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Dangerous Drugs

Volume 662: debated on Wednesday 3 July 2019

I beg to move,

That the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2019, which was laid before this House on 4 June, be approved.

I am sure that Members of the House will have noticed that the amendment made by the draft order is based on scientific and technical detail and is therefore distinct from other amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 that have recently been brought forward for debate. In that context, I place on record my thanks to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for its expert advice on the matter and for its continued work, which has informed the draft order.

The purpose of the draft order is to amend schedule 2 to the Misuse of Drugs Act by reducing the scope of the generic definition of the compounds referred to as the third generation of synthetic cannabinoids. Given the concerns that have been expressed in other debates on the subject, I should clarify that it will not repeal the generic definition of the compounds commonly known as Spice and Mamba, which will remain subject to control. This measure follows the advisory council’s recommendation, which was published on 22 December 2017. I hope that it will be helpful to hon. Members if I explain the background to the recent control on these drugs and why the Government are making this amendment.

I am relieved that the Minister specifically mentions Spice; having worked for a short time in the Ministry of Justice, I have seen exactly the damage that comes from that drug. Will he confirm that this statutory instrument is in effect simply a tidying-up exercise—a technical change—and will not in any way mean a looser regime of drug licence management?

Like my hon. Friend, I have seen the results of Spice and Mamba directly while out on patrol on the streets of Newcastle. We have had passionate debates in this place about those drugs—particularly with my hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who are passionate about their impact on town centres. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) and other colleagues that the draft order is not in any way a relaxation of controls; it is simply a response to representations made by the scientific community about the need to revisit our regulations because of some consequences that were not intended when they were originally drafted.

It is really good to hear the Government accepting solid evidence when it comes to drugs issues, because they do not have a very good record in that respect. In Scotland, we have had 1,000 drug deaths in the past year. The Select Committee on Scottish Affairs is doing an inquiry into the reasons behind that, and one thing that we have found is that the Misuse of Drugs Act gets in the way of treatment and recovery and is an impediment to dealing with the problem, yet the Home Office will not send a Minister to our inquiry. Will the Minister confirm—today, now—that a Home Office Minister will turn up, give evidence and defend the Government’s approach to drug use?

I am more than happy to speak to the hon. Gentleman offline about this. I am not aware of the underlying issue, but I certainly agree with him about the absolute need to proceed in this complex and extremely sensitive area on the basis of evidence. I am more than happy to have a conversation with him outside the Chamber about the Scottish question and situation, because I am not aware of that problem.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I gave some background to the recent control of these drugs and why the Government are making this amendment. We rely on independent experts, the ACMD, which first published advice in 2014 on the third generation of synthetic cannabinoids—a group of compounds, commonly referred to as Spice and Mamba, that mimic the effects of cannabis. The advice recommended that these compounds be captured by way of a generic definition as class B drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act because of their harms and widespread availability. This followed the control of the first generation of synthetic cannabinoids in 2009 and of the second generation in 2013.

The ACMD also recommended that the compounds be placed in schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, because it could not confirm any known medicinal uses at the time. Placing these compounds in schedule 1 reflects the fact that they have little or no known medicinal or therapeutic benefits in the UK, and will mean that they can be legally accessed only with a Home Office licence, which is generally issued for research or industrial purposes.

Following the ACMD’s recommendations, the changes came into effect on 14 December 2016, but shortly after their implementation, the ACMD and the Home Office were informed by representatives of the research community that the breadth of the definition meant that it captured a large number of research compounds, many of which were reported not to be synthetic cannabinoids. As a result of the broad, generic definition, research institutions needed to obtain schedule 1 licences when they may not otherwise have needed them.

The licensing process is in place to ensure a minimised risk of misuse and diversion of, and harm from, controlled drugs. However, as I am sure the House will agree, we would not wish to place substances under control and make them subject to the licensing requirements where there is no need to do so. It is therefore important that we amend the definition, which has created an additional formal regulatory burden for the research industry relating to compounds that were never intended to be controlled. To remedy this, the ACMD made a further recommendation in December 2017 that the scope of the generic definition be reduced.

The order amends the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to reduce the scope of the generic definition of the third generation of synthetic cannabinoids, so that while those compounds that have been found to cause harm are captured by it, fewer compounds are unintentionally captured. Owing to the continued harms posed by the third generation of synthetic cannabinoids, the order does not repeal the generic definition. I repeat for clarity that such compounds as those that go by the street name of Spice and Mamba will continue to be caught by the generic definition.

The order, if accepted and made, will come into force on 15 November. A further statutory instrument will be introduced via the negative procedure to make the necessary parallel amendments to the generic definition under schedule 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 and in the Misuse of Drugs (Designation) (England, Wales and Scotland) Order 2015, so that those compounds unintentionally captured will no longer require a Home Office licence for the conduct of research, as they will no longer be controlled.

I hope that I have made the case to the House for amending the generic definition of the third generation of synthetic cannabinoids so that it no longer covers a number of compounds that were unintentionally controlled. I commend the order to the Committee.

We will not oppose this statutory instrument. In fact, we welcome the proposed amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Revising the generic definition of synthetic cannabinoids will mean that compounds never intended to be controlled will no longer be controlled, while those most likely to be misused and cause harm will be. That said, we must ensure that neither this change to drug policy nor any other adds to the problems that we already face in controlling the use of drugs.

The Government’s approach to drugs since they took office in 2010 has been ideological and plagued by irresponsible cuts. The UK now has the highest recorded level of mortality from drugs misuse since records began. Under this Government, the UK has become the drug overdose capital of Europe.

There is nothing more important than preserving the life of our citizens, but the current woeful approach to drugs fails to do that, so it must be time to consider different approaches, based on what would most effectively reduce harm, such as overdose prevention units, commonly known as drug consumption rooms—places that take people off the streets, and provide them with a safe environment, clean needles and somewhere that they can engage with treatment to combat their addiction. Labour supports piloting such schemes.

There is also the use of cannabis oil for medical purposes. Last October, there appeared to a breakthrough on this, when the Home Office brought in new legislation to allow expert doctors to issue prescriptions for cannabis-based medicines, if they believe that such treatment could benefit their patient. However, as we have learned from recent high-profile cases, there appears to be some confusion around the Home Office guidelines when it comes to bringing the substance into the UK. We need assurances from the Government that any changes they are making to drugs policy will be fully implemented, clear in how they will be delivered and effective immediately.

Opposition Members recognise that there needs to be a complete shift of emphasis, understanding and effectiveness in the UK drugs policy and we would be looking to establish a suitable forum, such as a royal or a parliamentary commission, to identify what works and what we need to do to make our drugs policy efficient. So, although we support the order and welcome the changes as positive advances in drugs policy, there is still a long way to go in the bigger picture of drug control and legislation.

The SNP also supports the order before us for many reasons, many of which are contained in the fantastic report from the Health and Social Care Committee, “Drugs policy: medicinal cannabis”, published this morning. We support it not least because we believe that, under the current regime, the potential exists for research and investigation into medicinal cannabinoids to be hindered, and in some cases blocked completely.

All hon. Members will have had constituents contact them about medicinal cannabis and the potential positive impact they feel it would have on them or their families in the face of sometimes horrendous medical conditions. I know that there are no simple answers to many of the questions facing the authorities and the Government, and that opinions in this place and throughout society are varied and sometimes conflicting. However, surely it is a primary duty of Government and the state to ensure the best possible health and welfare of its citizens, and I hope that we can all agree that those with chronic health conditions, sometimes causing unimaginable pain and suffering, should not be denied the potential fruits of research into cannabinoids simply because the legislation has not kept pace with scientific progress. As the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs made clear in its initial letter to the Minister at the end of 2017, when referring to the current statutory position:

“There are potential delays to clinical research as compounds within the scope of the MDR which move into trials in humans need to obtain appropriate licences and put practical arrangements in place for clinical trial sites”.

It is also important to note that the council’s recommendations, which have led to the order we are discussing today, were based on wide consultation with those directly involved in and managing clinical research, including the British Pharmacological Society, the Medical Research Council and the Royal Society of Chemistry. So we welcome the prospect of such trials and research becoming easier and more simplified. It is only through the scientific method of hypothesis, testing and analysis that our pharmacologists—that is easy for me to say, Mr Deputy Speaker—and clinicians can make the discoveries necessary to develop and improve on the treatment and medication available to those in desperate need. That is the story of all modern medicine in recent history, and I am glad that the order will give the scientific community some of the tools and legal protections needed in that regard.

We now know of some of the problems encountered by those attempting to access medicinal cannabis since the relaxation of legislation last year, and hope that those who have been stymied in their attempts to secure medication and treatments for their loved ones will see the changes in policy that we are making today as progress that they themselves have driven. It is disappointing, however, that the Minister, in his reply to the ACMD earlier this year, did not take the opportunity to take on board some of the council’s other recommendations that it feels would help scientific research and, in the long run, potentially help more people in need of improved and transformative medication. I understand the reasons that the Minister gave in his letter, but I would ask that he give the council’s recommendations further consideration, coming as they are from a body not known for proposing such changes in law lightly.

I would be failing if I were not to draw comparisons between the broadly sensible, pragmatic approach taken by the UK Government in this instance, albeit slow, and their head-in-the-sand attitude to the cross-party consensus —which we have just heard from the Labour Front Bench—in Glasgow for progress on drug treatment facilities in that city. As my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) highlighted, the west of Scotland has an appalling level of illegal drug abuse and addiction and a high number of deaths, and the Home Office’s refusal to allow the health authorities and third sector organisations in Glasgow to try to alleviate some of that suffering is in marked contrast to the spirit in which we are discussing the order before us.

Not so long ago, this Government had set their face against even entertaining the idea of medicinal cannabis, yet here we are today. In that spirit, I implore the Minister and his Government to think again on safe drug consumption rooms. We should be in the business of saving lives, which is exactly what that approach could do. We must give our pharmacologists and scientists every advantage as they seek to discover new treatments and medications, but, more importantly, we must alleviate the suffering of those, such as Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell, who have waited too long. We must all get our collective finger out in this place and improve the legislation.

We also owe it to the families, many of whom feel forced to smuggle in this life-changing treatment for their children. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), who is not in her place, who recently travelled over to the Netherlands with Emma Appleby to secure the medicine required for her epileptic daughter, Teagan. The issues they faced, with Border Force initially confiscating the medicine amid much confusion, highlighted not only the inconsistency in the law, but that the law is not fit for purpose. The families are also forced to spend a lot of money, and often to fundraise, to travel overseas and secure medicine for their children. This is not right. We welcome the SI as a step in the right direction, therefore, but in doing so we urge the Government to do all they can to ensure that this process is robust but as quick as possible.

I join others in welcoming this statutory instrument, but I ask the Minister why it has taken so long. The recommendation from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was made in December 2017. Why has it taken more than 18 months to get to this point? Given the changes being made to facilitate research, for goodness’ sake, would it not have made sense to act immediately on its advice, rather than delaying for so long?

I urge the Government, despite their inclination, to go further and embark on a process that focuses on evidence, including the evidence of harm. Does the Minister think that drugs policy should be based strictly on evidence of how we best reduce harm? If he accepts that premise, he will accept the need for significant further reform.

Picking up on the point made by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), I urge the Minister to appear before the Scottish Affairs Committee. There is a danger that if Ministers refuse to attend Select Committees it will send out the most appalling signal to anyone else tempted not to respond to a Select Committee request to give evidence. This is such an important matter. The Scottish Government, to give them credit, want to trial new methods. Consumption rooms make enormous sense. There is evidence that we could significantly reduce the number of deaths from dangerous drug use through that sort of approach. It is scandalous that the Government are standing in the way of the trial in Glasgow of that much safer approach—standing in the way of good evidence-based policy making.

If the Minister accepts that we should be guided by the evidence of what works best to reduce harm, he would inevitably explore what they have done in Canada by ending the ludicrous prohibition on cannabis, which has brought about the most appalling side effects. So many young people are being driven into crime, too often ending up with criminal records, and being confronted by violence in the poorest communities in our country. The extent to which young teenagers from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are used by criminal networks to sell these drugs and are putting themselves at risk of extreme violence is shocking.

If the Government are interested in protecting young people from harm—both the violence that is an inevitable consequence of the illegal market and the risks of buying on the illegal market, where the only strains available now in places such as London are the most potent strains of cannabis that pose the biggest risk to a young person’s mental health—the Government will see the sense of regulating the market and taking the market away from criminal networks. We hand billions of pounds a year on a plate to organised crime in the most ludicrous way. We put young people at risk of extreme violence. We put young people’s health at risk. Instead, we could be raising tax revenues to educate people about the dangers of drugs—both currently illegal and legal drugs.

Let us remember that the most dangerous drug of all, in terms of harm to self and others, is alcohol—alcohol which is consumed in vast quantities in this very House of Parliament, for goodness’ sake. The hypocrisy in this debate is breathtaking. Aspirants to become our Prime Minister—members of the Conservative Cabinet—make embarrassing admissions about misdemeanours from their past, while others have been convicted of doing the same thing and have had their careers blighted.

Let us end this hypocrisy. Let us follow the evidence. Let us regulate the market, take the criminals out of the market and protect our young people more effectively.

It is a real pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who is a fellow Select Committee Chair: he chairs the Science and Technology Committee and certainly knows a thing or two about good evidence.

It is actually quite encouraging and unusual, in the case of an issue involving drugs, to see the Government accepting evidence and doing the right thing. This statutory instrument is a really good reform of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Of course synthetic cannabinoids, which could be used in research to try to develop treatments which we know could help countless people in our constituencies, should be taken out of schedule 2.

As I have said, it is unusual to see the Government accepting good evidence. They normally approach drugs issues uninformed by evidence, and are singularly unresponsive to developments and debates relating to such issues and to the environment that is an emerging feature of all our constituencies and communities. They turn their face against the international innovations that are springing up not only in Canada, but in Portugal, Germany and other countries that take a very different approach to dealing with the contagion of drugs-related problems in the community. This Government are immune to the mayhem that their general policy on drugs is currently generating.

The 1971 Act is not just in need of minor tinkering. It is in need of widespread reform, review and updating. We in the Scottish Affairs Committee are conducting an inquiry into problem drug use in Scotland, because in two weeks’ time we expect to find that more than 1,000 people have died as a result of drug use. That means that 1,000 families will have been impacted by deaths that need not have happened. There are things that we could do to try to address and resolve this problem.

Our Committee had a fascinating session yesterday and I want to share it with the Minister. We do not know whether he will come to the Committee, but he will have to answer these questions; the Home Office will have to address the way in which it is currently handling drug issues and policies. I ask him to come to the Committee and tell us what he is going to do, because in one way or another we will get the answers from the Home Office.

As I have said, yesterday’s session was absolutely fascinating. It was attended by senior police officers from across the United Kingdom, and even by a representative of the Government’s own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. There is overwhelming consensus and agreement that the criminal justice approach to drugs issues is failing. It is failing our communities, it is failing our constituencies, and, in particular, it has ultimately failed the bereaved.

We heard not just about this useful statutory instrument, in which a reclassification is liberalising policy, but about the constant ratcheting up—as a senior chief police officer put it—of drugs classification. Let us take the example of cannabis. Cannabis was classified as a B drug. The classification went down to C and then back up to B. We are hearing that there is overwhelming consensus that something different is required: we must start treating drugs as a health issue and not a criminal justice issue. I know that my colleagues in the Health and Social Care Committee are also looking into whether the general policy and its consequences could be changed and I am grateful to them for that.

I meant to mention the following case when I spoke earlier: a family in Norwich have just had to spend well over £1,000 on a private prescription for their young son who has epilepsy. They will not as a family be able to afford more than a few weeks’-worth of paying for this privately. It is ludicrous that that family, desperately in need of help for their young boy, cannot get it through the NHS; I think there have been only three prescriptions so far under the NHS.

Order. I have allowed the debate to drift a little away from the scope of the debate, but I do not want it to drift too far. I ask Members to bear that in mind.

That is the point. It is all about this statutory instrument because it will help people like the family the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. It will supply the evidence and research so that that could happen. It is unacceptable that people, because they do not have this in place, are having to go abroad and are still being arrested when they come back to the United Kingdom. That was mentioned in the report from the Health and Social Care Committee today, so progress has been made, but we are looking forward to looking at the whole issue of cannabis when we go Portugal to see how decriminalisation has worked there. Portugal had drug deaths on a par with what Scotland is currently experiencing, but the number has been cut to a manageable level because of its approach to cannabis and decriminalisation.

As I say, yesterday’s session of the Scottish Affairs Committee was fascinating. Let me tell the Minister something that the assistant chief constable of Scotland said because it is important for this particular measure. He said:

“There are 61,500 problematic users in Scotland just now. It is growing in number. For the vast majority, the end for them is death. And the criminal justice process is actually pushing people into a place where there is more harm.”

That is from an assistant chief constable responsible for keeping people safe.

Someone on the Minister’s own advisory council said:

“We are seeing police creating ways to reduce the harm done by the Misuse of Drugs Act. If we fully implemented the law of possession, we would be creating harm.”

That is what we are hearing from everybody, but we are hearing nothing from the Government because they will not come to our Committee to tell us what they actually feel about this; they are not prepared to come to defend this, which is totally unacceptable. We now need to hear that they are prepared to come in front of us.

When the Government do talk about drugs issues, the policy is, “We don’t want to send the wrong signal.” A fat lot of good that does to people six feet under the ground as a result of failed drug policies, part of the ever-increasing drug deaths.

The Home Secretary is happy to dispense with all the compelling evidence—everything he hears, all the international examples about drug consumption rooms— because, as he said, of his own childhood experience in his own personal neighbourhood. The Government know the evidence about drug consumption rooms. The Government have even accepted the evidence about drug consumption rooms. The only thing the Government have not done is do anything about it. People are dying. Do something about it. This works: all international evidence shows that drug consumption rooms make a difference. They stop people dying and allow them to get the treatment and recovery services that they should be entitled to.

It is appalling that the Government have one message on this: the belief that a drugs war can be prosecuted and won. All we need is the kids from “Grange Hill” and Nancy Reagan singing “Just say no.” It is time that this Government grew up and accepted the real range of issues on this matter.

We know that a health approach to drugs issues is required. We know that problematic drug use is a result of a complex cocktail of deprivation, poor mental health, trauma, stigma and addiction disorders, but the Government’s policy does nothing about this.

We want the Government to attend our Committee to defend their current drugs policy. I say to the Minister again: for his summing up, he can get his notes from his civil servants and get them to say that somebody will be coming to our Committee who will give us evidence and is prepared to defend the Government’s policy, because right now this is unacceptable.

I thank the hon. Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) for their constructive approach to this narrow statutory instrument, which is essentially a tidying-up exercise to comply with requests from our research community. I am glad that that has been understood and welcomed. Mr Deputy Speaker, many speakers have taken advantage of your traditional generosity in straying over the boundaries of this SI into a broader conversation around drugs policy, and I acknowledge that passions on this run high. The demand for a review of policy will not go away, but I believe that this needs to be led by the evidence. Speakers today have presented one side of the debate, but those on the other side believe with equal passion that the evidence tells a different story. However, I do not think that this is the day to have a debate on drugs policy.

There is a lot of passion about attendance at the Scottish Affairs Committee, and if I was unclear in my response on that, it is because I am not technically the Minister for drugs. That invitation has gone to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), the Minister with responsibility for crime and safeguarding, and I am assured that she will respond in due course. She has not declined to attend, as has been suggested—[Interruption.] Well, I am assured to the contrary. Anyway, I am sure that she and her officials will have heard the passion behind this request and will respond in due course.

The fact of the matter is that today, the Government’s policy on legalising cannabis and drug consumption rooms is set. Hon. Members will also be aware that a new Prime Minister will mean a new Administration, a new Government and an opportunity to reopen these debates where necessary. I am sure that many Members on both sides of the debate will be encouraging that to happen. I should say to the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), for whom I have great respect, that I strongly believe that policy in all areas should be driven by evidence. That is why I welcome the fact that the Home Secretary has asked Dame Carol Black to lead one of the largest reviews of drug demand and supply for many years.

I welcome the appointment of Dame Carol Black to do this work. Will she be able to look at the experience from Canada, so that we can look at all the options in making our decisions about the right way forward?

We are determined to look at all aspects of drug demand and supply, and the terms of reference of the review are public. I want to add, because this is relevant to the context of the narrow debate that I thought we were going to have, that in the interests of updating evidence—this relates particularly to the right hon. Gentleman’s point on updating evidence on harm—I have asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to review the current classification of synthetic cannabinoids in this context. That review is due to report by the summer of 2020, and I hope that he will welcome that.

I want to talk briefly about the issue of medicinal cannabis, which a number of Members took advantage of your generosity to address, Mr Deputy Speaker. As the Minister who led the work, under the direction of the Home Secretary, to change the law, I am pleased that we took that step at the pace that we did. It was clear to me that it was absolutely necessary, when we were confronted by the evidence from families who were suffering what I believed to be unnecessary hardship and pain as a result of regulation and law. As has been pointed out, the law liberalised the situation but effectively required prescriptions to be issued by specialist clinicians. As was disclosed in evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee, which reported today, there is clearly an issue around the levels of clinical confidence at the moment, and my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care are absolutely determined to work closely with partners to try to build that clinical confidence, which is clearly a priority, so that more families do not have to suffer the pain and frustration that are clearly out there.

I am grateful to the Minister for his tolerance. What advice do we give to the family from Norwich whom I mentioned who are spending well over £1,000 on just three weeks’ supply of cannabis oil for their son with epilepsy through a private prescription? They simply will not be able to afford to carry on, so what should they do?

The legal route that we have opened up is that if the situation complies with the various conditions in the framework set by the regulations, a prescription for such drugs is allowed, as long as that is what is recommended and approved by the specialist clinician looking at the case. Given where we are with the evidence base, and although our decisions were informed by expert advice, the right hon. Gentleman will understand that we had to put strict conditions in place in relation to the change being clinically led. This is not about decisions by politicians and not necessarily about decisions by GPs; it is about decisions by specialists in the area. I am sure that he will understand the reasons for our caution in that respect. As I said, the issue is now about how to build the research and evidence base to increase clinical confidence inside the NHS. That must be the priority at this time.

I have enjoyed this debate, which has ranged further than I expected, and I welcome the support for this SI and the proposed changes following recommendations from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2019, which was laid before this House on 4 June, be approved.