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Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2014

Volume 757: debated on Thursday 27 November 2014

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2014.

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

My Lords, this order was laid in Parliament on 7 November. It is part of continuing efforts to tackle the trade in so-called “legal highs”—a term which is unhelpful. On 30 October the Government published their response to the expert-led review into new psychoactive substances. They have set out an enhanced package of measures that includes looking at the feasibility of new legislation in this challenging area.

The Misuse of Drugs Act will remain the cornerstone of the Government’s legislative actions to curtail the availability of these new drugs where there is expert advice on their harms. The order being debated today is one part of the Government’s actions, which they continue to pursue with full vigour.

I would like to thank the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for its continued support in reviewing the evidence base on new psychoactive substances sold as legal highs that have the potential to cause harm. The ACMD’s considerations and advice continue to inform the Government’s response to these drugs. Noble Lords will wish to note that the legislative measures the Government are proposing through this order are entirely in line with the ACMD’s advice.

If made, this order will specify for control the synthetic opioid AH-7921 and a number of LSD-related compounds, commonly referred to as ALD-52, AL-LAD, ETH-LAD, PRO-LAD and LSZ. The order will also extend the definition used to control the family of tryptamines to capture compounds such as alpha-methyltryptamine as well as 5-MeO-DALT for control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

The Government have received advice from the ACMD that the drugs to be controlled are being misused or likely to be misused. In the ACMD’s view, their misuse is having, or is capable of having, sufficiently harmful effects to warrant legislative action under the 1971 Act. Legislative action is necessary as a result of the real and potential harms identified by the ACMD. This action will send out a strong message to those who are considering experimenting with these drugs and help the Government to target their public health messaging in order to protect the public. It will also allow enforcement partners to prioritise resources accordingly to tackle the sale and supply of these drugs, sending out a strong message to those who trade in these harmful drugs, including high street “head shops”.

The Committee will be aware that this Government and the ACMD continue to monitor, through UK and EU drugs early warning systems, emerging substances marketed as legal alternatives to controlled drugs. This work has informed the ACMD’s deliberations and, as appropriate, its current advice to update our drug laws in relation to the new psychoactive compounds being controlled.

AH-7921 is a potent synthetic analgesic developed over 40 years ago by Allen & Hanburys pharmaceutical company in the UK. The ACMD reports that,

“the compound was not developed further, presumably because animal studies revealed a high addictive potential”.

AH-7921 has recently become available as a new psychoactive substance. It was first detected in Europe in July 2012. Since then a number of drug-related deaths have been reported in Europe, including three related deaths reported by the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths in the UK in 2013. AH-7921 is reported as being highly addictive, with a potency similar to morphine. Harms from the misuse of this drug are reported to include difficulty in breathing, severe pain and death.

The LSD-related compounds are potent hallucinogens which currently evade UK controls on this family of drugs. These compounds are reported as being offered for sale on specialist websites devoted to hallucinogens as new psychoactive substances. The harms associated with the misuse of these compounds are reported to include euphoria, hallucinations, rapid heartbeat and depression. These compounds are also known to cause acute mental health disturbances.

The tryptamines are hallucinogens, a large number of which are already controlled via a generic or group definition under the 1971 Act as class A drugs. The ACMD reports that in recent years there has been a significant interest in hallucinogens of this type. A number of these substances, which fall outside the current group definition, are being offered for sale as new psychoactive substances. Two in particular, commonly referred to as AMT and 5-MeO-DALT, have been encountered through the Home Office forensic early warning system. AMT was linked to the tragic deaths of Adam Hunt and Christopher Scott last year.

The physical effects of the tryptamines are reported as visual illusion, hallucination and euphoria, among others. The ACMD also reports a small number of confirmed post-mortem toxicology reports, rising from one in 2009 to four in 2013, with AMT being the most frequently linked to reported tryptamine deaths. For all these reasons, the Government accept the ACMD’s advice to extend current controls to these compounds as class A drugs under the 1971 Act.

The Government intend 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 2014 will amend the Misuse of Drugs (Designation) Order 2001 to place the compounds being controlled in Part 1 of the order as compounds to which Section 7(4) of the 1971 Act applies. These compounds have no known legitimate uses outside research. Their availability for use in research will be enabled under a Home Office licence.

The Misuse of Drugs (Amendment No. 3) Regulations 2014 will amend the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 to place the compounds being controlled by this order in Schedule 1 to the 2001 regulations, as they have no known or recognised medicinal uses. These instruments will be laid in time 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 through a Home Office circular. I commend the order to the Committee.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the detail on this. The explanation she gave was very helpful. I also congratulate her on her pronunciation—these are not easy words; they have foiled many a Minister. However, the complications are more than just verbal when we look at the detail of the complexities of the compounds that we are seeking to prohibit. This order was actually laid in July and had to be withdrawn because of a mistake. That indicates how complex these issues are and how important it is that we get it right.

Too often, these drugs are referred to in a phrase that I do not like: “legal highs”. Sometimes the only reason that they are legal is because of the technicality that no one has got round to banning that particular compound yet, even though it has a very similar effect to another. That might be the initial reaction to these highs, but in too many cases they lead to death or very serious illness or psychosis, so it is right that action is taken against them. One thing that gives cause for concern is the growing number of artificial drugs—created or synthetic compounds—on the market. The Government’s approach now, of looking at groups of compounds rather than trying to ban an individual one so that when there is a slight change in the make-up another one has to be banned, is a much more sensible approach and one that we welcome.

I will just ask something briefly about process. There are two questions here. The Government sought advice from the ACMD on this order and it fully supports it. It is always helpful where there is consensus in these matters. Is there a process by which the ACMD can draw the attention of the Government to drugs being used on which it thinks action should be taken? Is there a two-way process?

The Minister referred to other orders coming before us. I think that this is the fifth order on the Misuse of Drugs Act that I have spoken to, so a number of substances have been banned already. We need to ensure that the action that we are taking is effective. There is no point in us sitting here, with the Minister having to learn the names of the drugs and read them through, with the immense work that goes into preparing such orders and the advice from the ACMD, if at the end of the day it is not going to have much effect. How many prosecutions have there been in line with all that has been done already in respect of substances and compounds that have been banned, and how many seizures of drugs banned in previous orders have we seen? Has any assessment been made or evidence emerged of a decline in their use? I am happy not to receive answers today, but I am looking for reassurance that when we take such action it does have an impact and makes a difference. With those points and questions, we give our support to the Motion.

I thank the noble Baroness for taking part in this quite brief discussion of a matter which—I think there is general consensus—needs to be tackled. Obviously, approval of the order will ensure that our drug laws remain effective and assist law enforcement to restrict the availability of compounds that have no legitimate use outside research.

The noble Baroness mentioned how unhelpful the term “legal high” is—because, as she said, the only reason that a substance is a legal high is that it has not yet become an illegal high. She also referred to how complex the whole thing is, because we are almost running to stand still, given the number of new compounds and substances being developed.

The noble Baroness asked whether the ACMD can take a proactive as opposed to a reactive approach if it gets intelligence on new drugs that are being developed. Given that it is a two-way dialogue, I assume that the answer is yes, but if it is any different from that, I will let her know. The expert panel made an assessment of our approach and concluded that we should build on it, but I am happy to write to the noble Baroness on that point.

On the increase or the decline in use, the use of new psychoactive substances among the general population remains relatively low overall compared to that of some of the traditional illicit drugs, with 0.6% of adults—that is, 16 to 59 year-olds—reporting use of mephedrone in the last year compared to 6.6% for cannabis, 2.4% for powder cocaine and 1.6% for ecstasy.

That does not address the point that I am making; it tells us about the average use. What I am trying to do is understand the impact of orders such as these. I understand what the use is in the UK; I want to know whether the orders are having any effect. I am happy for the Minister not to answer today but to write to me, because I think that is a more complex question.

I will clarify that in a letter.

I think that I have answered the two main questions. I am happy to write with detail on the other questions that were asked. In light of that, I commend the order.

Motion agreed.