Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, this order, which was laid before Parliament on 8 January, fits within the Government’s drug strategy and policies to tackle the threat posed by new psychoactive substances sold, in popular parlance, as “legal highs”. The Government welcome the recent contributions made by Parliament to inform our considerations in this area of our work. We are indeed much engaged in discussions and reviews of our policies.
Keeping our drug laws up to date remains a key element of this Government’s drug strategy to reduce drug harms, and we make no apologies for our third drug control order since coming into power. The order will implement the Government’s decision, in late 2012, to accept the advice of our independent experts—the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs—to control a number of new psychoactive substances as class B drugs. The order will amend Schedule 2 to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 accordingly.
It will add O-desmethyltramadol to the list of class B drugs. This compound, currently sold as a legal high or as an undeclared but active ingredient in similar products in Europe, has not been detected in the UK. However, the ACMD advises that it poses a serious health threat. It has been associated with a number of deaths in Sweden. We agree with the ACMD that there is compelling evidence of harm to justify pre-emptive control to protect the UK public.
Noble Lords previously considered the 2009 drug control order on synthetic cannabinoids. These are man-made chemicals that mimic the effects of cannabis but also present similar harms. Over 140 of these compounds became controlled class B drugs. This was achieved by using a generic definition comprising five chemical families to capture these drugs. As these have mostly disappeared in the UK, as far as we can identify, new compounds have emerged. We have been monitoring them with the ACMD through UK and EU drugs early-warning systems.
The order will update four of the five chemical families identified in 2009 and increase their number to eight so that the generic definition captures more of the chemically related compounds. These include AM-2201 and MAM-2201, which have been identified in samples of the legal high products going under the brand names—if that is the phrase to use—Black Mamba and Annihilation, which have been linked to several hospitalisations.
The order will also make methoxetamine a controlled class B drug, as recommended by the ACMD. Noble Lords will recall that this drug has been subject to a temporary class drug order since April last year. The ACMD has also provided a generic definition to control the drug so that similar compounds which could replace it in the legal high market are also controlled.
The order will be complemented by two negative instruments in relation to the designation and scheduling of the drugs which will become controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001. In line with the ACMD’s advice and following consultation with the healthcare sector and industry, they will be designated as schedule 1 drugs, meaning that activities relating to them will be permitted for research or other special purposes subject to the relevant Home Office licence.
The Government take seriously the protection of public health, and protection against the threat posed by potentially harmful emerging drugs in the UK and abroad is necessary. I commend the order to the Committee.
My Lords, I feel that I may have been a little unkind to the Minister last week when I suggested that he might have to read out in full the names of all the drugs that we would be looking at today. It is perhaps more useful to use the street names, which are, for good reason, a lot easier.
I suspect—if it is not a very bad pun—that there is not a cigarette paper between us in looking at what we can do to end the scourge of drugs and the damage that they cause to so many young people in society. We therefore welcome the order and support action to protect young people from these substances. It is always wise, as is evident in the order, to act as early as possible. I welcomed the temporary ban placed previously on “mexxy”—MXE. The Minister may be aware that when we considered the relevant order—I appreciate that he was not the Minister at the time—I raised a couple of issues. Despite our full support for the order, we were concerned that it had taken a long time to get to your Lordships’ House. We were behind a number of other countries, such as Russia, which had already taken action. We welcome the fact that O-desmethyltramadol is being added to the list of class B drugs before any evidence is widely available in the UK. We know that the drug travels across Europe and that young people get it, and it is right that, based on the evidence of the danger that it causes, action should be taken as soon as possible.
When discussing the previous order, I asked about the Government’s relationship and co-operation with the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction—EMCDDA. We were concerned then that the EMCDDA had identified 90 new substances in 2010 and 2011 and, I understand, even more in 2012. At that point, the Home Office’s early warning system had identified only 11 of those drugs. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, the Minister at the time, was unable to answer that point in Committee—I appreciate that the Minister may not have information today, but, again, I would be happy for him to write to me. I am concerned that we should not lag behind what the EMCDDA is doing. In the case of O-desmethyltramadol, it is clear that the Government are not lagging behind, but given that 90 new drugs were identified up to 2011 and even more in 2012, it would be interesting to know how many of them have been identified by the Home Office’s early warning system. How do the Government and the Home Office co-operate with the EMCDDA? It is quite clear that if the centre has information that is useful to us and allows early action to be taken, as with this particular drug, it would be very welcome.
The other point that I raised at the time, which is still relevant, was that of internet stores. I know how very difficult it is to take action against stores that are selling these drugs across boundaries—and I would perhaps mention here that it is important that we remain in total co-operation with our European partners and do not withdraw from European crime and justice powers. Is the Minister confident that progress is being made to tackle internet sales of legal highs and those that are being made illegal? It would also be helpful if he was able to update the Committee on action against that.
I was very interested in the point the Minister made about generic drugs. Perhaps he can just clarify something. I think what he said, although I am not 100% sure, addressed the problem that I asked about last time. We ban certain drugs, quite rightly, and put them on the controlled list, but when one compound in that drug changes and it gets a different name, it is not subject to control or banned. He talked about trying to address the generic compounds. Does that address the point so that if a drug changes one compound or changes slightly, it does not become a legal high but is still banned under the order? I know this is quite a difficult area and how difficult these things are to monitor, and that you have to be so precise with the legislation. I think he said the Government are trying to get to the point—and perhaps have, going by the language in the order—of deriving the list of drugs and compounds. Does that mean that if a particular named drug—I think he talked about Annihilation, for example—was to change slightly, that because the compound is derived from whatever chemical ingredients are in the order itself, it would still be banned because it has not changed significantly? I might be making the point rather badly—it is quite a convoluted one but I hope the Minister understands the point I am making.
My final point goes back to previous debates on the Crime and Courts Bill about testing at the roadside for those who may be on drugs. Every time a new drug comes on to the controlled list or is classified as class B, it would be interesting to know whether the “drugalyser” that is being rolled out at the moment would pick up these compounds. It seems to me that if we are constantly saying new drugs are—quite rightly—going to be banned, the drugalyser should be able to pick them up so we know if somebody is driving with banned substances in their bloodstream. I appreciate that that is quite a complicated point and that the answer may not be available today but it is something we need to look at if we are, rightly, adding new drugs to the controlled or banned list.
The order has our full support to protect people from drugs and from those who make huge amounts of money out of the suffering of others. Action needs to be taken and the Government have our support in doing so.
I thank the noble Baroness very much indeed for her support. The drugalyser is rather a focused piece of kit at the moment and deals with drugs that are commonly available and well recognised as impairing people’s ability to drive properly. I have no doubt that we will have an opportunity in future to debate how that particular piece of equipment will be used. It is a Department for Transport area of activity but of course we are very much involved and, indeed, it was included in the Crime and Courts Bill, which was led by the Home Office. We will continue to monitor it. The short answer is, of course, that such a piece of equipment will be unable to pick up all drugs, but that does not invalidate its introduction as a useful piece of equipment to monitor people’s misuse of drugs while driving.
This order has two elements, which are innovative and have been recognised and welcomed by the noble Baroness, the first of which is the pre-emptive strike. To pick up on the example of the chemical O-desmethyltramadol, we are making clear, before it gets here, that this highly damaging drug is illegal within this country.
The second is generic protection. As the noble Baroness said, this is difficult to put into legislation. However, I must say that page 2 in particular is an impressive piece of drafting. I had a modest education in organic chemistry and can see exactly what the drafters of the legislation sought to do. Almost all the manufactured, synthetic drugs are based on organic chains with psychoactive elements. The legislation recognises the derivation of these compounds, and their reassembly and reformulation to get round the ban will be very much more difficult through the construction of this generic, family-type ban. It will be very useful.
The noble Baroness asked a question to which I do not have the answer, although I should have had. She asked about the progress being made on the internet sale of drugs. I will find out if I can update her on that. Clearly it is an area where illegal marketing goes on. This is of concern and we would want to take every measure to try to stamp it out. I hope that noble Lords can see that this measure is particularly useful in addressing the advent of these legal highs, and I commend the order to the Committee.
Committee adjourned at 7.37 pm.