yesterday’s huge step forward on the road to Robert’s law is so welcome, with the Sentencing Council setting out new guidance called “Sentencing of drug offences involving newer and less common drugs”, which specifically related to synthetic opioids. I hope that the Minister will tell us more about the action being taken by the Ministry of Justice, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Sentencing Council. This is a trend that we must reverse. Drugs rain devastation on our families, friends and communities; they drag our young people into gangs and violent crime and they kill those closest to us.

I want to take the House back to the day that Robert died. His mother Michelle, who is sitting in the Public Gallery, was with a friend in Primark that morning when her phone rang. Graeme told her the news and she collapsed to the shop floor, screaming. Her life has not been the same since. I will finish with her words, because her situation could all too easily become anyone else’s in this room. She says:

“Robert was not an addict. He made a bad choice. This poison is costing lives and sitting back, hiding, hoping it will all go away is not an option. My son’s memory is worth so much more — and so is our children’s future. If we bring in Robert’s Law, we will save lives. And it means my son mattered. That can by my boy’s legacy.”

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) is able to take a few minutes in the time remaining to make a short speech about the campaign against this evil drug that he has been fighting alongside me for some years.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. It is very good to support my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke). I led a Westminster Hall debate on 22 November last year on the human and financial costs of drug addiction. The real trigger for that debate was the rise in fentanyl. My hon. Friend gave the figure of 20,000 deaths in the US, but the figures that I found suggest that to be more in the region of 50,000 to 60,000 in 2016. Fentanyl is becoming a real killer drug in the US. As we are very aware, it is a man-made opioid mimic. To put that figure into context, 60,000 deaths represents the entire rate of attrition and death of the entire 20 years of the Vietnam war, but that is happening each and every year in the US.

Ohio has had a particular problem, where deaths rose 33% in 2016 alone, with a death rate of 4,050. That is people across the whole social spectrum out of a population of 12 million in Ohio. To put that in relation to the size of the UK, that would represent 22,000 deaths. Thankfully, we are nowhere near that, at about 2,500 drug deaths in the UK.

My worry is that what starts in the US often crosses the Atlantic to us. I do not want to see what happened to Michelle and Robert happen again. Rehabilitation is important, because for every £1 that we invest in rehabilitation, £2.50 is saved. In that debate of 22 November, I called for fentanyl to become a category AA drug, with a higher sentence to go with it. Current sentencing guidelines are that 5 kg or more of a class A drug would bear a maximum of only 16 years in prison, whereas attempted murder, which is what supplying fentanyl actually is, carries up to 35 years. I am very pleased to support my hon. Friend and the family in every way that I can.

It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), and my hon. Friends the Members for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), and for Clacton (Giles Watling), for their leadership on this issue.

Fentanyl is a very serious and pressing threat in three distinct ways. First, as the hon. Member for Dover pointed out, it has an unusual potency; it can be 50, 100 or, in some chemical forms, close to 10,000 times more powerful than heroin. A tiny fragment of this artificially produced drug can be far more powerful than heroin.

Secondly, there are the chemical effects of the drug. It is much more dangerous, gram for gram, than heroin because of its effects on the respiratory system. Artificial opioids bind themselves to receptors in the brain and have an effect on its ability to distinguish between its oxygen and carbon dioxide intakes. Confusing the receptors in the brain can lead to respiratory depressions, so that one effectively stops breathing.

The final reason why we need to be worried about the drug is that we can already see the scale of the problem it causes in the US, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet pointed out eloquently. In the UK, it represents a tragic element in a larger swathe of overdoses. It accounts for a few per cent. of the people dying from overdoses in the UK. In the US, fentanyl and other fentanyl-like substances account for nearly a third of such deaths, and the figure is climbing. As my hon. Friend pointed out, tens of thousands of deaths in the United States are taking place through fentanyl.

How do we deal with that? Here I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dover. His leadership and championing have led to two important changes in relation to the Crown Prosecution Service and the sentencing guidelines of the Sentencing Council—changes that I can honestly say would not have happened as rapidly had it not been for his work.

The first change made thanks to the hon. Gentleman’s championing is that the Crown Prosecution Service has specified that prosecutors dealing with cases involving fentanyl need to take into account the potency of the drug. They are encouraged to bring expert witnesses into the courtroom to explain how the drug operates, and that a tiny quantity can have the potency of a larger quantity of heroin or cocaine. The second, perhaps more important, thing that happened is that the Sentencing Council yesterday published its new guidelines. You will understand, Mr Pritchard, that it was absolutely no coincidence that that happened the day before the hon. Gentleman’s debate. The guidelines state:

“Since publication of the Drug Offences guideline, there has been an increase in the number of cases before the courts involving newer drugs, such as synthetic opioids”—

in other words, fentanyl—

“which may have much higher potency and potential to cause harm than more common drugs. Where these newer drugs are covered by the guideline but not specifically listed in the section on assessment of harm, the approach to assessing harm in these cases should be as with all cases of controlled drugs not explicitly mentioned in the guidelines.”

This is the key point:

“Sentencers should expect to be provided with expert evidence to assist in determining the potency of the particular drug and in equating the quantity in the case with the quantities set out in the guidelines in terms of the harm caused.”

Then there is a box entitled “Example—supplying or offering to supply a controlled drug”, which says:

“If the quantity of the drug would cause as much harm as 5kg of heroin, the offence would be in the most serious category.”

Why is that important? Drug offences are listed by category, from 4 to 1. Category 4 would be 5 grams of heroin; the top category would be 5 kg. The guidelines will move expert witnesses to state that fentanyl is in the top category of class A drugs for prosecution. That will be vital in deterring people from supplying and importing the drug, but it is just the beginning of what will happen. The tragic death of Robert has led to a significant campaign, led by Roberts’ family and the hon. Gentleman, that has already changed the guidelines for the Crown Prosecution Service and the Sentencing Council.

That is just the beginning. The next stage needs to be a very serious public education campaign, so that we do more than ensure strict guidelines against people supplying or importing this drug. Anyone thinking of using fentanyl should be aware of not only the danger to themselves, but the catastrophic damage that tiny quantities of the drug can cause to anyone in their home. In the United States, toddlers are being killed by this drug, because the tiny quantities, even on a small patch on the arm, can immediately choke and kill somebody as young as two. That needs to be apparent to the public. This debate in the House of Commons underscores that. I hope that what we have said in this debate will push that change through society.

I end by paying particular tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his extraordinary campaigning on the issue, which, as I said, brought about a change yesterday, driven entirely by this debate.

Question put and agreed to.