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Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Temporary Class Drug) Order 2013

Volume 746: debated on Thursday 27 June 2013

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the order laid before the House on 4 June be approved.

Relevant document: 3rd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, the order was made on 3 June and came into force on 10 June 2013. The order specifies four N-BOMe and six benzofuran substances, including their simple derivatives, as drugs subject to temporary control under Section 2A(1) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. On 29 May, the Government received a recommendation from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) under the temporary control provisions of the 1971 Act, advising that the N-BOMe and benzofuran substances are being misused, and that their misuse is having sufficiently harmful effects to warrant legislative action. My honourable friend the Minister for Crime Prevention was satisfied, in consideration of the latest available evidence and the ACMD’s assessment, that the conditions to make a temporary class drug order were met.

N-BOMe substances are highly potent drugs which are regarded as alternatives to the class A drug LSD. Clinically observed health effects include hypertension, agitation and aggression, visual and audio hallucination, and seizures. Two patients were admitted to intensive care after using this drug. Anecdotal evidence from self-reported users also highlight highly negative effects including confusion, shaking, nausea, insomnia, paranoia and unwanted feelings.

We agree with the ACMD that urgent action is required because of the extremely potent nature of these substances in powder and liquid form, and the high risk of overdose. We are also aware that to mitigate the risk of overdose, some suppliers have used perforated pre-loaded paper doses in the form of blotters and tabs, similar to the way LSD is sold.

The benzofuran substances—such as 5- and 6- APB—are related to the class A drug ecstasy (MDMA). They are most commonly sold under the brand name Benzo Fury and marketed as legal alternatives to ecstasy. The effects of these substances include insomnia, increased heart rate and anxiety, with some users reporting ecstasy-like symptoms. Several deaths and hospitalisations in the UK have been associated with the use of these compounds. There are also risks associated with the long-term use of these drugs such as cardiac toxicity.

The order applies UK-wide to protect the public, enabling enforcement action against suppliers and traffickers, while the ACMD prepares full advice on these substances. The order also sends out a clear message to the public, especially young people, that these substances are harmful drugs. Of course, we will continue to monitor data on these drugs to measure the impact of the order through all available channels, and share this information with the ACMD.

This order was made in consideration of evidence that these substances pose a clear threat to public health and safety, not least young people who believe traffickers’ claims that legal highs are safer than controlled drugs. We have a duty to take action to prevent new psychoactive substances—NPSs—which pose equally serious health risks from gaining a foothold in the UK drugs market.

Our action today, through temporary control legislation, is a vehicle which enables us to act swiftly to protect the public and provide time to the advisory council to gather evidence and prepare full advice on these drugs. Legislative action also plays an important part in supporting our wider public protection policies.

This legislative action is supportive of our long-term strategic objectives set out in the Government’s action plan to tackle the new psychoactive substances market from all angles; to reduce demand by raising awareness of the harms of new psychoactive substances; to make it difficult to obtain and supply those that pose risks to health; and to ensure that statutory services are able effectively to provide treatment and support recovery. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the drugs. I am always grateful that these drugs have street names that we can pronounce, because the only light relief there could be on this issue is to hear the Minister reading out the chemical names of all the substances for which he has brought forward the order today.

We on this side of the House put on the record our appreciation of the work of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, specifically for the work it has done to bring forward this order. Its members give freely of their expertise and advice, and we are hugely grateful that they do so. We are content to accept their advice and support the order before us today. There is evidence that these two drugs, N-BOMe and Benzo Fury, and their derivatives and variations have been responsible for hospitalisations and deaths. They are dangerous and damaging and those who trade in these substances care nothing for their impact and the harm that they cause—merely for their own profits.

In supporting the order I refer to some of the key issues that are relevant to this discussion, and on which I would find it helpful if the Minister could provide some clarity and information. I understand and appreciate the process that has brought this specific order before us, but I am not altogether clear on some issues, such as timescales and action taken by other countries, whether it is on similar timescales and whether greater co-operation is now available. The Minister will be aware of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which has a key role in detection and assessment of new drugs across the entire EU. Can the Minister tell me—I think that we have had similar information from Ministers previously—how many new substances have been identified by the EMCDDA since 2010, and how many of those have now been identified by the Home Office early warning system? The Minister may not have the figures to hand and I am happy for him to write to me. We learnt from the debate on an earlier order that the Home Office had identified only 11 out of 90 substances identified by the EMCDDA in 2010-11. My understanding is that now more than 200 substances have been identified by the EMCDDA. How many of those have been identified by the Home Office? I ask because I am keen to see that we are keeping pace with the rest of Europe in identifying and taking action on new drugs and substances as they enter the UK market.

The Minister mentioned that they are sometimes referred to as legal highs. That lulls some people into a false sense of security that a drug is safe because it is not illegal. Yet the only reason it is legal is that the formal process of making it illegal has not been completed. Yesterday I Attended an IPU briefing on the drugs trade and I was struck by one specific fact: that synthetic drugs now account for 20% to 25% of the drugs market. As their use is growing, the need to be on the ball with identification and action becomes all the more important and crucial.

When debating a previous order I asked the then Minister if he was aware of the reasons for the difference in the number of drugs identified by the EMCDDA and those identified by the Home Office. He was not able to respond to me on that occasion. It would be helpful to know and, again, I shall understand if the Minister prefers to write to me with the accurate statistics and explanation. I suspect that there are probably a number of genuine and understandable reasons. Is there just a short time lag between one body indentifying a substance and the information being fed through to the Home Office? Are the Government waiting for advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs? I will come back to that point, because we do not want any unnecessary delay in identifying and taking action, when the growth of these synthetically manufactured drugs is racing ahead.

I am keen to ensure, as I am sure the Minister is, that we make full use of co-operation with other European countries that are tackling the same issues, which are incredibly difficult. Co-operation across international boundaries is essential as we are all facing similar problems that are having a similar impact on our societies. We all want to be reassured that we are acting on these issues with the sense of urgency that the public deserve and expect. I do not for one second doubt the Minister’s intentions; I would not want that to be misunderstood. However, I am worried that some of the factual information of the timings gives cause for concern. It may be that we need to review the process that we have undertaken to get us to this point to see whether we could act more swiftly.

My understanding is that the information contained in the letter that the Home Secretary received from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs indicated that Benzo Fury, the drug that we getting a temporary banning order on today, was first referred to the National Poisons Information Service in 2009, after being identified as a drug that led to hospitalisations. I am not suggesting that that on its own would be enough to bring us to this point, because obviously the drug has to be properly assessed. However, the chair of the ACMD, Professor Les Iversen, recently said that the council had the resources to assess only two or three new substances a year. If between 70 and 200 dangerous and damaging substances are on the market legally and there is an increase in the manufacturing of synthetic drugs—many of which there will be a strong case for making illegal—to be identifying or assessing just two or three a year is completely inadequate. Is there more that we should be doing now to ensure that we are not constantly lagging behind what is happening in Europe? Such a lagging behind is likely to lead to increased dangers and increased hospitalisations, and possibly worse.

Does the Minister know how long it took for the drug Benzo Fury, for example, to appear on the Government’s forensic early-warning system since it was first identified in 2009? It seems to me that there should be some co-operation and cross-referencing—I have given him notice that I would be asking this question today—between the National Poisons Information Service, the TICTAC database on chemical compounds, the EMCDDA’s register of new substances and the Home Office’s forensic early-warning system. Can he provide some information on how such co-operation and liaison works? Again, I am happy to receive a letter.

Can the Minister also tell us what processes are in place to investigate the effects of a substance once it is recorded? We need a proper pharmacological investigation into these substances, but I understand that this is very expensive. My understanding is that it costs approximately £100,000 per substance. The Home Office has provided just £200,000 from the health budget for this purpose, although I am not sure whether that amount remains following the CSR. European co-operation would be invaluable. I would be interested to know what discussions are taking place with other European Ministers and agencies.

One of the flies in the ointment of increased European co-operation is the Government’s plan to opt out of the police and criminal justice measures of the EU. I know that the Government want to opt back in to some measures. It would be inconceivable if this kind of measure was not included as it is clear that the EMCDDA is very much ahead of the game as to what is happening across Europe as a whole. Are there any contingency plans on the drugs issue, particularly if a Danish type of situation arose where we could not opt back in, as we wanted?

I apologise for taking slightly longer to speak, but I am very concerned about the number of drugs coming on to the market at the moment. Can the Minister say anything about internet sales? A number of internet sites offer what they call “legal highs” as alternatives to already banned or illegal drugs. It is hard, I know, to monitor the actions of all of them, but what monitoring is taking place? Often it can be a way of identifying when a legal drug is getting hold of the market.

It is clear from the drugs listed today that one has to be very precise about the substances involved. I understand that there is a risk that a minor chemical change can create a new drug and then a new order is needed. The Government are trying to address that issue and that is why the order before us today is welcome. Do we need to have a new order each time there is a chemical change? I support the order. I welcome the Minister’s explanation and thank him for bringing the order forward. However, we need a broader strategy to ensure that we are not running behind to catch up on such a serious issue.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Medical Research Council’s ethics and regulation committee. Can the Minister say whether consideration has been given to altering the defaults on this policy? When it comes to prescription drugs, we require proof of safety before a drug proceeds to clinical trials and attempts to establish efficacy. Why should proof of safety not be a prerequisite for the marketing of any substance that is used as a drug?

My Lords, I will answer the noble Baroness’s question before I forget it. I suspect the reason is that the legislation creates serious criminal offences and we have to be sure that the creation of such an offence is necessary. If I have anything more to add—if any inspiration comes from the Box—then I shall do so, but I suspect that that is the answer.

I am grateful for the support from the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and I thank the House for the helpful discussion. I trust that when I have finished I will have fully made the case for the temporary class drug order to be approved in the House on the basis of the latest available evidence and the ACMD’s advice.

I understand the noble Baroness’s concern about resources. The Home Secretary commissions the ACMD to undertake specific pieces of work each year, and it has the flexibility to prioritise its resources accordingly. However, the use of generic definitions means that the advisory council is able to consider and provide advice on families and groups rather than on individual substances. This enables the Government to tackle multiple substances in a single legislative action.

Before I go into further detail on the points raised by noble Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, in commending the ACMD for its continuous work and support of our work priorities, including on “legal highs”. More than ever, the fast pace of this market requires careful prioritisation of our resources and underscores the need for closer working within a broader network of partners, in the UK and abroad, to inform and preserve the integrity of our drug laws.

The noble Baroness quite rightly asked about a sense of urgency. In the case of this particular order we received advice from the ACMD on 29 May; we made the order on 3 June; and it came into effect on 10 July. The noble Baroness also asked when benzofuran compounds were first identified in the UK. Our forensic early warning system, which I will say more about in a moment, first identified the benzofuran substances 5- and 6-APB in early 2011. Together with the advisory council we kept under review the health harms associated with these compounds. The latest evidence suggests that legislative action needs to be taken.

I remind the House that we take action when we see a health harm becoming apparent, not when we become aware that the drug exists. The drug can exist—theoretically it might be on the market in other parts of the world—but we will not legislate until it starts to cause a problem in the UK. We do not need to legislate for everything. I am sure that the noble Baroness will understand that we do not want to legislate for every drug that could be abused.

I appreciate the point that the noble Earl is making and I am grateful for it. I was making a point about the different organisations which all have a responsibility to share information in this area. The poisons body to which I referred first identified this as a problem in 2009. It took until 2011, according to the noble Earl’s information, for the Home Office to become aware of that.

The noble Baroness may or may not be right. However, I will have more to say on co-operation.

We are making progress in reducing the availability of these drugs through UK law enforcement agencies prioritising work on new psychoactive substances. We are also working with trading standards to tackle their emergence using consumer protection legislation and providing guidance to complement drug control. We have a world-leading forensic early warning system that we are exporting, through leading two resolutions at the UN, enabling the monitoring of new psychoactive substances at a global level for the first time.

Perhaps I may first draw your Lordships’ attention to the forensic early warning system. This is a Home Office programme set up since January 2011 in response to legal highs. It detects new drugs in the UK through test purchasing and forensic work. It informs the advisory council’s consideration and our wider response. It works by test purchasing samples for analysis from the internet and “head shops”—whatever they are—collecting music festival and non-casework police samples, and other sensible courses of action. This has made a vital contribution to health and safety at summer festivals. Data from FEWS has been shared with ACMD to inform its advice on a drug called 2-DPMP, synthetic cannabinoids, methoxetamine—which I tried to practice pronouncing—including the latest substances, NBOMe and benzofurans which we are talking about.

I also draw the House’s attention to the drugs early warning system. This works by linking health and law enforcement agencies to provide access to evidence and timely information on NPS—new psychoactive substances. UK Focal Point acts as an information hub, collecting and sharing data from UK and EU drugs early warning systems with ACMD and the Home Office. So we are not on our own. UK Focal Point can also liaise directly with the National Poisons Information Service when required. When, for example, a threat from a new psychoactive substance becomes apparent, the Home Office will ask UK Focal Point—and has done so in the case of these substances and others that I cannot pronounce—to distribute a request for information from national and international partners.

The noble Baroness asked me about the number of new substances coming on to the market. Counting the number of substances identified elsewhere in Europe cannot be used as a barometer to measure the extent of the problem in the UK. Many of these substances have never been seen before in the UK, a point that I have already made, and the majority of those that have are controlled thanks to the generic definitions which capture families of drugs used under the Misuse of Drugs Act. The Government are acting fast to tackle these new substances.

I have talked about the forensic early warning system. In addition, the temporary control power affords a flexibility to control these drugs quickly while the advisory council assesses their full harm and when the evidence base on their prevalence, use or likely use and harm supports legislative action. As I have already said, the use of generic definitions enables us to future-proof our legislation by catching families and groups at a time, and therefore drugs that are yet to appear on the UK market. These systems, including our drugs early warning system, continue to contribute to the considerations of the ACMD, as it has done with NBOMe and benzofuran substances and our previous temporary class drug methoxetamine, which is now a class B drug. In addition, health and law enforcement partners continue to have access to information and the latest evidence from the UK and EU.

The most helpful course of action that I can take is to write to the noble Baroness on some of the further details, which I think she will find interesting. I hope that noble Lords will find that this legislative measure will ensure that the public are protected from the harm of these new psychoactive substances. I beg to move.

Motion agreed.