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Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2006

Volume 686: debated on Monday 30 October 2006

rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that ithas considered the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2006 [35th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: The purpose of the order is to reclassify the substance methylamphetamine from a class B drug to a class A drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. As is required by the Act, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has been consulted and agrees with the proposal. Methylamphetamine has been controlled as a class B drug under Schedule 2 to the 1971 Act from the outset of that legislation. It also has recognised medicinal benefits when in the form of a medicinal product—including treatment of attention deficitand hyperkinetic disorder—and consequently is categorised as a Schedule 2 drug under the Misuse of Drugs Regulations, so that doctors can prescribe it where necessary.

Prevalence of misuse of methylamphetamine has been very low in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, there are sound reasons for this proposal to reclassify the drug to class A. Relative harmfulness is central to our drug classification system. Our drugs laws should accurately reflect the relative harmfulness of drugs, when they are misused, both to the individual and to society at large.

The Committee will know that the drug classification system under the Misuse of Drugs Act has come under very close scrutiny recently. The Government believe that the current three-tier system is fit for its fundamental purpose of providing a framework within which criminal penalties are set with reference to the harm caused by a drug and the type of illegal activity undertaken in regard to that drug.

The system allows for clear and meaningful distinctions to be made between drugs. There is a wide understanding that class A drugs are the most dangerous substances and therefore carry the heaviest criminal penalties, while class C drugs, although still harmful, are not of the same order. It is this coherent system which has stood the test of time and which, for so long as it remains, we now propose to reapply to methylamphetamine. The action that we are taking to reclassify methylamphetamine is a good example of a fully functioning system where we are revisiting a drug’s classification in light of new evidence.

In the case of methylamphetamine, we have to decide how to respond to a drug that can be misused and can cause serious social problems, but has no significant prevalence in the United Kingdom at present. It is this potential for harm rather than methylamphetamine’s current prevalence here that is central to the proposal to reclassify the drug toclass A.

Methylamphetamine’s harmfulness equates to that of other class A substances, both at the level of the individual and of society more widely. It is a derivative of amphetamine, which is a class B drug, but it is much more potent than other forms of the drug, with the potential for greater physical and psychological harm. It can quickly become highly addictive. Its reclassification to a class A drug will accurately reflect this relative harmfulness.

International experience documents the devastating impact of widespread misuse of methylamphetamine on society and the environment. Its use can increase risky sexual behaviour, thereby increasing the risk of blood-borne virus transmission; and it is a risk factor for aggression and violence, as well as acquisitive crime. Also, methylamphetamine manufacture exposes individuals and the environment to flammable and hazardous chemicals and production methods and to toxic waste by-products.

In its report published in November 2005, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs considered that, based on the then current situation in the United Kingdom, it would be inappropriate to reclassify methylamphetamine as a class A drug. Instead, the council recommended the development of an effective early warning system to monitor any shifts in the patterns of prevalence of methylamphetamine in the United Kingdom. The council’s report is accessible from the Home Office website.

In May this year, the council reviewed its decision in the light of further evidence and recommended that methylamphetamine be reclassified as a class A drug. Again, the council’s advice is available on the Home Office website. The prevalence of the drug in the United Kingdom continued to remain low, but the council was persuaded by the harmfulness of methylamphetamine and the international experience of the serious social problems caused by methylamphetamine misuse, as well as by intelligence provided by the Association of Chief Police Officers, which fully supports the reclassification of methylamphetamine to class A.

If the order is approved by both Housesand is signed in Privy Council when it meets on14 December, it will come into force five weeks after it has been made to allow sufficient time to advise the police, the courts and other interested bodies that methylamphetamine will be the subject of control as a class A drug. That would result in a commencement date of 18 January 2007.

The maximum penalty for unauthorised production, importation and supply of methylamphetamine as a class A drug will be life imprisonment and/or a fine. The maximum sentence for the offence of possession of methylamphetamine will be seven years’ imprisonment and/or a fine.

Reclassification to a class A drug will be a key element in the prevention of a significant escalation in the illicit use of methylamphetamine and the social problems that it could cause. It will provide a platform for greater enforcement activity, enabling the police to close premises where methylamphetamine drugs are being used, sold or manufactured, as they currently do with “crack houses”, under the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. This police power of closure is for class A drugs only. In particular, as a class A drug, methylamphetamine will be an explicit priority for the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which will direct its resources and enforcement activities accordingly. We are also implementing key recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs’ report around an early warning system to monitor prevalence.

Methylamphetamine’s main precursor chemicals—ephedrine and pseudoephedrine—are already listed as controlled precursors under European legislation, and we have now reached agreement on placing red phosphorus on the EU voluntary monitoring list that checks for suspicious transactions in chemicals. We are exploring ways to take a more robust response, but it must be remembered that these substances also have legitimate industrial uses, so it not simply a case of halting their supply. We are also taking steps to ensure that national survey data differentiate between methylamphetamine and amphetamines, which will assist in our monitoring of prevalence.

The Government will publicise the change in the law with regard to methylamphetamine through a Home Office circular and through the Talk toFrank and websites. Reference to the law change and health risks relating to methylamphetamine will be included in future government educational materials for young people.

This measure is very much in line with the Government’s commitment to cause maximum disruption to drug markets and thus protect young people from the harms of being exposed to dangerous drugs. For those reasons, I commend the proposed change. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2006 [35th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

I support the order, which reclassifies methylamphetamine as a class A drug instead of the lower class B. It seems to us to be an appropriate measure, given the growing concern about the effect of the misuse of the drug, particularly in its crystalline form. The Minister was right to point out that there is an appropriate use of the drug for medicinal purposes under carefully controlled circumstances. The other part of the process is that precursors may be involved that have industrial uses. There may well be proper use of either component parts, precursors or the drug itself.

Like other amphetamines, methylamphetamine is a drug that affects the brain reward pathways, and its use can lead to the need to take more to achieve the same effects. It can lead to both psychological and physical dependence. Using the drug by intravenous injection or by smoking is particularly liable to lead to such an addiction. I understand that smoking the purer crystalline form, also known as “crystal meth” or “ice”, produces a very intense rush, similar to that produced by crack cocaine but longer lasting, for between four and 12 hours. It is highly reinforcing and can quickly become addictive. The greater potency of the “ice” form, particularly when smoked, makes it a greater threat than other forms of methylamphetamine.

Methylamphetamine-induced psychosis has been widely reported in other countries where misuse is almost epidemic, so it is absolutely right that the Government should bring forward the order as a preventive measure at this stage. That in itself produces one or two difficulties for proper control. As crystal meth is considered to be more potent and harmful than speed and other class B drugs, it is appropriate to reclassify it as class A. As the Minister said, the penalty will change. Maximum imprisonment for possession will be seven years instead of five, and for supply it will be life imprisonment instead of the current 14 years.

The main issue then must be how the Government take steps to ensure that the change is known about by those who might be sucked into the process of taking the drugs or who are already doing so. The Minister said that there will be an input into future educational material. How soon will that information be in schools? I am trying to avoid the use of the phrase “come on stream”. Obviously, while there is not an epidemic of misuse here now, one wants to make sure that proper signals and deterrents are given out very rapidly. Will the Minister give us a bit more of an idea of what steps the Government will take to do that? Above all, it remains important that treatment, advice and support are available for those who want to avoid taking illegal drugs or to cease taking them. We support the order.

I support much of what the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has said. We have no doubt on the basis of scientific and other evidence that methylamphetamine can, if misused, cause serious harm. However, there is a disagreement between the Minister’s remarks on classification and our position on it. We support the reclassification of this particular drug, but one has to bear in mind the fact that we are stuck at present with the A, B, C system of classification. Often there have been confused signals coming from the Home Office and the police.

I cite the recommendations and comments in the Commons Science and Technology Committee report from 18 July, Drug classification: making a hash of it? The report said:

“With respect to the ABC classification system, we have identified significant anomalies in the classification of individual drugs and a regrettable lack of consistency in the rationale used to make classification decisions. In addition, we have expressed concern at the Government’s proclivity for using the classification system as a means of ‘sending out signals’ to potential users and society at large—it is at odds with the stated objective of classifying drugs on the basis of harm and the Government has not made any attempt to develop an evidence base on which to draw in determining the ‘signal’ being sent out”.

For this reason, it would be very helpful if the Minister could once again look at whether the classification system is appropriate.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for her support and to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for his. I am grateful, too, for the terms in which the noble Baroness in particular expressed her support. Clearly, there is an understanding across the political divide of the importance of reclassification in terms of the activity that it would unlock for enforcement purposes. It would enable the police, for instance, to ensure that they are well placed to stifle any emerging threat from the drug. It would enable them to attack crack houses much more precisely and enable us to ensure that there is much more knowledge about the damage that methylamphetamine can do.

The noble Baroness asked about educational work and information. As soon as we have approved the orders, the Talk to Frank website will immediately have information posted on it. As I understand it, we are also preparing educational materials to distribute. These must obviously be targeted at the younger generation, which is most likely to be where the problem will be experienced. We are ensuring that materials are distributed widely, particularly to schools; I understand that the Talk to Frank campaign has already produced two information leaflets that will provide more details of the impact of methylamphetamine, both in its powder form and in its crystal form. It is also the case that the reclassification debate has itself resulted in significant media coverage about the dangers of the drug. We need to work more on that. Material will be provided for schools, and those doing particular information campaigns will support us in that effort. We will, of course, ensure that the agencies of law and order properly understand the impact of reclassification.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, asked about classification. The best that I can say is that in classification we try to ensure that a mix of medical and social harms is understood in the reports that are prepared. We integrate that into the way in which the classification system works through the advice that we receive from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Obviously, at all times there will be debateand disagreement about the appropriateness of the classification of some individual drugs, but it isthe Government’s clear view and the clear position of the advisory council that the classification system is evidence-based.

I contend ultimately that the classification system works well, is effective and provides a readily understandable framework on which the harm of substances can be indicated and on which appropriate criminal sanctions for possession and supply of particular substances can be based. In those terms, there will be common agreement that it serves a useful purpose. However, it is only one part of the Government’s wider drugs strategy. The advice that we have from practitioners in the field—and I agree with it—is that a review of the classification system at this time would add very little value to the work that those practitioners undertake and could in some ways operate as a distraction. Their focus must be on tackling the problems caused by drugs; improving the quality of information; ensuring that we crack down on dealers; and making sure that those who come into contact with law enforcement also get access to treatment, because in the end that is the best solution. It is about getting people out of drug-abusing habits and ensuring that they get the appropriate medical and social support.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

There is a Division in the House. We will start the Unstarred Question in10 minutes.

[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 5.27 to 5.37 pm.]