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Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2010

Volume 718: debated on Thursday 8 April 2010

Motion to Approve

Moved By

That the draft order laid before the House on 30 March be approved.

Relevant Document: 13th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, the order was laid before Parliament on 30 March. If it is approved, it will bring mephedrone—m-cat, bubble or miaow-miaow, as it is known—and other cathinone derivatives, a group of so-called “legal highs”, under the control of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 as class B drugs, as from 16 April 2010. As required by the Act, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has been consulted and the control of these drugs fully reflects its recommendations. I wish to take this opportunity to thank the advisory council for its thorough advice and its continuing commitment and work in this important area.

The advisory council’s assessment is integral to our ability to respond effectively and in an informed way to the threat posed to our society by emerging harmful drugs. We act together out of a shared concern about the harm that these drugs can do and the pace at which they have become available.

Cathinones are stimulants with effects similar to those of amphetamine. The advisory council has provided its assessment of the risks that these drugs pose having undertaken a full review of their status through examination of their use, pharmacology, physical and societal harm. The harmful effects of these drugs include overstimulation of the cardiovascular system, which creates a risk of heart and circulatory problems, and overstimulation of the nervous system, with consequent risk of fits and agitated and paranoid states and hallucinations. Mephedrone has also been linked with a number of deaths in the United Kingdom and one confirmed death of a young girl in Sweden.

The advisory council advises that the harm posed by these drugs is of a level to justify control as class B drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has rightly waited for advice from his independent expert advisers. The Government continue to value scientific advice and are committed to evidence-based policy making in this area as elsewhere. Indeed, based on the advisory council’s advice, and very much in keeping with our approach to the control of synthetic substances—such as synthetic cannabinoids, which were controlled by Parliament in December last year—we are introducing generic definition of these drugs. By enshrining in law a generic definition of cathinone drugs, rather than specifying each one individually, we shall capture a wide range of cathinone derivatives, which is, as far as we are aware, a world first for this group of drugs.

We have seen a number of these derivatives in the UK already, including methylone, methedrone and butylone. However, these controls also look to deal with future trends to stop unscrupulous, illicit manufacturers, who work for organised criminals, tweaking substances to circumvent our laws.

The enforcement response will initially concentrate on those people who peddle and traffic these harmful drugs rather than on young people who may be found in possession of them. It is not our intention to criminalise young people, and we expect the police to respond proportionately. However, let us be clear: after 16 April, mephedrone will be an illegal drug; those in possession will be breaking the law and, if caught, face the risk of prosecution and a criminal record. Those who traffick these drugs will face a substantial term of imprisonment, up to a maximum of 14 years, and, where they have profited from what will be an illegal trade, we will look to seize their property and other assets under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

We are also working closely with the Association of Chief Police Officers and other agencies to develop a comprehensive approach to tackle the sale of these drugs. The Serious Organised Crime Agency and the UK Border Agency will take effective enforcement action against those criminal gangs which traffick these drugs across our borders.

On receipt of advice that these drugs were harmful and dangerous, as well as bringing this order before Parliament the next day, the Government took a series of other immediate actions. First, to limit the supply of mephedrone, specified other cathinone derivatives and all products containing those drugs, we banned their importation and instructed UKBA officials to seize and destroy shipments of mephedrone at the border unless the shipment was licensed by the Home Office. UKBA has already successfully seized a number of suspected mephedrone importations as a direct result.

Secondly, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary wrote to local authorities urging them to consider what action they could take under consumer protection legislation where mephedrone was inaccurately advertised as being for use as plant food or bath salts. It certainly has no effect as a plant food; I would be amazed if it had a result as a bath salt. Police forces and other agencies are contacting head shops and other premises thought to be supplying the drugs to warn them of the ban and to make clear the enforcement powers that they have if suppliers fail to comply with the ban once it comes into force.

Legislative control is only part of the solution. As the advisory council recommends in its report, there are a series of actions beyond classification and law enforcement that need to be taken across prevention, public health and education. These very much reflect the remit and concerns of the advisory council. These concerns are shared by the Government. The council’s wider recommendations are welcomed and are already part of our response. Therefore—our third action in respect of our health messages—our drugs information service, FRANK, provides information on cathinones, including mephedrone, with clear information about the risks that these substances pose. FRANK has already updated leaflets providing advice on mephedrone for young people and parents, which will be available via various sources, including the National Union of Students. Our Crazy Chemist information campaign, run in late 2009, included warnings about mephedrone and targeted young people on websites and when they are searching to purchase legal highs. The schools Minister, my right honourable friend the Member for Gedling, has also written to all head teachers, providing guidance for dealing with mephedrone in schools. Mephedrone and legal highs will also be included in the new drug guidance for schools.

Fourthly, the Department of Health has issued a formal health alert through the public health warning system to ensure that all frontline hospital staff, medical staff and drug treatment staff have the most up-to-date information about the harm posed by mephedrone. The concern around mephedrone and other cathinone derivatives has been well publicised in recent weeks. Users of these drugs should therefore be aware of these changes. If the order is approved, the Government will publicise the law changes through a Home Office circular and through the Talk to FRANK and websites. Reference to the law change and health risks relating to the drugs will be included in future government material for young people. The Government will continue to make it clear that legal highs can cause serious and sometimes considerable harm to those who use them, as well as great distress to their families and friends. Our aim is to ensure that people, young people in particular, are well aware of all the risks associated with using these drugs. The Government are determined to crack down on these so called legal highs. We must be vigilant and responsive. We must tackle those that have no other motive but greed with no regard to the harm they cause. We must ensure that our children know about the harms of drugs and do not think that, just because they are legal, they are safe.

The order that the Government ask Parliament to approve today will protect the public, especially young people, from these dangerous drugs. I commend the order to the House.

I quite understand what the Minister is doing and agree with it, but has there been any research or is any research planned into why people take these drugs? We might then be able to prevent rather than deal with the problems later.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his comprehensive explanation of this order, which we on these Benches welcome unreservedly. The scientific evidence on which the Government have based their action is very clear and comprehensive and I congratulate the Government on having acted as promptly as they have to ensure that mephedrone and cathinone derivatives are clamped down upon and that the requisite messages are promulgated to all relevant quarters including, I am pleased to say, schools and National Health Service institutions.

The enforcement action by the UKDA is also extremely welcome. We hope that the measures taken by the Government will serve to ensure that the supply of these substances is rapidly limited and, indeed, eliminated.

I thank the Minister for his introduction. We are about to ban another drug—and would that banning meant that it was no longer taken; indeed, would that banning did not itself increase the risks of criminals taking over the supply, cutting it with goodness knows what in order to reduce its purity and increase their profit, peddling to users other even more addictive and harmful substances. Sadly, there is no simple equation that banning it will stop it. The far more likely equation, in our view, is that banning creates a new market for criminal gangs who will use guns to protect it. I have read that in Guernsey, where mephedrone was criminalised last year but where it is hard to get guns, gangsters have apparently been guarding the supply with samurai swords.

The recent publicity will have had its share in promoting the drug as well as, we fervently hope, acting as a deterrent. Of course we do not know that it is killing young people. The Minister mentioned a death in Sweden. It has been linked with 25 deaths here but with no post-mortem evidence of its role in any of these or of its interaction with other drugs that those poor young people had taken, which probably included alcohol. All of this has highlighted the disputes about the relationship between the Government and the scientists who advise them. I understand that the new principles governing that relationship include a requirement that neither Ministers nor scientific advisers should act to “undermine mutual trust”. I do not know whether that works in both directions.

Those who make synthetic drugs, which are legal until they are outlawed, will always be one step ahead. I was interested to hear what the Minister said about other steps that might be taken to—I wrote down this morning “to deal”; that is not a very good word, but to deal—with such drugs. I have heard it suggested that trading standards could have damped down on it more because, as the Minister says, it is sold as a fertiliser. I shall not myself try it as a bath salt.

I regret that in the last days of this Parliament our response is one that will be described as knee-jerk. I hope that the new Government will see a new approach to the scourge of drugs that is better than the one which society has achieved so far—one that is broad-based, thoughtful, less punitive as regards users, that sees this as a public health issue. We see all this as a priority because, as I am sure we all agree, the law must be credible.

My Lords, I rise very briefly in this short debate just to welcome wholeheartedly the measure that the Minister has brought before us. It may be viewed in some parts of the House as a knee-jerk reaction, but sometimes with these dangerous drugs that come on to the market, a knee jerk is exactly what we need to get across to young people the message regarding the dangers. The reason I am speaking now is that, about an hour ago, I had a text message from a young man, a 20 year-old, who asked me whether this matter was coming up for debate and, if it was, to make sure that I voted for it, because it is crucial that this drug is banned and information about it made available. He also made a very interesting point. He believes that the prevalence of the drug is much wider than the Government may think and, therefore, that the difficulty of clamping down on it may be substantially greater. He also had some suggestions. As these types of drugs are made available predominantly at night clubs, pubs, bars and city centres which are well known to the police, perhaps education and awareness through such means as leaflets could be promoted at the places and venues where young people are so vulnerable.

The second point was on whether greater use could be made in communicating those messages via social media. One is aware of web announcements and web pages, but most young people get their information and communicate through Twitter, Facebook, Bebo and YouTube. Could those social media be better used to communicate that information, because the moment when the ban comes into place on 16 April is but a few days away? The objective of all of this legislation is not necessarily to fill up our already overcrowded prisons even more with people who have fallen foul of this new law, but in fact to protect young people and save lives. Therefore, education really needs to be at the forefront of this effort from the Government. With those few remarks, I join my noble friend from the Front Bench in wholeheartedly welcoming this measure that the Government have brought forward.

My Lords, I want to intervene briefly at this point, because while we on these Benches understand the pressure for the Government to intervene at this juncture, it seems to me that the Minister himself has acknowledged that the advent not just of this drug but of this way of synthesising drugs effectively changes the picture. It is a little bit like a difficulty that the Minister will be well aware of: in the old days, terrorist groups tended to be consistent and to last for a long time, and so on, but now they fragment and split and grow up, so banning them simply by name, for example, is not particularly effective and we have had to look at other things.

Can the Minister confirm to us that the Government are not depending simply on banning particular new synthetic drugs when they come up, but rather that they are looking at what is at the back of all this, so that we have a more effective process for trying to deal with this whole problem of a developing drug culture? In that, one will not simply be satisfied by saying, “Well, we’ve banned this drug”, or even, “We have banned this group of drugs”, as the Minister has indicated. The whole way that we deal with this problem needs substantially needs more attention. I wonder whether the Minister can give some indication that that is the Government’s wish and intention.

My Lords, I must declare an interest as a member of the technical committee of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. I am also on the board of the UK Drug Policy Commission. It is from that background that I, first, congratulate the Minister on summarising the evidence about the cathinones so well. I have gone through the evidence myself and am most impressed at his command of it.

I reinforce the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and indeed by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, because there is a problem. The law needs to give a message that this is not safe, while there is a perception among young people that if something is legal then it is probably not too bad. However, we have an increasing experimentation culture and an increasing number of bizarre chemicals coming in, apparently being manufactured—I say apparently because I have only seen second-hand evidence—in parts of China and the far East, and so on. There are those chemical factories producing new substances, and the youngsters will experiment with them. The other problem we have is the gangs, with the gang culture and gun culture that goes along with them, so this is incredibly complex.

I intervene simply to make a plea to whoever comes in after the general election, which I believe we all know we are facing. We need to have a long, hard look at the whole issue of drugs in our society. We may have to completely review how we handle them because when we ban one thing, unfortunately, it sometimes becomes appealing. I personally think that the concept of banning the whole group of cathinone chemicals is very clever, and I completely support it because it means that whichever bit you attach to the molecule you will be capturing the whole group as new ones come along.

However, I hasten to say—although I dread saying it—that as we sit here today there are a whole bunch of new chemicals being manufactured out there, which somebody will try to persuade some young person to experiment with. There is that whole question of what is going on in our society, when those youngsters just want to experiment—and experiment with things that the rest of us would not touch with a bargepole. Having said that, I support the Minister in bringing this order forward.

My Lords, I should like to say a word or two in tribute to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which after nearly 40 years shows how smooth the process can be and how swiftly it can be executed in order to deal with a problem that arises suddenly. I say that without total objectivity because, as a Home Office Minister, I was responsible in 1969 for the Misuse of Drugs Bill, which unfortunately died a death with the 1970 election. Wash-up was not known as a parliamentary institution in those days, although there was complete unanimity, it seemed, in the House of Commons in favour of the Bill. The Bill was reintroduced by the following Conservative Government and, without a word of it being changed, it became the 1971 Act. It works well.

I congratulate the Minister wholeheartedly on the promptness and firmness with which the Government have acted. I wholeheartedly endorse what he says. This is not just a matter of legislation criminalising a drug; there has to be a comprehensive effort socially and educationally at every level to try to bring the message home to people who fall victim to these things. Peddlers invest heavily in the misery and ruin of their fellow humans and, when they are caught, they should face condign punishment.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their input into this debate and I am glad that the House generally supports what we have done. The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, asked about research into why people take drugs. A certain amount of work has been done by a government research programme, but this is an extremely difficult area. Why do people do this? Why do they have a drink? Why do they do any of this? These things are very difficult to pin down. I have a feeling that, as with our work into what makes someone become radicalised and a violent extremist, there are almost as many reasons as there are people, although there might be strands to give us guidance. However, we do work on this. If we could resolve this question, it would of course be wonderful, as we would be able to come up with an instant answer, but I fear that there is no instant answer.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned the importance of all the other aspects of this issue, such as drugs treatment and handling drugs in a different way. We agree entirely with that, but I believe that we also need a bit of stick. We need to point out to young people when something is really dangerous. It is quite clear from stuff that has happened recently that some people did not understand that mephedrone was dangerous. They thought, “Ah, I can get high on this as it’s legal”. It is crucial that the Government should point out what is considered to be dangerous after it has been looked at by the ACMD. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, touched on that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that this was a knee-jerk reaction. I do not think that that is the case, but we have acted quickly. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, talked about the Misuse of Drugs Act. Yes, we are able to use that, which is a wonderful thing. It is nice to have legislation that lets one act quickly. It was in July of last year, at the Isle of Wight music festival, that we first became aware that this strange created drug, mephedrone, was available. That flagged it up to us. We noticed that people were getting nosebleeds. The council became aware of it and started to think about it.

In September, the ACMD wrote to the Home Secretary giving an update on a number of areas of work, one of which was the risk of cathinones. The council was not quite sure at that stage what the risk was, because it did not have enough detail. In December, it wrote to the Home Secretary highlighting mephedrone as a priority. It was getting really concerned about it, saying that there was evidence of harm and that it was sold, as I said, as bath salts, fertiliser or whatever. The Home Secretary then waited for the full, proper advice from the council, which came on 29 March. As soon as that came, he acted immediately, which was absolutely right and appropriate. I think there was something in the newspapers that day about the possibility of someone having harmed themselves. The ACMD report came out on 31 March at around the same time—just in time for that to be taken through the House. It was not knee-jerk, but acting promptly and quickly, as we needed to. I was glad that we received support on that from the Benches opposite and several other noble Lords.

The noble Lord, Lord Bates, touched on where we are and what we are doing in educating people. I touched on that in my initial statement. The answer is that we probably cannot do too much educating so he is absolutely right. Giving out leaflets at various clubs and so on is a very good idea. I think we do that but I will check and make sure. It is absolutely valid. I know we are pushing out 200,000 leaflets to the National Union of Students so that it can get them out, and doing other such things. That is very important.

We do not want to criminalise youngsters. I think that was the general feeling from the House, as well. I would love to put the traffickers away for the maximum of 14 years. They are the blighters we need to get. There is no doubt, looking back at the Isle of Wight festival, that the traffickers had been caught because we were putting in rules to stop one group of designer drugs, so they came up with another one. They thought, “Here we go”, and put it out by selling it as a fertiliser, letting the word go out that it was legal and people could have it. They are the people we want to get and need to put behind bars. I have no trouble with having them banged up, rather than the youngsters. However, one has to have a stick in the background in case it is needed. I know from personal experience what damage drugs can do to youngsters. The action that we are taking is absolutely valid.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for all the work that she has done and her input into various parts of this area. She is absolutely right: this whole area of drugs is one that we must keep a lot of focus on, taking a long, hard look at whether we are doing it in the right way. There is no doubt that drug misuse wastes lives, destroys families and damages communities. We have got to hit this problem head-on. We know the damage it does. In the past 12 years we have seen progress and notable success but we cannot be complacent. We must be prepared to respond very quickly when something changes. Our way of capturing these things under a generic title answers the point of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. By going, generically, for a whole group, we are managing to keep up, but to say that we can get ahead of them is madness. These people are very cunning and do not care about the people they are damaging.

Approval of the order will help to ensure that the controls are in place. I thank everybody for, effectively, round-the-Chamber support and the fact that we are sending out a very clear and united message from this place. I commend the order to the House.

Motion agreed.