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Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment No. 2) Order 2010

Volume 720: debated on Wednesday 21 July 2010

Motion to Approve

Moved By

That the draft order laid before the House on 12 July be approved.

Relevant documents: 1st Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and 5th Report from the Merits Committee.

My Lords, the Order in Council was laid before Parliament on 12 July. If it is made, it will bring a group of cathinone derivatives—so-called legal highs, which include naphthylpyrovalerone, known as naphyrone and commonly branded as NRG-1—under the control of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 as class B drugs. There it will join mephedrone and other cathinone derivatives which were brought under the control of the 1971 Act as class B drugs from 16 April 2010, with cross-party agreement in the final days of the last Parliament.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs indicated in its cathinone report of 31 March that it would provide further advice on this additional group of cathinone derivatives as a priority. That is what we are dealing with today. They are familiar but sufficiently different from mephedrone and other cathinone derivatives that the ACMD needed to consider them separately. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary received the council’s report on 7 July and she was pleased to accept the council’s recommendation for control, on which this draft order is based. She did so on behalf of the Government.

The council is to be commended for using this extra time well to provide a further thorough, forward-looking piece of work. The proposed control of naphthyl analogues by a wide-ranging generic definition, as set out in the draft order, is consistent with the UK’s legislative approach to other synthetic drugs. Now that we have the council’s advice, we are asking for Parliament’s agreement to expedite control without delay and before this House rises for the Summer Recess. We need to learn the lessons from the UK’s experience on mephedrone, which became rapidly established before it was controlled in April. It is proposed that the order will come into force on the second day after the day on which it is made. That could be as early as 23 July and the legislation would therefore have an immediate impact, not least on the current music festival season, as supply and possession of these drugs would become unlawful with immediate effect.

Action to address the health risks arising from the use of existing so-called legal highs and the issue of further legal highs coming on to the market is a priority for the Government. We need to consider how we can reduce the supply and demand for new substances; our response must be wide-ranging, encompassing prevention, education, treatment and enforcement. That is at the core of our legislative response. There are those who look to subvert our laws and sell potentially harmful drugs advertising them as legal. This can lead people, especially young people, to think that these drugs are therefore safe. We need our drug laws to move faster to protect the public and to combat these unscrupulous manufacturers and suppliers.

As we set out in the coalition agreement, we will introduce a system of temporary bans on new psychoactive substances while health issues are considered by independent experts. The underlying purpose of the temporary banning power is to enable Parliament to be highly responsive to emerging new psychoactive substances and, at the same time, provide the advisory council with the time or space that it needs to formulate its full advice. Full details of the temporary banning power will be announced shortly. It is the intention to undertake legislation on this later this year.

While the temporary banning power will be a key and necessary tool in our legislative response to this changing landscape, our preferred approach to drug control will remain one which the advisory council and the Government have adopted for the past 40 years: a full assessment by the council before any controls are invoked by Parliament. The order before Parliament is an example of that process working. We need to add naphyrone, and related substances, promptly to the cathinones already controlled under our misuse of drugs legislation. This is because they are structurally similar to cathinone derivatives, such as mephedrone, which are already classified under the 1971 Act as class B drugs, and they pose similar harms to those who use them.

The advisory council commented that, consistent with the known or reported harms of the cathinones and traditional amphetamines, the predicted harmful effects of naphyrone include adverse effects on the heart and blood vessels, hyperthermia, dependence liability and psychiatric effects, including psychosis and anxiety. However, the more concerning aspect of the advisory council’s advice is that naphyrone has a high potency by comparison with other cathinones. This suggests that its use is likely to be associated with a higher risk of accidental overdose. I also emphasise that we are not aware of any legitimate use of these chemicals.

Enforcement action has been, and is being, applied to naphyrone. This included an immediate worldwide importation ban on naphyrone under the Import of Goods (Control) Order 1954 on receipt of the advisory council’s advice. The open general import licence was amended to exclude naphyrone from its scope. The UK Border Agency has been instructed to seize and destroy shipments of this, and related drugs, at the border; and we will also continue to work with other law enforcement agencies to strengthen their enforcement response to the identification and sale of illicit substances being mis-sold as legal highs.

The Serious Organised Crime Agency is actively developing approaches to identify websites offering mephedrone for sale, both at home and abroad, so that it can take action at an international level to close these down. This action will be extended in scope to include naphyrone.

Enforcement action of this sort is effective. We continue to monitor the impact of the ban on mephedrone but it has curtailed the availability of the drug, enabling enforcing authorities to take action to seize mephedrone at our borders and on our streets. Since the ban has been introduced, the UK Border Agency has made a number of detections and stopped more than 115 kilograms of chemicals that it suspects to be mephedrone from entering the UK. We also know that the legal-highs market self-regulates and withdraws banned drugs. The ban has also provided the strongest support to our public health message about the harms of mephedrone and like drugs.

Control of naphyrone also provides us with the opportunity to repeat our public message that although this drug may currently be advertised as legal—as a so-called legal high—it does not mean that it is safe or that it is necessarily legal. The advisory council’s report on naphyrone highlighted research from test purchases. Clearly, sellers are using the brand NRG-1 and masquerading it as naphyrone—and therefore legal—and marketing it as a mephedrone substitute. A branded product of this sort may, in fact, contain a number of illegal cathinones, legal stimulants or other active or inactive constituents. Any brand name that purports to be legal cannot be trusted. It does not mean that they are safe or legal. Users are putting their health at risk and could be committing a criminal offence.

We have taken a number of actions based on this information. It is now a key message for the FRANK service—which is available to users—on legal highs. Last month, the Minister for Crime Prevention—my right honourable friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup—wrote to organisers of music festivals to make them aware of this information, asking them to review the measures that they put in place to ensure that their festivals are as safe an environment as possible.

The department has also called on local trading standards teams through local authority chief executives, to work in partnership with the police to deal with the sale of any legal highs, taking full account of this latest evidence, and to make appropriate referrals to the police and otherwise apply their responsibility for enforcing offences under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. The Association of Chief Police Officers for England, Wales and Northern Ireland will also update its enforcement guidance on new psychoactive substances.

It is intended to make two further related statutory instruments, which will be subject to the negative resolution procedure. The Misuse of Drugs (Designation) (Amendment No. 2) Order 2010 will specify naphthylpyrovalerone analogues including naphyrone as drugs, which have no statutorily recognised medicinal or other legitimate use. The Misuse of Drugs (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 2010 will similarly amend the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 to include these drugs. These instruments were laid on 14 July to come into force at the same time as the Order in Council, if it comes into force as proposed.

The Government will publicise the approved law changes on naphyrone and related substances through a Home Office circular and the Talk to Frank and website. Reference to the law changes and health risks relating to the drugs will be included in future government materials for young people. I commend the order to the House.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the detailed explanation of why this order is both important and necessary. In proposing this order, the Government are continuing the policy pursued by the previous Labour Government. I commend the Minister for this and suggest that continuing the policies of the previous Government in a number of policy areas in the Home Office would also be commended as useful. Beyond that, I applaud the Pauline conversion of the minority party in the coalition to the policy set out in the Minister’s explanation. As I recall, it showed far less support when the same policy was put forward previously by the last Government.

My colleague, the Opposition spokesman in the other place, sought and gained the assurances from the Government that I would have placed before the Minister today. On that basis, it remains only for me to indicate support for this order and commend it to the House.

My Lords, we discussed the last misuse of drugs order less than four months ago. Speaking on behalf of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, I supported the order, so I am a little confused by what the noble Lord has just said. There were several comments about designer drugs and so-called legal highs, and that the so-called designers would always work on the next drug. Those predictions were clearly right. I am very happy to support this order, but I have a number of questions, to some extent following from the previous order so that the House can understand the success or otherwise—I hope success—of that approach.

The Minister has told us that 115 kilograms of mephedrone/cathinone derivatives have been seized. I know that it is asking her to prove a negative, but does she have any information as to how much might be getting through—the converse of that coin? What steps have been taken to publicise the dangers of legal highs? Welcome was given around the House to the steps that were being taken then, and the noble Lord, Lord Bates, mentioned the use of social media, which struck me as entirely sensible in this context. She has mentioned today steps that might be taken by trading standards officers under consumer protection legislation. Naphyrone and naphthylpyrovalerone analogues apparently have no legitimate purpose in the same way as mephedrone. I do not suppose that they are any more effective as bath salts or fertilisers than mephedrone. Have trading standards officers in fact had any success in using their powers under consumer protection legislation?

I hope—and I think that I understand this correctly from what the Minister said—that enforcement will concentrate on dealers rather than on users. She mentioned the border agency and SOCA; clearly enforcement is a matter for them as well as for the police, but I think that it is entirely right to tackle dealers first and most importantly. Of course, none of this addresses the underlying issue that this is a public health matter as well as one of large-scale criminality and the illegal drugs trade. We have in this House recently debated alternatives to prison and we have heard many times of the links between drugs and crime to support drug habits. I have recently heard that sending just one in 10 drug users to residential rehabilitation instead of prison would save something of the order of £40 million a year.

I support the order and welcome debating the more permanent steps which the Government will take. They extend beyond the health issues that the Minister mentioned to matters involving the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Education and so on. Drugs are such a complicated issue that they need a very thoughtful, very broad-based approach. I am happy to support the measure.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s explanation of the order and add my support for the actions which the coalition Government are taking. It is difficult to stay abreast of the technological changes in the drug field and to restrict the spread, but I was interested to hear that an attempt will be made to intervene in websites which sell these drugs. I would be extremely grateful if the Minister would keep the House informed about what happens on that front.

It was before the Minister’s time, but some of us, many years ago, were complaining about the increasing strength of cannabis—skunk—which was being advertised widely on the internet and which many of us claimed was a cause of concern to public health. At the time our advisory council saw no evidence of increasing strength in cannabis. Subsequently it changed its mind and recognised that there was an increasing problem, but I do not think that anything has really been done about the websites which are still advertising skunk and similar cannabis items for sale. In doing something about these particular drugs, would the Government be prepared, if this order is successful, to see whether similar measures could be taken against the advertising and sale of skunk and high-potency cannabis on the internet?

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the House for the support which has been given to the order. A number of extremely relevant points have been made. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, talked about the use of websites; this does concern the Government and it is a matter of public concern. It is also relevant in the terrorist context and it is a matter that we are looking at.

One of the problems with the internet, as the House will be aware, is that it is not under the unilateral control of this country; we have to get international co-operation in order to take effective action, which then involves freedom of speech legislation and so on. It is not a simple matter to take websites down—it is very important to get the co-operation of the ISPs. We are working on this on a broader front, not excluding drugs, to try to do something about websites that contain information which is clearly contrary to the public interest and which induce violence and harm in society.

My noble friend Lady Hamwee made several points with which I will try to deal. She said that she supported the order, for which I am extremely grateful, and asked a number of questions. We are taking actions very much with an eye to getting the message out to young people that these substances are harmful to them. I mentioned the FRANK line and the information available to young people on that messaging system. As I said, we have written to festival organisers to try to alert them to the fact that these substances, which are often advertised as being legal—what is more, they are not always what they are advertised as being; they may contain quite other substances—are really dangerous and will be illegal. I emphasise that we have discovered no legitimate use for this particular substance. It is designed simply to give people a high, with very great subsequent potential harm to their health.

I do not have information on whether trading standards officers have used their powers successfully. We are using the device of the temporary banning order to prevent a market for naphyrone developing in the first place so that we do not have to try to clear up a further substance which has already taken a grip on the market. This is meant to be protective and pre-emptive action to prevent greater harm occurring.

As has been spotted, effective enforcement must rightly concentrate on tackling dealers, to prevent the substance coming into the country and reaching young users. So far as we can tell, at the moment there is no great prevalence of this drug but we and our advisory council are clear that it is a very harmful substance which should not be allowed to gain a grip on the population.

I am grateful for the support the House has given the order. I am certain that it will help to ensure that the necessary controls are in place to protect the public, particularly the health of young people. We will continue to monitor trends and give the House information on how this approach is proceeding as it is a new and very necessary one in tackling synthetic drugs. We will assess the impact of the controls in the order and keep the House informed.

Motion agreed.