Committee (1st Day)
Relevant documents: 1st Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 1: Overview
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 3, after “about” insert “reviewing the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and”
My Lords, I will speak also to the other amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Hamwee in this group. This group is fundamental to our debate on the rest of the Bill, as it asks the Government whether they are really committed to an evidence-based approach to combating drugs—basically, whether they are committed to doing what works in practice.
Amendment 1 is a minor amendment which sets out our proposals in the overall context of the Bill. The key amendment is Amendment 5, which would require the Secretary of State to commission an “independent evidence-based review” of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and its implementation, and to publish the results. Amendments 111, 112 and 115 would ensure that this review had to take place before the rest of the provisions in the Bill came into force. If, in the face of the evidence that such a review would produce, the Government were still determined to press ahead with this, so be it. However, our amendments would give the Government time to consider whether a different approach, based on evidence of what works, would produce the outcomes we all seek.
I will be clear: the Liberal Democrats are as concerned about the harm caused by the misuse of drugs in general, and the misuse of new psychoactive substances in particular, as anyone else in this House, including the Government. Liberal Democrats want what parents and families want. Parents want their children to avoid taking drugs. The evidence suggests that education, rather than criminalisation, is more likely to achieve that end. If their children use drugs, they do not want them to be harmed by taking them, let alone be killed by them. The evidence suggests that the best way to do that is through education and concentrating resources on the drug dealers, not the users. If their children use drugs, the last thing they want is for the rest of their children’s lives to be ruined by a criminal record for simply having small amounts of a relatively harmless substance on them. Educate them if they are being reckless, and if they are addicted, treat them.
Our concern, borne out by the evidence from other countries, is that prohibition and the criminalisation of drug users do not reduce the harm caused by drugs. They do not save lives, reduce addiction or deal with the serious criminality associated with drugs, such as the violence associated with drug dealing. Our concern is that the Bill—yet another Bill based on prohibition and criminalisation—will not only be ineffective in reducing the considerable harm caused by new psychoactive substances but will increase that harm, cost more lives, increase addiction and boost the profitability of drug dealing.
I expect the Government to say that they do not believe this will be the case, and that they have a manifesto commitment to enact this legislation—and of course under the Salisbury convention we on these Benches will not try to wreck the Bill. What we are asking for is an independent, evidence-based review of how effective current legislation is in achieving what it sets out to achieve—that is, a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971—before we give effect to another piece of legislation which is very similar to that.
I can tell noble Lords that making drugs illegal is not an effective deterrent, and that the classification of drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act lacks a sound scientific basis in the case of many of the drugs listed in that legislation, and therefore it lacks credibility in the eyes of those whom the system of classification is designed to deter. However, rather than taking my word for it, I ask the House to support an independent review. We are not asking for a major piece of new research but for a similar exercise to that carried out recently by David Anderson into the far more complex area of surveillance, which he completed in less than 12 months. We are not trying to delay the passing of this legislation, just asking that we hold back from giving effect to it until after the review has been conducted. It may well be that, having seen the review, the Government decide to adopt a different approach.
The Liberal Democrats want a health-based and harm reduction-based approach to dealing with the problems caused by the misuse of drugs. If I thought that making even more drugs illegal would save one life or stop one person becoming addicted, I would not be asking for this review. Therefore, will the Minister commit to having such a review so we can ensure that, before this Bill comes into force, we learn the lessons of the past? I beg to move.
My Lords, it is indeed time for a fundamental review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It is now almost half a century old and was the product of the prohibitionist orthodoxy that developed during the 1960s. It was the way in which our country implemented the requirements of the UN convention of 1961; subsequently, we doggedly signed up to the 1971 and 1988 conventions. It is through this legislation that the full panoply of prohibition was established, with the criminalisation of supply and possession. It is more than time to look again at the principles underlying this legislation, because there is an abundance of evidence that the legislation has failed in its purpose of protecting society from harm. I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, that our objective has to be to minimise the damage that drug usage causes in our society.
Since this legislation was introduced, we have seen, generation by generation, very significant increases in the use of drugs. There have been fluctuations in the use of cannabis, but if noble Lords study the latest annual report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, they will see that it sounds alarm bells over the rising problem of cannabis, in particular the increasing potency and purity of herbal cannabis and cannabis resin. The cannabis that is available in the market for consumers in this country is now far higher in THC, the most dangerous component of cannabis, than the cannabis that people were accustomed to using in the 1960s. A far larger proportion of our population now uses cannabis than in those days. Britons are among the largest consumers of controlled drugs in Europe. Therefore, there is evidence that the system is not working.
Prohibition is based on a false analysis of supply and demand. Where supply is interdicted, demand does not consequentially fall. Prices rise and the profits of criminals rise, but demand is displaced to different drugs. One reason we have the problem of new psychoactive substances, which the Bill seeks to address, is the prohibition of other substances, which has displaced demand, and people are looking for new opportunities to find the experience that they seek.
MDMA, better known as ecstasy, is another controlled drug, but the control has simply failed. Statistics indicate that some 300,000 young people each week are using ecstasy. As I mentioned at Second Reading, in universities its use is widespread, as is the use of smart drugs that are supposed to facilitate mental concentration and help people do better in severely competitive situations.
It is more than time for an analysis of the kind that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, has recommended—an objective expert review of the way that this legislation has worked. It has been a gift to criminals. On the black market, price increases of 100 times between production and retail are not uncommon. In 2013, it was estimated that taxpayers across the world were spending something in the order of $188 billion on the enforcement of prohibition regimes, with the effect of creating an illegal drugs market of some 240 million users, with a turnover of $320 billion. This is a massive illicit business created by the prohibitionist orthodoxy.
At the same time, the Home Office estimated that the social and economic costs of organised drug crime in England and Wales were £10.7 billion a year. The collateral damage of the war on drugs has been immense, with diversion of public spending from health, education, development and other good causes—or, if you prefer, from the lowering of taxes and the reduction of deficits—and from tackling social exclusion and violent crime on estates in this country. That extends to the countries of production and transit: there have been 100,000 deaths in the drug wars in Mexico for which our people, as consumers, have to take serious responsibility. There is corruption of public life in many countries, and the proceeds of the illegal drug trade are used to finance terrorism. There are abuses of human rights, the use of the death sentence in a number of countries across the world, and environmental damage; for example, in Latin America, where the coca bean is produced.
Money laundering is a very significant problem, which is greatly exacerbated by prohibition. Banks in this country—unburdened by any particular sense of civic responsibility or by effective regulation—fund money laundering of drugs money, which is a profitable activity, as do money transfer services. It is not just the financiers, though. Other white collar professionals—accountants and lawyers—do not ask the questions they are required by the law to ask and are happy to facilitate the transfer of the proceeds of the illicit trade into the licit economy. It is ubiquitous across the country. At the other end of the scale, nail bars, taxi firms, car washes and, I am told, even childcare organisations are local small businesses that are used to facilitate the laundering of the proceeds of the drugs trade.
The Chancellor now wishes to make the City of London an offshore centre for trading in the Chinese currency regardless of the fact that the great majority of new psychoactive substances emanate from China. Prohibition is an engine of crime, of international organised crime, of gang-related street crime and of acquisitive crime. It accounts for between one-fifth and one-third of acquisitive crime. More enforcement leads to more violence and more profit. Prohibition drives innovation.
The Misuse of Drugs Act was never effective, but to attempt to overlay a regime that was not effective in the circumstances for which it was designed on today’s world of digital communications is, I believe, doomed to failure. The internet has made it far easier for people to obtain the information they need to know how to synthesise such drugs, to market them and to make them available. Smartphones enable people to tell each other about the arrival of new consignments of drugs—I am told even that invitations to parties contain links to suppliers. To extend the prohibition regime as the Government propose in the Bill seems a project doomed to failure.
Over the years, the Government have lacked conviction in the enforcement of prohibition. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, to his immense credit, when faced with the challenge of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s, wisely and humanely decided that to provide clean needles and needle exchanges was the right thing to do and that harm prevention should trump law enforcement. There has been vacillation by successive Home Secretaries about the classification of cannabis. In 2010, when cannabis had once again been moved to a different classification, the Lancet stated:
“Politics has been allowed to contaminate scientific processes and the advice that underpins policy”.
The noble Lord, Lord Bates, may correct me but I understand that in the preparation of this legislation the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, created under the 1971 legislation to be the Government’s statutory adviser in this field, was sidelined. As the noble Lord said in moving this amendment, this seems to be an end to evidence-based policy and the attempt at a rational assessment of harm. Ministers have done this through this legislation and the broader policy. They have further discredited the Misuse of Drugs Act, on which they rely and which they insist is so necessary.
In an interview in the Independent in 2005, David Cameron said:
“Politicians attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator by posturing with tough policies and calling for crackdown after crackdown. Drugs policy has been failing for decades”.
I greatly fear that this Bill will be another failure, and I commend to the Minister and the Home Secretary the course of action proposed in this amendment.
My Lords, I cannot support these amendments, not because I challenge the sincerity of those who wish to encourage wider debate about drugs and the value of criminalising or decriminalising them, but because I think this is the wrong Bill at the wrong time to try to bolt on this wider debate. There is a real mischief that needs to be dealt with now: the mischief of so-called legal highs, which, tragically too often, are lethal highs. Many families are grieving in this country because youngsters, in particular, have taken these substances and died as a result. The mischief that needs remedying as soon as possible is the spread of so-called head shops and other such shops in many of our major cities around the country. We are just getting into the serious music festival season. Many of those festivals will have the equivalent of head shops on open display. There is real confusion among many vulnerable, naive youngsters, who assume that, because there are head shops or stands at music festivals selling these substances, they must be medically safe.
I spoke yesterday to the chief constable of Hertfordshire, Andy Bliss, who leads for the police service on these issues, and the police are adamant that there is a real need for this legislation as soon as possible. So let there be a wider debate around the big issues of evidence, prohibition and legalising or not legalising drugs, but we need to deal now, laser-like, with this real and present mischief. Any attempt to make this Bill into a wider debate will dilute, probably defer and possibly damage our intent to deal with this real and present mischief. Although there is a need for this wider debate, I hope that it will not destroy the laser-like focus of this Bill, which deals with a real and imminent problem.
The specific terms of the amendment are:
“The Secretary of State shall commission an independent evidence-based review of the effectiveness of the Misuse of Drugs Act … and the implementation of the Act”,
“The Secretary of State shall lay a copy of a report of the review before both Houses of Parliament within one year”.
Is the noble Lord saying that he approves of the amendment but does not think that it should be linked to the passage of this Act? If so, I would be grateful if he clarified that he is in favour now of an independent review of the way in which the Misuse of Drugs Act is actually operating.
Certainly, I am not against such a review. It is for those who wish to make the case for it to put it forward and to find a mechanism for it to take place. I would very happily give evidence to such a review or assist in any way I could. The point I am making today is that, at the very least, there would be a 12-month delay, probably longer, and there is a pressing need to get legislation now to do something about the production, supply and distribution of these so-called legal highs, which, as I said, are lethal highs on some occasions and are killing young people.
My Lords, I have listened to arguments on both sides and I am struck by the point that we somehow think that the introduction of legal highs is a phenomenon we have never come across. We had cheap, smokeable heroin in the early 1980s. There were outbreaks in various cities across England where people were smoking heroin. There was anxiety. We had a knee-jerk reaction and we set up services for heroin users. Then we had amphetamines in the nightclub scene, and in the mid-1980s kids were sniffing solvents and glue. There was huge panic and uproar and we banned children from buying solvents in supermarkets. We thought that thousands of kids were going to die because they were sniffing solvents. Things moved on.
Then we had MDMA, GBH and crack cocaine, and then heroin came back again. These things keep coming. We do not want to have a knee-jerk reaction to yet another drug that young people will take. The evidence, from watching last night’s “Newsnight” report from Ireland, is the opposite of what the noble Lord said his police officers wanted here. Officers there were saying that they could not enforce this law. This is simply imposing a blanket ban on new drugs as they keep coming out—and they will keep coming out. We can ban one thing and I guarantee that in the next five years, there will be another substance that young people are using and we will be panicking again. We cannot continue to do this.
There is a desperate need to review the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. We have had all these policies and other Acts dealing with prescription drugs, and we have never looked at the evidence—not just this Government but the Labour Government as well. We have never looked at the evidence because, as my noble friend Lord Howarth said, Ministers look at what the public want and they want hard, strong enforcement tactics on tackling the use of drugs. The evidence is fairly clear and we have a lot of it in this country, so we desperately need a review. Whether we need to tag that on to this Bill I do not know, but my anxiety is that we will be passing a Bill because of a knee-jerk response.
We have not looked at the connections with existing legislation. We are creating legislation that is not looking at harms but simply banning everything in sight under this umbrella body, and it seems to everyone to be unenforceable. We need to take a step back. There has to be an opportunity somewhere along the way to have a review and to look at drugs policy effectively.
My Lords, I had not intended to speak on this amendment until I heard the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth. With all due respect, I must say that he is profoundly wrong and also out of date. I say to the Minister that there is no need to do another independent review. A couple of years ago, EU Sub-Committee F, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, conducted a thorough review of drugs legislation. We discovered in that committee that enforcement has worked exceptionally well for all the main hard drugs we have had in this country. Drug use of heroin, crack cocaine and other such drugs has dropped dramatically. Where we are in the lead, unfortunately, is with the use of the new psychoactive substances.
It would seem from the evidence that we took in committee that children today do not want to smoke the same old stuff their hippie fathers did. If it was good enough for dad, the kids today want something different. We see that in a whole range of things, such as children who go off Facebook because their parents have joined. The fads on drugs seem to have the same trends.
Enforcement has worked exceptionally well in driving down the use of heroin, crack cocaine and other serious drugs. Enforcement can work equally well on psychoactive substances, provided that we can get the legislation watertight. The Government have tried enforcement with psychoactive substances by naming certain drugs, and within hours the chemical composition is tweaked slightly and the law is no longer effective.
Enforcement works, provided we have effectively drafted legislation. I entirely support the views of the noble Lord, Lord Condon. We have an urgent problem at the moment with psychoactive drugs. We do not need to review the whole of the drugs Act in this Bill. Maybe a review in a couple of years might be sensible, after we have seen how the legislation proposed in this Bill works. Finally, it is not a matter of enforcement or harm reduction, which are not mutually exclusive. We have been doing both in this country. It is right to have criminalisation and tough enforcement action against drugs and, at the same time, a harm-reduction policy that tackles drug use among first-time users and young kids, who probably do not know any better. Yes, we need education. Yes, we need harm reduction. But for goodness sake, keep the criminal law, which works.
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, yes, there may have been a reduction in the use of illegal drugs over the last five years. I know that Ministers have responded by saying, “We do not need to look at this any more, because drug use has plateaued and acquisitive crime has decreased, although drug-related deaths have increased”. Why has that happened? Not because of better enforcement but because, for the last 10 years, the Labour Government piled £800 million per year into drug treatment—and drug treatment that worked. That was a pooled, ring-fenced pot of money. We quadrupled the number of people treated, and it worked. For every £1 invested, within a year you had a £2 return and on a longer-term basis you had an £8 return. Drug treatment works. We do not have the same evidence for education prevention and we do not have the evidence for enforcement, but we do have the evidence that treatment works.
The problem is now that the £800 million a year has gone into Public Health England’s £2.6 billion budget, which goes to the 152 local authorities around the country to spend as they wish. That money is not ring fenced. There is no local authority in the country that has the expertise or the inclination to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on drug treatment. Instead, funds are rapidly being withdrawn and we see the outcome: we see drug services shutting down and we see drug-related deaths going up. I guarantee that within five years we will see acquisitive crime going up and drug use increasing again. This is not to do with enforcement policies; it is clearly to do with how we invested that money properly last time.
Again, I must disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Patel. Of course, harm reduction is good and of course treatment is essential, but unless we have Customs and Excise and the National Crime Agency and all the others interdicting tonnes and tonnes of drugs, we would need a lot more treatment because we would have a lot more drug addicts in this country. Enforcement has worked. Enforcement is driving down the use of those drugs which were rapidly increasing in the 1980s and the 1990s. There is no suggestion that that trend is wearing off, and there is no suggestion that enforcement is now failing with those drugs. Enforcement is failing in the new psychoactive substances for two reasons. First, the kids find it trendy and sexy to use them because they are not using the same old drugs that dad smoked. Secondly, we do not have legislation tight enough to enable the police and the enforcement authorities to use enforcement properly against those psychoactive substances.
My Lords, I support this amendment and the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Paddick, Lord Howarth and Lord Patel, but I have to say that I cannot support the noble Lord who has just spoken. This country has some of the strongest and toughest rules and legislation relating to drugs, yet we have one of the highest levels of use of the dangerous drugs that we try to ban. The reality is that we are not succeeding. Countries with relatively liberal, harm-reduction, health-focused policies do a great deal better than we do.
I want to use this opportunity to try to get across to the Minister and to your Lordships why I feel so strongly that we need a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act. I worked in secondary mental health for about a quarter of a century on and off, working with severely psychotic patients. I would say that the majority of those patients take cannabis. Why do they take it? They have told me many times, “Because it makes me feel human”. Thankfully, I have never had a psychotic illness, but if you do and you are given antipsychotic medication, the mix of the illness itself and the medication leaves you feeling, if I may put it this way, subhuman. You do not feel that you have any feelings; you feel dead. If you take cannabis, it makes you feel human. That is the word these patients use—“human”. In my view, that is not unreasonable.
If herbal cannabis is illegal, which it is, these patients along with all sorts of young people all over the country—I am slightly less sympathetic about them, but I am very sympathetic about patients—are driven to take skunk, very high THC cannabis, which is bad for their hallucinations and voices and makes them worse. But they still take the cannabis because it is so important to them to feel human. As I say, that is not unreasonable.
While they were within our services, these people were treated as patients because they had severe health problems. However, it always struck me as peculiar that when they left our hospital, day centre or whatever it was, these very sick people could be picked up by the police and charged with a criminal offence. Why? Because of their health problem. When our Convenor, as she was then, said when I came to this House, “Molly, you must put your name down on the ballot for a debate”, I said, “Oh no”, but I did and I won the ballot. I was told to produce a subject within the hour, and it came to my head that it would have to be about drugs. I feel strongly that our laws are illogical, unjust and cruel, and they are doing an enormous amount of damage to very large numbers of children and young people. That is why I cannot say that I am against the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick.
Of course I understand that this Bill is about psychoactive substances, and we will come to discuss them, but the fact is that we have only one market, and it is the market for illegal drugs. It is not a market for psychoactive substances over here and a market for controlled substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act over there. They are one market, and therefore it makes no sense to look at this market without looking at that market. That is why I believe firmly that the Government would find it very helpful to look seriously at how the market is working and to draw conclusions from other countries.
We will come to the experience of Ireland and psychoactive substances, where a ban has been in place for four years. What does the deputy chief of the drugs and organised crime branch say about the ban? It has not worked. Therefore, Ireland is thinking of going back to its misuse of drugs Acts. I think that we will be in the same position, so it is really important that we get the Misuse of Drugs Act right as well as the Psychoactive Substances Bill. If we do not, we will just go round and round in very unfortunate circles from one bad policy to another.
I have something else that I want to say. The Labour Party is worried about a delay in this Bill. It does not need to worry, because bans do not work. They have not worked in Ireland. A little bit of delay will not make any difference. We now know from scientists that, of the deaths which have been caused by psychoactive substances, maybe every single one of them—certainly 90% of them—has been as the result of young people taking banned substances, not legal highs. I want to make that point very strongly. A ban does not stop people taking a substance, and some of them will die from doing so. If low-level psychoactive substances were regulated and labelled, with the consequences of taking them clearly specified, the risks and side-effects explained and the maximum dose made clear—in the case of ecstasy, you must take water, but you must not take more than 1 litre, or whatever it is—they would be much safer. My only concern is the safety and well-being of our young people.
My Lords, one rises with some trepidation following that passionate plea by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, whose expertise, commitment and sincerity we all acknowledge and admire.
It seems to me that there are three issues before the Committee this afternoon. The first was gently but firmly underlined by the noble Lord, Lord Condon, and echoed by my noble friend Lord Blencathra from the Privy Council Bench. The Government are seeking in the Bill to deal with a specific problem: dangerous substances are legally available on our high streets and there is no doubt whatever, as the noble Lord indicated, that great harm has been done already. The Government committed themselves at the general election to legislating on the matter—and that they are doing by placing the Bill before your Lordships’ House.
The second issue, of course, arises from the amendment moved very moderately and quietly by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. Again, I do not for a moment question his knowledge as a former senior police officer, nor his commitment and sincerity. But I have to say to him—as he is already an accomplished parliamentarian, he will know that this is right—that the amendment he moved has some of the qualities of a wrecking amendment. It would delay for at least a year the implementation of legislation that is considered by many to be urgent.
This brings me to my third point. The noble Lord referred to the Salisbury/Addison convention that in your Lordships’ House we do not seek to vote down manifesto Bills at Second or Third Reading; nor do we introduce wrecking amendments that would either inordinately delay or negate the purpose of the Bills. I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, in his place. In his previous incarnation as Sir Robert Rogers, Clerk of the other place, he had to adjudicate on wrecking amendments—or those that could be so construed—because in another place there is an absolute rule against them: no such amendment can be selected for debate.
I am not suggesting that there is anything improper—far from it—in what the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, has sought to do this afternoon. Of course there is not; it is entirely within the rules of your Lordships’ House. But there is another convention that is not binding, as Salisbury/Addison should be, which certainly has governed the general conduct of our business in this place. It is the convention that in Committee it is desirable to have good, clear debate on a subject, but not to vote. There are exceptions—there have been in my time, in the past five years.
May I just finish this point? On the whole, the suggestion that in your Lordships’ House it is better to have a thorough debate in Committee, give the Minister a chance to reflect and then come back on Report if necessary has a great deal to commend it. This afternoon, we have on the Bench to reply to this debate my noble friend Lord Bates. He may prove me wrong this afternoon, but I regard him as an exemplary Minister who has proved on many occasions that he truly listens to debate in your Lordships’ House and often comes back with genuine recognition and concession. I very much hope that he will listen to the debate this afternoon in that exemplary fashion and reply accordingly.
I have heard a whisper that there could be an attempt to divide your Lordships’ House this afternoon. I very much hope that that will not happen because this is a profoundly serious matter—literally a matter of life and death for some people. It is crucial that we should have full and thorough debate. It is through that that we have earned our reputation for scrutiny, critical examination and the improvement of legislation. We have a chance to do that in this Bill, which, like every Bill, is far from perfect and is certainly capable of improvement.
I conclude by saying that I believe the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Condon: we are seeking to tackle a specific issue and the Bill is tackling that issue. We should take no steps that would frustrate that, and certainly not frustrate it at this early stage.
I put the same question that I asked the noble Lord, Lord Condon. I hear what he says about the relationship between the Bill and the general proposition in the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, that there should be an independent review of the operation of the Misuse of Drugs Act. Does the noble Lord support that?
If I may make one small point: any convention about not voting in Committee is very recent, and it is one determined by the procedures in Grand Committee. It is a waste of time for us to go over the same debate twice if we are determined to have a vote or if we feel that the answer cannot be given. If the noble Lord, Lord Bates, says that he is very positively minded towards this amendment—let’s face it, the smell ain’t exactly in the air at the moment—of course, there would be no need to seek a conclusion. If, however, he is not, why go through it again?
If that question was addressed to me, I should perhaps have given way earlier. There is every case for the most wide-ranging, critical scrutiny of any Bill. The point that I sought to make—I did not do so aggressively at all—is that in this House we tend not to vote in Committee but rather to reserve our votes for Report. There have been only a handful of such occasions in the past five years. That is all I am saying and I commend it to your Lordships.
It seems to me that the noble Lord has changed his mind. I want to be very clear. A convention is a convention and it is almost legally binding in some cases. Now he is saying that a habit has grown up that we do not vote in Committee. But it is only a habit, and in my view it is quite a bad habit. I hope that the House will not be swayed into not allowing voting in Committee to become a convention.
My Lords, I am puzzled. Somebody has lost the plot and it is probably me. I do not see why this has to delay the legislation at all. I follow that in this group, Amendment 115—the last one—would indeed delay the legislation. It involves an insertion into Clause 57, which is about commencement. However, I do not think that applies to any of the other amendments. On the face of it, Amendment 5 seems to demand the implementation of the Bill. How would one review its implementation under proposed new subsection (1)(b), except by bringing it into force and letting it go ahead? Unless someone can explain why Amendment 115 within this group necessarily has to be passed, I do not see that any delay at all is involved.
My Lords, if I may assist the Committee, clearly these amendments can be taken separately and, if the Committee is minded to say that there needs to be a review and no delay in giving effect to the legislation, that is a matter for the Committee. We are talking about the Misuse of Drugs Act in that amendment rather than the Bill, if that helps the noble Lord.
I acknowledge the strength of feeling of many noble Lords on this issue but I hope we can all accept that, whatever our view, we all have the interests and protection of young people in particular in the forefront of our minds when discussing this group of amendments and the Bill as a whole. That is not the prerogative of one particular point of view. The effect of this group of amendments—certainly its intention—is to put back the commencement of most of the Bill’s provisions for, in reality, probably at least 18 months after the Bill has been passed.
The proposals in the Bill for a blanket ban on new psychoactive substances have been supported by the New Psychoactive Substances Review Expert Panel, whose report was called for by one Liberal Democrat Minister and accepted by another. The ban has also been supported by a similar panel in Scotland, the Health and Social Care Committee of the National Assembly for Wales, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, the Local Government Association, the police and the two largest political groupings in this House, including the Opposition, at the recent general election. The Liberal Democrats said that they would clamp down on those who produce and sell unregulated chemical highs. That all these organisations, committees and parties reached their conclusion in either the face of all the evidence or the absence of any evidence—as has been implied—is unlikely.
We need to start to tackle the issue of legal highs now. The United Kingdom now has the second largest legal highs market in the world, beaten only by America. We are the top country in Europe for emerging new psychoactive substances. Over the past four years, hundreds of new internet sellers have been established in the UK, along with an estimated hundreds of specialist high street head shops. Beyond this, an unknown number of other stores, including late-night garages and takeaways, have started selling these products. In short, an entire industry became fully established under the previous coalition Government, selling and marketing dangerous drugs largely aimed at young people, many of whom would not otherwise have considered experimenting with drugs.
It also appears quite common in the legal highs market for legal high sellers to send out samples of new psychoactive substances to existing customers and use human beings as guinea pigs with no consideration of the consequences. The evidence also shows how far behind the market we currently are.
I thank the noble Lord for giving way. He says that head shops have no consideration for their customers. In our experience, head shops are the one outlet that do have to have some concern about their customers because, if they kill them or if they finish up in hospital, they will not come back for more and head shops will not make profits, which is what they are there to do. That is the one reason why, unpleasant though head shops are—and they are—if they were properly licensed and controlled, they would be rather better than the alternative: the black market.
I think I actually said that it is quite common in the legal highs market for legal high sellers— and there is more than one way of selling it—to send out samples of new psychoactive substances to existing customers and literally use human beings as guinea pigs, with no consideration of the consequences. I do not think that implies that everybody is doing that; it is saying that it is not uncommon for that to be the situation.
The evidence also shows how far behind the market we currently are. Substances were being banned following parliamentary debate earlier this year, when it had been known that sellers were sending out to potential customers samples likely to be toxic three years previously.
I wish to quote the Home Affairs Select Committee report, to which I referred earlier. I realise that some have already challenged this statement but it is set out in the Home Affairs Select Committee report. The report states:
“England and Wales has almost the lowest recorded level of drug use in the adult population since measurement began in 1996. Individuals reporting use of any drug in the last year fell significantly from 11.1% in 1996 to 8.9% in 2011–12. There was also a substantial fall in the use of cannabis from 9.5% in 1996 to 6.9% in 2011–12”.
That does not mean there is not still a problem, but the area where things have been going in the wrong direction, as identified in the report of the expert panel, has been as a result of the emergence of new psychoactive substances. The explosion of new psychoactive substances in the last few years is a unique phenomenon which warrants specific legislation. Some 670,000 young people in the UK were thought to have experimented with new psychoactive substances by 2013, and this is leading to an increase in deaths. To my knowledge, no new psychoactive substance which has been referred to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has been found to be safe.
We are not in agreement with this group of amendments, which will delay the introduction of key parts of this Bill, including the blanket ban, when the need for action to address the growing issue of new psychoactive substances, including through education, prevention and treatment, is now.
My Lords, for the third time, I ask the same question: if the link between delaying the Bill and the part of the relevant amendment which calls for an independent inquiry is broken, does the Labour Party support an independent inquiry into the operation of the Misuse of Drugs Act?
My Lords, it is wise to remind ourselves of what has been going on in relation to these substances in the past year or two. The system has been that, once a new substance is discovered, the procedures of the Misuse of Drugs Act have been used to add that substance to the prohibitions under that Act. It seems to me that the trouble with that is that it is very late in the day in relation to the emergence of the new substance. The purpose of this Bill, as I understand it, is to eliminate that particular difficulty and to make the provision operate in a general way so that you do not need to move, as in the past, during the emergence of a new psychoactive substance. So, that is what Parliament has been doing for some time. This seems to me to be a much better way to handle the problem than what has been available in the past.
I would like to point out that the Government introduced what I consider to be a very good instrument, the temporary class drug orders. These could be sped up. You can, or should be able to, put an order in place quickly for a 12-month period while an assessment is undertaken. If the drug is not deemed to be safe, it is placed under the Misuse of Drugs Act. There is an instrument in place.
From all his experience, does the noble and learned Lord anticipate that there may be problems in the criminal justice system over definition and establishing that a substance is indeed psychoactive; and that in the case of individuals it is their intention to supply illegally? Also, does he have any anxieties about the practicalities of enforcement? In the interests of the courts and of wider society, it is important that legislation that lays impossible burdens on the police, HMRC and other enforcement authorities is not enacted. They are going to have a large, complex and difficult additional set of tasks under this legislation, at a time of diminishing resources.
The impact assessment to some extent deals with that. It is plain that the difficulty has arisen in relation to the emergence of new substances whenever a particular prohibition is enacted. I hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, says about this. The problem is that by the time the enactment takes place, considerable harm may be occurring. The idea of this Bill is to prevent the production of these dangerous substances as a general matter of course.
Perhaps I might add to this conversation about the need for evidence. At Second Reading, on the matter of addressing the damage being done to these young people, Ireland was cited as evidence of the effectiveness of legislation.
I refer my colleagues in the House to a report made by a fellow journalist at the BBC. Following Second Reading he went to Ireland to examine what is happening with the Bill. Young people there are taking a great many of these legal highs. He found that one young man had hanged himself from a tree in the middle of the estate where he lived. The parents were frantic. In County Monaghan and in a number of towns my BBC colleague found that there was an abundance of these drugs, and that young people were turning to them.
After this young man’s suicide the police seized 34 grams. They offered it to the scientists, who analysed its contents. They said that they were not able to prove that it was a psychoactive drug. At that point the police were stymied procedurally, because the scientist to whom they turned could not verify the evidence they needed. My colleague speculated in a conversation with me that the police were turning back to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, because they did not know how to handle this matter.
What ties this issue, Ireland and legal highs to the amendment is that young people are turning to legal highs because they cannot get natural cannabis. That is the crucial link. If we are to stop these young people doing such terrible damage to themselves, we must consider the broader spectrum of motive that turns them towards these legal highs. Young people do not grow up knowing about them. They grow up in a community that perhaps 20 years ago was using cannabis plant. Now, the whole drugs business has accelerated to such an extent that millions of pounds can be made through criminal behaviour, and that has driven the legal drugs industry to invent more substances to market to young people. It is a desperate situation, but we need to examine and unpick the motives that drive young people into this market. That is at the heart of this amendment and the conversation about the Bill.
My Lords, first, I welcome the amendment and the way in which it was proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, because it has sparked a genuine debate, one of real high quality and passion on all sides of the argument. I thought that the arguments in the contributions we heard were pretty finely balanced for and against. I want to try to respond to some of those points. The point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, relating to Ireland is an example worth looking at. That issue comes up in a later group of amendments and I will be happy to respond in more detail at that point, if I can.
I want to pick up on the comments made by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. He talked about the difficulties that the Government are facing and about these new versions of psychoactive substances that are coming on to the market. In fact, the European centre that monitors these things is identifying two new versions per week. More than 500 have been identified and banned since 2010. That is the difficulty that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, touched upon when she referred to temporary banning orders. We have tried those so we have some evidence that they do not work, because the minute we clamp down on one substance, up pop another one or two—or three or 10—somewhere else. The challenges that we face are clear.
Another point in the evidence—evidence that people have cited in all their contributions from their different perspectives on this—for the Government to take action on this is that we are seeing a general fall-off in the use of drugs, as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, mentioned. The positive signs are there about the current approach to drugs. I will come back to this at some point but there has been an overemphasis on the Misuse of Drugs Act, which was a response to a series of international conventions, such as the UN convention. It recognised that the fight against narcotics and drugs was a global fight. We therefore introduced legislation but if there was just the Misuse of Drugs Act, as it was configured in 1971, there would of course be little support from any part of the House. The fact of the matter is that that is only one part of the legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford, talked about the excellent work being done in treatment and rehabilitation. There is work going on in education and very sophisticated work going on in policing, a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Condon. In fact, having been a commander, the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, was at the centre of the challenge of finding new ways to tackle those issues through law enforcement. There is a whole suite of different ways in which we are tackling this but across the majority of drugs and age groups, there has been a long-term downward trend in drug use over the past decade, a point made by my noble friend Lord Blencathra. Among 11 to 15 year-olds, drug use has been falling since its peak in 2003. More people are recovering from their dependency now than in 2009-10, and the average waiting time to access treatment is now down to three days. As a result of such innovation, the work that has been done in that area is providing alternatives and treatment. However, enforcement is part of that.
I come to the point that against the downward trend that we are seeing, in one area we see that the opposite is actually the case: usage is increasing and the number of deaths has almost doubled. There were 120 deaths of young people in 2013, and all the evidence is that that trend is on the rise.
The scientists who are advising me say that all the deaths have possibly been a result of banned substances which may be psychoactive or controlled. Four or five may possibly have been due to legal substances that had not yet been banned. A ban is not the way forward on that issue.
These substances are available. For example, a grandmother told me about the death of her grandchild, although it was not directly related to this. She expressed absolute despair that across the road from a school in Canterbury, 100 yards away from it, was a head shop selling “legal highs”. She believes that they are lethal highs. They are allowed to be traded, on the high street, to children way below any age of consent. There are no restrictions, as there are with alcohol and tobacco. Anyone can go in there with cash and come out with a brightly coloured package which actually says “not fit for human consumption” or “plant food”. Are we supposed to stand idly by when the Local Government Association is telling us that and when the police are telling us that they lack the powers to act? The Republic of Ireland has closed these shops down altogether. We need to get a clear and important message to young people that these drugs are not without risk.
No one is suggesting that we should stand idly by. No one is suggesting that these new psychoactive substances do not carry hideous dangers. No one is suggesting that urgent action is not needed. The question at issue is whether the policies in this legislation are well framed and well designed to address what is undoubtedly a very grave and serious problem.
That is not exactly what the amendment says and we see a risk there to the prospects for the Bill, which carries the support of the Official Opposition and was in their manifesto. It was in the Conservative manifesto that we would bring forward this legislation. Norman Baker, who was the Liberal Democrat Minister in the Home Office, wrote to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in the following terms:
“As our response makes clear, we will explore the feasibility of a UK wide new offence(s) by which the distribution for human consumption of non-controlled NPS is prohibited, based on the approach taken by the Republic of Ireland in 2010. This would give law enforcement greater powers to tackle NPS in general, rather than on a substance by substance basis. The international experience shows that it would have the most impact on the open availability of non-controlled NPS in high street ‘headshops’ and on UK domain websites, placing downward pressure on NPS related harms”.
That was from a Liberal Democrat Minister in the Home Office, not in history but in August 2014. Lynne Featherstone, who was then the Minister at the time, said on 11 March:
“I will be working right up until the dissolution of Parliament to ensure we have done as much as we possibly can to pave the way for a general ban. This will mean the next government can act quickly to clamp down on this reckless trade”.
Those are not the comments of some distant academic but the words of another former Liberal Democrat Minister in Her Majesty’s Government.
Action needs to be taken urgently to tackle new psychoactive substances, but we have not acted in a knee-jerk way, as has been suggested. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs looked at this in 2011 and issued a report saying that we should explore legislation to introduce a ban because it was clear that temporary banning orders were not working on an individual case-by-case basis. We then said that we would set up, in addition to that, an expert panel to take a broader range of views, including from law enforcement. That expert panel came to the view that there should be a ban on new psychoactive substances. That view was supported by the Home Affairs Select Committee and by the other committees in Scotland and Wales that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, referred to. It was also of course endorsed by action by the Government in the Republic of Ireland. This is not a knee-jerk response: it has been gathering pace over a period of some three to four years. We have been steadily building up and testing the case, listening to the police and local government, and finding out what is working and what is not working. This is what they have recommended that they want to see.
This is not the end of the matter. In the wider debate, there is no reason there cannot be ongoing exploration of the effectiveness of the Misuse of Drugs Act. The All-Party Drug Misuse Group frequently produces excellent and thorough reports looking at the effectiveness of that overall policy. The Home Affairs Select Committee has the ability to look at this, and has done so. I think that there have even been specific reviews of the Misuse of Drugs Act; for example, in 2001 under the Labour Government. I am going from memory there rather than the official note, so I have to be very careful, but I think it might have been Dame Ruth Runciman who led a review of that nature. This is about timing, and if we need something further, there are many excellent avenues through which that exploration can take place.
The Government’s response is that we have a piece of legislation—the Misuse of Drugs Act—and we have a cross-government policy, which involves health, education and law enforcement. We listened to that advisory committee, took further evidence from the expert panel and recommended the course of action which we are now taking and which this amendment would delay coming into effect. That is why we do not want this amendment to be agreed and why I urge the noble Lord to withdraw it. We have made our case and built the evidence, and we have a mandate from the electorate on the manifesto to act in such a way—as did the noble Lord’s colleagues who served in the previous Government.
My Lords, a few minutes ago in his speech, the Minister distinguished between the issue of new psychoactive substances—the substance, if I can use the word, of the Bill—and the review of the Misuse of Drugs Act. My noble friend will deal with the fact that those are linked but distinct and the fact that we are not seeking to wreck the Bill, as some have suggested.
I wanted to intervene because of the reference to the report of the expert panel. We will come on to some of these issues in later groups of amendments, but one of its recommendations was about exploring,
“the feasibility of an approach to control NPS”,
and referred to,
“taking into account the need for … a robust definition in the legislation”—
an issue we are clearly going to come to. It also referred to,
“monitoring … possible adverse implications and unintended consequences”,
which we will come to as well.
In the next recommendation it also refers to “robust” definitions and needing to build,
“on learning and evidence from countries that have already taken this approach”.
It is not quite as simplistic and narrow as perhaps some noble Lords might be thinking from the debate all round the Committee.
I certainly agree with the noble Baroness that the wider issue is not narrow, it is very broad, but what we are trying to do here with this Bill is very narrow. It is very focused and based on the evidence. The noble Baroness says that the two amendments are linked but distinct. Now she is a lawyer and I am not, but to me if they are linked then they cannot be distinct. They are linked in the sense that if they are both moved together, then one effect will be to have a review which will delay action being taken on this menace—or mischief, as the noble Lord, Lord Condon, said—which is happening up and down this country and through which people are suffering and dying. We need to take action and we are doing that on the basis of medical evidence, law enforcement evidence and evidence from the Local Government Association.
My Lords, the debate this afternoon has been passionate on both sides, and both sides of the argument seem to be equally committed to believing that their side is right. If ever there was an example of why we need an independent, evidence-based review, the debate this afternoon is it because everybody who has spoken in the Chamber this afternoon cannot possibly be right. We might agree to a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act, but people will then ask why we would want to link it to this piece of legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Condon, for whom I have a great deal of respect, raised this as an issue.
The fact is that somebody said that the definition of madness is to carry on doing exactly the same thing while expecting a different result. Some people brought forward evidence in this argument that prohibition and criminalisation of drugs do not work, which the Minister has countered. One of the campaigning organisations called Release, which no doubt has sent information to noble Lords, claims that the UK has the highest lifetime amphetamine and ecstasy use, the second-highest cocaine use and the fourth-highest lifetime cannabis use in Europe. Not everybody can be right on this and my real concern—there is some evidence which we will come to in future amendments when we consider the Irish situation—is that this Bill, or this approach of prohibition and criminalisation, actually makes things worse. It makes people less safe. It makes more people die. It gets more people addicted. What I am concerned about is, if we make even more drugs illegal, it will have completely the reverse effect to the one wanted by everybody in this House, which is to make it safer, to have fewer deaths and fewer people addicted. That is why this amendment is here. That is why this amendment is linked to this Bill and that is why I wish to test the opinion of the House.
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, at end insert—
“( ) Section (Control of Cannabis) provides for legal possession and supply of cannabis prescribed by a doctor.”
My Lords, this amendment is also in the name of my noble friend Lord Paddick, and I will speak to our Amendments 50 and 110. Amendment 50 is the substantive amendment and is about the use of cannabis for medical purposes, which was trailed in the previous debate by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher.
I cannot pretend to be an expert on the scientific and medical details of this issue, but politicians are not expected to be experts. We are generalists, here to represent strands of opinion and concern. As I cannot pretend to be an expert, it may therefore be that I will not understand the response from the Minister, except that I will almost certainly understand what will come as a no, judging by his Answer to the Oral Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, last Wednesday. On that occasion, the Minister said that the steps that she was inquiring about and that I am proposing in this amendment would,
“undermine … efforts to reduce drug harms”.—[Official Report, 17/6/15; col. 1158.]
But our concern is to enable cannabis and cannabis resin to be used for good and to reduce the danger of harm—we have many other amendments aimed at harm reduction. The matter was considered in 1998 by the House’s Select Committee on Science and Technology, which noted that it was rejected by the then Government on the day of publication. There have been other reports since, and very recently a report for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform by Val Curran, professor of pharmacology at University College, London, and Frank Warburton. I am very grateful for such a readable report. It is so readable that I was tempted to read the whole of it out because it is quite short, but I will not. I will spare your Lordships that and attempt to pick out the points that I think are particularly salient.
Professor Curran writes that the problem of,
“a significant number of people”,
“are not authorised to receive medication which they believe will alleviate their condition … are compounded by: An inflexible legal framework … A stranglehold on research into cannabis”,
and, as she puts it:
“A determination when considering medical licensing to equate cannabis, a well known substance in terms of its effects on humans and used medically for around 4000 years … with an entirely new chemical introduced by a pharmaceutical company”.
Therefore, Professor Curran and this amendment propose that these substances should be moved from Schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, which deals with substances perceived as having no recognised medicinal use, to Schedule 2, which would allow a doctor to prescribe them. They would be in the same class as heroin or diamorphine. I understand that there is no evidence of significant diversion of heroin from medical supplies to the illicit market—to anticipate one possible argument. They would be subject to strict controls via medical regulation, so the diversion to recreational use would be unlikely—to anticipate another possible argument.
Medicinal herbal cannabis is available in the Netherlands, in 23 states of the USA, in Canada and in Israel. Its most-established uses include the relief of pain and muscle spasms or cramps associated with many diseases and conditions, including multiple sclerosis and spinal cord damage, nausea and other responses during treatment for cancer and AIDS; and to deal with nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy used for that treatment. The particular cannabis substances are being exported from the Netherlands to eight other European states, including Germany and Switzerland.
In the exchanges on the Oral Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, last week, the Minister referred to the drug Sativex having been licensed here. Indeed it has been, but it is very expensive and NICE recommends that it is not used to treat spasticity in multiple sclerosis sufferers because it is not cost effective. However, specialist prescribers can and do make individual funding requests, which has led to wide variations across England, and in Wales its use is approved.
It is no wonder that, given no access to legal cannabis-based treatment in a practical sense and no access to herbal cannabis legally, an estimated 30,000 people in the UK find their own sources, with the concomitant risks of severe side-effects, greater potential harm, and no benefit because most street cannabis is skunk with a different make-up from Sativex and from the drug that is manufactured and exported from the Netherlands and elsewhere.
In the Netherlands there has been a genetic alteration to maximise the benign substance, CBD. There is no THC in the drug that is produced there. Professor Curran also reports on a “Stranglehold on research”, as she puts it, and that Schedule 2 status for cannabis and cannabis resin would “greatly facilitate research”. In her report, Professor Curran talks about the “costly obstacle course” and the delay taken by licence applications for use in research. She refers to practical problems such as the need to import cannabis, with import licences being granted for 12 weeks and expiring before all the arrangements for the import licence to be implemented can be made. She said at a meeting that I attended a couple of weeks ago that it is,
“a shame not to allow talent to fly”.
I could have suggested a more caveated amendment—for instance, starting with clinical trials—but I wanted at this stage to get to the heart of the matter. This is about facilitating and stimulating research in the UK into the drug and its constituents, above all by allowing the import of a drug that is widely used—and much less expensive—in the Netherlands, to enable patients to access it without breaking the law and without risking the harms of an unlawful drug without medical supervision or quality control. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak briefly to this amendment because the noble Baroness has said most of what I was going to say. The aim, of course, is to decriminalise the 30,000 patients in this country who currently take cannabis not because they want some sort of high—they do not—but because cannabis, they say, is the best drug for their particular pain, seizures or discomfort. It seems to me that that is important.
The types of illnesses that can be helped have already been stated: multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, chronic pain, glaucoma, and nausea and loss of appetite caused by chemotherapy. That is a lot of illnesses—disturbing and distressing illnesses—the symptoms of which can be alleviated by cannabis, so it does seem strange that there is such a resistance to reschedule cannabis from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2. Any substance from Schedule 1 has no recognised medicinal use. I just do not understand this, but maybe the Minister can comment on how any Government—it is not this Government; it is every Government—can continue to maintain that cannabis has no recognised medicinal use when Germany and Italy make sure that people with these illnesses can gain access to it. Germany and Italy and many countries across the world know that this is important for their populations. It would be really helpful if the Minister would consider that point.
I also want to draw the attention of the Minister and your Lordships to the extraordinary case of a little seven year-old boy called Jayden. Jayden suffers with Dravet syndrome—an extremely severe form of epilepsy—where he has at least 500 fits a day. He was on 22 pills a day including benzodiazepines. These medications plus the seizures resulting from the illness were giving him hallucinations and terrors. The poor child would scream for literally eight hours at a stretch until he was exhausted and presumably would fall asleep. His mother left home because she could not take it, so he was being looked after by his father.
When the child was four and a half, the father was told that he probably would not live another week. The father asked whether he should try medicinal cannabis. The doctor said that he should try anything, and so he did. The day after the child was given cannabis that the father had found in a chemist’s—this was in the United States; it could not happen here—the child suffered no fits, and then no fits on the following day. Since then he has had a small number, but nothing like before. He is now being painfully weaned off all the drugs that he had been taking, including the benzodiazepines. Anyone who knows anything about those drugs—I do not, actually—will say that it is excruciating to come off them. The poor boy has been put through all this, but he does now smile, walk and play in the water. But, of course, after all those seizures, I imagine that his brain is very damaged.
I have a five-minute clip, and I would ask the Minister to take five minutes of his precious time to look at it. I know that that is a lot of time in a Minister’s day, but even if one child is spared from going through the hell of that illness, I would suggest that that is well worth five minutes. This is a slightly cheeky request to make of a Minister, but it may be an important piece of work that the Minister could do.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has demonstrated why anecdote is no substitute for good research. I heard that word used, so it is important to ensure that any use of cannabis for medicinal purposes, for which I have some sympathy, has to be on the basis of clinical research which has been properly carried out and peer reviewed. NICE is a good organisation and I am sure that it would be prepared to take that on board.
In response to a Question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, last Wednesday, I did make the point that there is evidence from America that troops coming back from Afghanistan suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder resulting in terrible nightmares about their battle experiences have improved using cannabis. However, it is still something which needs to be subject to properly controlled clinical trials.
Something that is often done during a clinical trial is to put the drug out to people on a named-patient basis. Once the clinical trials have been done, one way to institute this is to put in place legislation whereby medication can be given on a named-patient basis. However, I cannot accept it as a blanket way of dealing with these problems.
I should like to make one simple point, which is that I agree absolutely with the noble Lord that what we need are clinical trials on medicinal cannabis. The problem is that researchers do not want to go into this area because the substance is illegal. Getting cannabis in is a tremendous problem because it takes a long time to get the licences. I do not know, but there are problems which the noble Lord may know more about than I. However, if adults and children in particular who are in severe pain and distress could be prescribed medicinal cannabis on a named-patient basis, that would be a good option. But certainly we need to get on with a lot of work on clinical trials.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Walton, who spoke last week during the supplementaries on the Question for Oral Answer tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on this topic, I served on the Select Committee which looked into the medicinal use of cannabis. One of the central recommendations was exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, has suggested. We need controlled trials. The noble Baroness has just backed up that suggestion as well. But it is very difficult to get these trials going. As she has said, because cannabis is an illegal substance, it is difficult to get people to agree to do the work. One or two trials have been carried out which resulted in the production of Sativex, but only one firm is producing it. As the noble Baroness said, it is terribly expensive and can be prescribed only on a named basis; it is very difficult for doctors to prescribe it to patients who have been shown to benefit from cannabis by getting it illegally.
One of the problems with getting cannabis illegally is that you do not know the ratio of the different cannabinoids in the illegal drug. It has been shown—this was told to us in our committee—that there is a huge range of effects from different cannabinoids. The one that gives the psychoactive effect, tetrahydrocannabinol— THC—is something that people who take cannabis for medicinal purposes do not like. But it is very difficult to find an illegal version of cannabis that contains a good ratio with more cannabidiol—CBD—which is the calming one that reduces spasms. Sometimes people have thought that it does not stimulate psychotic results but prevents them; it is an antipsychotic drug.
So there are real reasons why it should be made legal for researchers to concentrate on doing proper, controlled clinical trials to work out what cannabis can do, and what components or mixtures of cannabis components are most effective. This is crying out to be done, but as things are, it is very difficult to get scientists to agree to do it because of the illegality of the substance.
My Lords, I have no idea whether cannabis is relevant and effective in dealing with nausea or spasms caused by motor neurone disease or other diseases, but I have a wee bit of experience of multiple sclerosis, and I say to the House that I do not want to be used as an excuse to legalise cannabis, because it is not necessary for treating the spasms that come from multiple sclerosis; there is already a fairly large range of drugs on the market that deal with that.
The spasms are difficult to describe and usually happen at night. The main muscles of the body—the torso, the legs and the chest—just spasm, and it is difficult to get a bit of sleep when that happens. In my case, when it started getting bad, my consultant said, “In that case, we must give you a drug that will deal with the spasms”. At the top of the list is baclofen, which is dirt cheap and highly effective. The maximum prescribed dose is 50 milligrams. I take 10 milligrams in the morning and 20 milligrams at night and have had no more body spasms because of it.
Okay, I cannot speak for all multiple sclerosis sufferers. When I was a constituency Member of Parliament, I had constituents come to me who said that they wanted cannabis legalised so that they could deal with their MS. I said that there were clinical trials under way that resulted in the drug Sativex, but they were not so keen to take a pill; they wanted to smoke a joint because it made them feel better in many other ways. Well, it could, but I do not want people who wish to smoke cannabis to get high to use the excuse that it is essential for multiple sclerosis sufferers in order to remove their pain and spasms.
If baclofen does not work—it seems to work for about 95% of people—doctors usually try tizanidine: I will give the Minister the spellings later. Following that, going down the list, is gabapentin. It is not usually prescribed because the other two drugs are usually much more effective. At the bottom of the list is Sativex, which is the cannabis derivative. The problem here, as has been stated already, is that NICE reviewed it and concluded that it was not cost effective. Unfortunately, that is absolutely right, because it costs 10 times as much as baclofen, which I have in my pocket at this precise moment.
I therefore think that the solution is: patients should be prescribed baclofen. If that does not work, they can go on to tizanidine, and if that does not work they can try the next legal drug, gabapentin. If those three do not work, then people can be prescribed Sativex. I suggest that my noble friend the Minister should say to the Department of Health and NICE that in those priority corridors it should be permissible to use it throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. Wales overruled NICE and has allowed Sativex to be prescribed. It is not prescribed, except by private prescription, in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I think that that is wrong. It should be allowed to be used by doctors but not as the first port of call.
There is merit in rejecting the amendment as far as multiple sclerosis is concerned. It may be beneficial for other illnesses when people suffer spasms but it is not necessary to deal with the problems that occur with multiple sclerosis. I wish to put my liberal credentials—or near liberal credentials—on the table. A part of me takes the view that if people want to smoke a cannabis joint and get high, okay, let them but do not expect the taxpayer to pick up the bill for the cancers and other illnesses they may get later. Similarly, a part of me thinks that if people want to eat themselves through gluttony into obesity and sit on their backsides, taking no exercise, let them, provided the NHS does not have to pay for that.
As the taxpayer has to pay for these things and for the dangers which smoking cannabis can cause, the taxpayer and the Government must be in a position to say, “No, I’m sorry. You’re not allowed to smoke that because there are alternatives that can deal with the alleged problem”.
May I say how welcome it is to see the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm of Owlpen, on the Front Bench alongside her colleague from the Home Office? I hope that she will report this debate to her colleagues in the Department of Health. It is excellent that the two departments are represented on the Front Bench for this important debate.
The noble Lords, Lord Rea and Lord Ribeiro, spoke with all the authority of their medical expertise, and the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, spoke with the authority that comes from his own unfortunate experience. I follow the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Meacher, in commending to the Committee, and very much to the two departments represented on the Front Bench, the report just recently published under the auspices of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform by Professor Val Curran and Mr Frank Warburton, entitled Regulating Cannabis for Medical Use in the UK. Had they heard the presentation of this report by Professor Curran from University College London, they would have been persuaded that the arguments put forward are eminently reasonable.
She talked about the severe constraints applied to the progress of medical research by the Government of the United Kingdom’s persistence in listing cannabis in Schedule 1. She told us that it costs a minimum of some £5,000 to achieve the licence and to pay for the secure conditions to enable the pursuit of research into the medical properties and potential benefits of cannabis. That is a severe discouragement, particularly in the stringent climate of funding for academic research. She estimated that research on cannabis costs some 10 times as much as research on other drugs. It is a serious constraint, yet a significant body of evidence strongly suggests that cannabis-based medications can be beneficial for a whole series of conditions, many of which have been itemised by previous speakers.
The noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, drew attention to the tentative evidence that may be emerging of benefits in relation to post-traumatic stress disorder. That is certainly a pressing and important issue for us in this country, as well as in America. Professor Curran also told us that there are suggestions that cannabis could be beneficial in the treatment of schizophrenia. It would seem perverse in the extreme to continue to deny ourselves the opportunity effectively to pursue research on the medical benefits of cannabis when patients suffering from such a range of diseases could be assisted.
The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, feared that this could be the beginning of a wholesale loosening, and that if we were to license cannabis for medical research and medical use it might lead to widespread abuse and widespread additional recreational use. I do not think he need entertain that fear. Heroin has been in Schedule 2 for many years and there is no evidence of leakage of heroin, or diamorphine, from properly protected medical situations into the recreational market. No one is suggesting that facilitating further research and development of cannabis-based medications should imply any easing of security and protection and a loosening of the regime, such that the consumption of illegal drugs could be widely facilitated. Important evidence that that need not be so is presented in another recent report, in the name of Professor Deborah Hasin and her team, at the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University. They looked back at the evidence over 24 years, across a population of 1 million adolescents, to see whether, in the American states where cannabis use for medical purposes is legal, there has been any correlation with additional consumption of cannabis in those states and indeed in contiguous states. She found that there is no higher incidence of cannabis consumption in that group of adolescents than in the rest of the relevant population. I hope that somewhat allays the fears very naturally put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra.
The legal regime in this country at the moment seems substantially confused. It seems wrong in principle and very hard on individuals that a consistent policy is not applied across the country. This is because the guidance is uneven and the effects of the guidance certainly are very variously interpreted. I am aware of one person who has been prescribed Bedrocan because nothing else is as effective in assisting her in dealing with chronic severe pain. She has to go to Holland on something like a monthly basis to collect her medication, as I mentioned in the short discussion last week. It is a very harsh requirement to make of a person who is in great difficulties because of her pain and who does not have large resources of cash to cover the cost of travel and of buying such medication. Bediol, one of the cannabis-based medications available in the Netherlands is in many ways comparable in its benefits to Sativex and costs a fraction of the price. Dronabinol is in Schedule 2 under our system but it has not been approved by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. The system seems riddled with inconsistencies and needs a proper look to tidy it up and ensure that some principles are being applied and applied consistently.
I also echo the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, that it is wrong not to have a more humane understanding of the predicament of those 30,000 or so people who it is estimated are providing their own cannabis in this country illegally—because nothing else works so well for them—and of course risking prosecution. I understand that the Court of Appeal ruled out the defence of necessity in 2005. We do not seem to have a well-considered, consistent, sensible and humane set of policies.
I believe that cannabis should be listed in Schedule 2. The Government’s own Drugs: International Comparators report told them that the relative severity of different regimes makes no difference to the incidence of recreational usage. The fears that are associated with allowing, or facilitating, the medical use of cannabis are overstated and inappropriate. People should be prescribed cannabis-based medications, when appropriate, on a consistent basis across the United Kingdom.
My Lords, as far as I am concerned, the issues that have been raised in this debate are certainly ones that Ministers in the two departments would be well advised to consider. However, I wonder about the procedure that is proposed here for carrying out this amendment.
Amendment 50 states:
“Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State shall make regulations to amend the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001”,
and so on. The procedure for that is already laid down. I doubt whether it is correct for another Act of Parliament, as it were, to overrule the arrangements made in relation to that. That is rather technical but it is perfectly reasonable that the matter should be looked at by the Ministers.
As has already been said, one assumes—though life is full of surprises—that the Government’s response will be in line with the Answer that was given in this Chamber on 17 June to an Oral Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher.
This Bill deals with a particular issue—psychoactive substances—on which there is surely a need for specific separate legislation. The amendment we are discussing appears to be a considerable extension of the Bill, and an extension of the prescription of cannabis, which can be very harmful. One would not have thought that one would want to go down that road without clinical evidence and trials indicating that it was the right road to take and, if so, in what circumstances, for what drugs, and based on whose advice. No doubt I will be corrected if I am wrong, but I understand that at present the approach suggested in the amendment does not, for example, have the support of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Nevertheless, I await the Government’s response with interest.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for giving us the opportunity to have this debate. In some senses, it is a rehearsal of our discussion following the Oral Question she asked in your Lordships’ House last week.
The Government’s position is that we have no plans to reschedule cannabis. There is clear scientific evidence that cannabis is a harmful drug which can damage people’s mental and physical health, and which can have a pernicious effect on communities.
Let me deal with a couple of the points that were raised in the debate. In responding to these amendments, I remind the Committee that cannabis is a controlled drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and listed in Schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001. The 1971 Act will continue to regulate the availability of controlled drugs, and Schedule 1 to the Bill specifically excludes drugs controlled under the 1971 Act.
To move herbal cannabis and cannabis resin to Schedule 2 to the 2001 regulations, and thereby enable their prescribing, would amount to a circumvention of the established evidence-based regulatory process that successive Governments have had in place to ensure that products made available in the UK as medicines are as safe and effective as possible. My noble friend Lord Ribeiro made the point about the importance of rigorous clinical trials.
I shall come to that a little further on. The point made by the noble Lord about diamorphine, which is prescribed in this country, is perfectly fair. Interestingly, in some other countries it is not prescribed. There will be a difference of view. That is one reason why, from a government and policy point of view, it is important that we have the best possible scientific advice and give due regard to it. The advisory council is specifically charged with that under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971; that categorisation is its view. Should there be derivatives—I shall answer my noble friend Lord Blencathra’s point on that in a minute—we have the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which can offer some advice as well. Beyond that, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence can decide on the deployment.
That is not a case of policymakers passing the buck but of their basing policy on the evidence that comes before them. The Government’s position, based on the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, is that cannabis in its raw form is a harmful drug and its use should not be encouraged. The advisory council has reported that there is clear evidence that cannabis has a number of acute and chronic health effects, and that prolonged use can induce dependence. Even occasional use of the drug can pose significant dangers for people with mental health problems.
The Minister refers to cannabis causing severe problems for people with mental health problems. I hope he agrees that Professor Curran is the top expert on cannabis in this country. She has done a lot of research on cannabis with a balance between CBD and THC, and on CBD with little or virtually no THC. She found that that form of cannabis is an anti-psychotic. She believes that it is likely to be able to be used as an alternative to some of the anti-psychotics currently used, which we know have really unpleasant side-effects. There is the prospect of an effective anti-psychotic based on the CBD element in cannabis, but we want that research to be encouraged, supporting the point that we need clinical trials. Professor Curran is very keen for this research to go ahead, particularly in the field of psychiatry. It is she who wants the rescheduling of cannabis from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2 in order to facilitate the research. That is the issue we want to crack today if possible.
The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience has not taken a position. As we found out last week, medical opinions, as with legal opinions, fly effortlessly across the Chamber.
I want to make sure for the record that I have got something absolutely correct, as it is an important issue. I spoke about diamorphine in response to an intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport. Diamorphine heroin has internationally recognised medical uses in UN drug conventions and has UK marketing authority. I was therefore not too far off the mark in what I said, in the sense that it underscored the point that there is a process which we go through and there are conventions to help us.
The noble Baroness raised some specific cases. As a politician, I often find individual stories and experiences compelling. As a Member of the other place, along with my noble friend Lord Blencathra, I would often hear policymakers telling me one thing and then see people coming into my surgeries who were telling me something very different, so I find anecdotes a great help in understanding broader issues. I cannot find in my notes the name of the young boy with Dravet syndrome whom she mentioned.
There was a video, which I would be keen to see. Perhaps the noble Baroness could send me the link or I will happily sit down and watch it with her. During the Bill’s passage, we have tried to have meetings with all interested Peers. We have a meeting on health and education on I think 7 July. Notices will be put out to all parties, but that would be a good opportunity for people to come forward. I am thinking particularly of my noble friend Lord Blencathra, who gave us his personal experience of living with multiple sclerosis and its effects. The point about the alternatives might usefully be made at that meeting if he can attend, as I hope he will. As I say, details will be on their way.
The advisory council has reported that there is clear evidence that cannabis has a number of acute and chronic health effects, which prolonged use can bring about. That is why the trials are important and why Sativex went through that process. The position is that it can be prescribed by a doctor, after the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency issued a marketing authorisation.
I do not know whether I have failed the test but the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, set a pretty low hurdle as to whether the Government’s position had changed since last Wednesday. Policy used to change pretty quickly under the previous coalition Government, but now it is a little more set out. Our position is our position but generally, as matter of policy, we have to remain alert and open to the medical evidence being brought forward. The correct channel for that is though the advisory council, which obviously draws on a broad body of research and evidence. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving us the opportunity to explore that issue again and, with that additional assurance of a meeting specifically on health matters to give Members of the House an opportunity to talk to those making the decisions, I ask her to consider withdrawing her amendment.
My Lords, I cannot be disappointed because my expectations were not high. The Minister has been very generous, particularly on the Modern Slavery Bill, in holding meetings that included people from outside the House. I wonder whether we could bring into that meeting some who can speak much more coherently on these issues than I can. I do not ask the Minister to commit himself to that now, but perhaps I could put it in his mind.
I am grateful for the support for the underlying issue from the noble and learned Lord. I have often been asked about the high points of my career in this House and I have said that perhaps the highest of them—this shows what a rotten politician I am—was when, on a Bill on family law reform, the noble and learned Lord said from the Dispatch Box of one of my amendments to his Bill, “The noble Baroness’s drafting is better than mine”. That really was the pinnacle of my achievements in your Lordships’ House.
I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, has found a drug which suits him but, as I think he recognised, these are personal matters. I am quite puzzled as to the apparent differences between the physiologies of Britons—we are by no means a homogenous race—and those of people living in other parts of Europe. Clinical research is of course important and that is very much at the heart of this proposal, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said. I may have used this phrase already but Professor Curran said that research involving Schedule 1 drugs is “a massive uphill struggle”, for the reasons of time, cost and practicality mentioned in her report. Yes, Sativex is recognised but its expense, not its effectiveness, is the issue. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, mentioned Bediol, which I think is about 10% of the cost of Sativex. Perhaps this goes against my street credibility but it is important to say that I have in mind boring pills, not getting high from a joint. I want to make that quite clear.
The issue comes down to what is harmful. Skunk is harmful and I do not want to see people continuing to be driven to it, or having to find ways of getting the drug that helps them from outside this country. As I said, my expectations were not high but I am very grateful to noble Lords for contributing as usefully as they have, and at greater length than we did previously. I certainly look forward to discussing the matter with the Minister and his colleagues from the Department of Health pretty soon because whatever happens with an amendment to the Bill, the issue has to go forward. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Clause 1 agreed.
3: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Republic of Ireland: impact assessment
(1) The Secretary of State must conduct an impact assessment of the Republic of Ireland’s Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010.
(2) The Secretary of State must publish a report setting out whether or not the impact assessment under subsection (1) justifies the commencement of this Act in its current form.”
My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendments 109 and 114, which propose that the Bill should be implemented only if an impact assessment of a very similar ban introduced into the Irish Republic in 2011 is undertaken, and a report is issued setting out whether the assessment justifies the commencement of this Bill. The objective against which the Irish Act should be assessed must surely be a reduction in the use of dangerous psychoactive substances and the harms caused by them to the Irish population. I am sure that the Government’s aims in introducing this Bill are along those lines, or something similar, but perhaps the Minister could confirm that point. I hope that will not be a problem.
I certainly believe that the Government’s motives in proposing the Bill are entirely honourable. I have no doubt about that. Ministers want to see a reduction in deaths and injuries to young people resulting from the use of psychoactive substances. I am absolutely on the Government’s side in terms of these aims. I would support the Bill wholeheartedly if the evidence showed that the ban would work as intended. I therefore hope that this proposed new clause will be regarded as entirely uncontroversial, and I propose it as a helpful contribution and not as some wrecking amendment. We are very fortunate to have what must be regarded as a pilot for the Bill right next door in Ireland, where an Act has been in place and operational for four years. They have had four years of experience since their Act became operational. I therefore propose this clause as a helpful contribution.
The BBC has produced firm evidence that the Irish ban is not working. The EMCDDA also has concerns about the situation in Ireland. It talks about the levels of use of legal highs among young people. The average across the EU for 15 to 24 year-olds increased from 5% to 8% from 2011 to 2014, but the figures for Ireland are 16% in 2011 and 22% in 2014—the highest rate in Europe, despite the blanket ban introduced in 2011. I understand that there is a degree of uncertainty about the precision of those figures, but it would be sensible to be absolutely clear what has happened to use of and damage from these psychoactive substances in Ireland before we move ahead.
The other point is what has happened to the levels or numbers of deaths and serious injuries in Ireland following the introduction of that Act. Whatever the figures, we need to take very seriously the comments of the deputy head of the Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau in Ireland who, as I understand it, has said that the ban has failed and that they have not been able to operationalise it because of definitional problems. They have not got off the starting blocks, let alone explored whether the ban might work in other respects. As I mentioned at Second Reading, the experience in Poland of a blanket ban on psychoactive substances has coincided with an increase, rather than a decrease, in the harm to young people. A concern in Ireland, identified by the BBC, has been about whether they can determine if a particular substance is psychoactive or not. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, mentioned this earlier. As a result of that problem, it seems that Ireland is considering moving back to its Misuse of Drugs Act. I find that profoundly distressing because of my absolute lack of respect for our Misuse of Drugs Act, particularly in relation to consumption by children and young people and their criminalisation.
The Bill also seems to have definitional problems which could undermine it catastrophically. For example, Clause 2(1) defines a psychoactive substance as one that is “not an exempted substance”. For the latter, we turn to Clause 3 and Schedule 1. We see that alcohol, nicotine products and caffeine are exempted, but only if they do not contain a psychoactive substance. However, these are psychoactive substances; how can they not contain a psychoactive substance? Maybe the Bill intends to say that substances such as alcohol should not have any other psychoactive substance within them. If so, the Bill needs to make that clear. How on earth can we justify exempting a substance such as alcohol, which is profoundly psychoactive and dangerous, just because it might have some relatively marginal other psychoactive substance within it?
This confusion perhaps illustrates the utter nonsense—a word which I use very carefully, having thought about it for a long time first—which runs through our drug laws generally, of exempting dangerous psychoactive substances while banning much safer ones. Some noble Lords have referred to cannabis as a dangerous substance. I would completely agree that skunk, high THC cannabis, is dangerous but there are other forms which are absolutely not. Professor Curran is clear about that and certain forms of cannabis can, indeed, be good for you.
Another definitional problem relates to food. Apparently, a food is a substance which is, “ordinarily consumed as food” and would be exempt. However, what about a food containing a psychoactive substance which is only consumed by rich people or an ethnic minority and not ordinarily consumed as food? Rudi Fortson QC raised this and many other issues with me and questioned how a court could decide on whether a food was a food or not, depending on who ate it. There is a genuine problem there. From paragraph 10 of Schedule 1, it seems that a food is exempt if it contains a psychoactive substance which occurs naturally in the product and which is authorised by an EU instrument. Have the Government thought through all the foods in which a psychoactive substance—using the Government’s sweeping definition—naturally subsists but which might not be covered by an EU instrument? There may well be eastern, or other different, foods which would not be covered. For example, do flavourings and spices, which are obtained by a process of extraction and widely used in food, satisfy the expression “naturally occurring” in the substance?
Mr Fortson argues that the definition of a psychoactive substance in Clause 2(2) is far too wide. It includes all substances which affect the person’s mental functioning or emotional state. We know that Ireland has been unable to apply its blanket ban because of definitional problems. Will the Minister take this issue back and explore the potential for problems in the Bill? Mr Fortson provides other examples of such problems but I do not want to test the patience of the House too much so I will send some of them to the Minister for his consideration. I have, perhaps, said enough to justify asking the Minister whether he will revisit the issue of the definition of a psychoactive substance.
On a separate issue, we have evidence that banning substances does not generally lead to a drop in their use. I am grateful to Release and Transform for their briefing which pointed out that, in the year following the ban on the NPS mephedrone, use of the drug increased from 27% to 41%. Use of mephedrone only began to decrease once the availability and purity of cocaine and ecstasy were restored. In other words, the overall use of comparable drugs is not, apparently, affected by bans and changes in circumstances. Young people simply switched from one to another depending on purity and availability.
There is no reason to believe that this ban will lead to an overall drop in the use of dangerous psychoactive substances. I am sure the Minister and noble Lords would agree that is the essence of what we are trying to drive at. The Home Affairs Select Committee concluded, following their review of the drug policies of 11 countries, including pretty severe ones such as Sweden and more relaxed ones such as the Netherlands, that the toughness of drug policy does not appear to have a significant influence over the use of controlled drugs. Policy needs to be guided by this fundamental, evidence-based truth.
The EMCDDA has warned that a blanket ban will push NPS into the grey marketplace, that is, online and on to the darknet—whatever that is; I do not fully appreciate these things. The ban will also drive young people back to the drug dealers where they will buy traditional controlled drugs. I am sure the Minister will agree that both drug dealers and the darknet are even more dangerous sources of drugs than head shops. I would be grateful if the Minister will comment on this point in his response. He referred earlier to the dangers of people going to head shops to get drugs. We will talk about this later, but I want to make the point that head shops are businesses which want to make profits. Therefore, they are going to sell psychoactive substances but not dangerous ones. The web and back-street dealers are where the dangerous stuff is purchased. Much as we do not like head shops, they can be licensed and controlled by trading standards and the police. If that is done, and done well, I hope the Minister might think about whether there is some way to retain the market which exists in visible premises rather than driving it into the back streets and on to the web. I sincerely believe that would be a very dangerous move.
I end by referring to the European Commission’s regulation on new psychoactive substances, which was proposed on 17 September 2013 and passed by the European Parliament on 17 April. We need to learn from the work done by the European Commission in producing that regulation. In proposing this new clause, I am not suggesting we should have no legislative response to new psychoactive substances—I would not take that view at all—but we need evidence-based policy designed to reduce the harms caused by the risk-taking behaviour of too many young people. After all, as I say, these young people do not want to kill themselves or harm themselves. If we give them the right environment and the right information, we can keep them a lot safer than we are doing today or than we will do under the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I find it baffling that the Government, presented with the evidence from the two laboratory experiments that have taken place in recent years, in Ireland and in Poland, have none the less persisted in their approach of introducing a blanket ban on the supply of new psychoactive substances. As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has just told the Committee, in the four years since the ban was introduced in Ireland, following an initial dip in the use of psychoactive substances and a rapid disappearance of head shops, consumption of new psychoactive substances actually rose to higher levels than before. The Irish, it is reported, are the largest consumers of new psychoactive substances in Europe. That has followed the implementation of a ban essentially the same as the Government are now proposing to introduce in this country.
Similarly in Poland, three years after the ban was introduced, the number of what the Poles call “poisonings” has risen to above the level before the ban. The evidence is that, in the face of a ban and of the closing down of the sources of supply that users were previously availing themselves of, users have resorted to more obscure and more dangerous suppliers online. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has confirmed that. It also seems highly likely that, with the greater difficulty of obtaining new psychoactive substances, more people taking drugs will have resorted to taking controlled substances and, indeed, may have become poly-drug users.
There seems to be some very significant evidence available from the experiences of bans in these two countries to indicate that the Government’s approach is fundamentally misconceived. The Minister has insisted that the approach of the Home Office is always to base its policy on good science, good evidence and expert advice. How come then that, in the face of this evidence, it is persisting with the policy that it is presenting to the House in this Bill?
My Lords, I very much support what has been said on this amendment and, indeed, the amendment itself, in particular because we want to avoid driving those human beings who will go on using drugs underground. One small point I want to mention, before I forget about it, is that the impact in Northern Ireland should be looked at, because I wonder what has been happening across the border. The report by Mark Easton yesterday, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, referred, revealed the difficulty that the police have in proving that a substance has a psychoactive effect. That seems to me to be very much at the heart of this, with only four successful prosecutions in five years.
The expert panel talked about “robust” definitions and the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House reported, I think yesterday, on the need for certainty. The Joint Committee on Human Rights probably does not have its full membership yet, but no doubt it would have taken points on the importance of certainty in legislation—it did so for other legislation, particularly the recent anti-social behaviour Bill. The Constitution Committee said:
“The Bill inevitably exists in tension (at least to some extent) with the principle of legal certainty since its raison d’être is the regulation of activities in respect of substances that may not currently exist and whose nature and composition cannot readily be prescribed in advance with any accuracy”.
I thought that was very honest of it. However, it then went on to comment about not making,
“unacceptably broad inroads into the principle of legal certainty”.
We may come on to some of the detail of that on later amendments, but it seems to me to be very relevant to the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has made with this amendment.
A proper, independent assessment would mean that we had advice that was not from those defending their own scheme, which can sometimes happen. I hope that we can hear sympathetically from the Minister on this, because I have absolutely no doubt that the noble Baroness will pursue this matter throughout the passage of the Bill and she will certainly have support from these Benches when—not if—she does that.
My Lords, somebody has to give the Government some support on this. Amendment 3 talks in the first proposed subsection about an impact assessment and it being used to justify the commencement of the Act. I do not understand Amendment 109, but Amendment 114 is clearly about delaying the commencement of some provisions of the Act until the report of that assessment has been considered. Amendments 3 and 114 between them would delay the commencement of the Act.
Although the balance was a little uncomfortable, we had a very good Second Reading, in which it was clear that the central debate was about whether you believed banning produces a benign effect or not. That was the essence of the debate, as it has been of the debates we have had today. The position of the Government is that effective bans are benign in their effect; the position of Her Majesty’s Opposition is that effective bans will have a benign effect; and the position of the Liberal Democrats was—at least until the election, we thought—that effective bans had a benign effect.
I thank the noble Baroness for that clarification. As I say, we are divided between those who believe that banning has a benign effect and those who do not.
This is a simple, fairly narrow Bill to close a loophole in the 1971 Act which is growing exponentially. We believe that it is appropriate that this loophole should be closed urgently and that there is sufficient evidence to proceed to close it with this Bill, which we believe should be introduced as soon as reasonably possible. We believe new psychoactive substances are not safe and we want them to be illegal as soon as reasonably possible.
I thank the noble Baroness for introducing this amendment. I am conscious that if I had had the opportunity it would have been impolite to have sought the advice of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay on the amendment because, of course, it has the heading “Republic of Ireland: impact assessment”, and goes on to tie us to a piece of legislation. The problem with that is thinking back through the history lessons and what the Anglo-Irish treaty and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921 might have made of that strong connection. It is probably more uncomfortable for the Irish than for us, but it is an interesting tool to link their legislation with ours because we are two sovereign countries and two different systems. We approach a common problem but understandably, as we do on many different things, may choose to do so in different ways—not so, of course, when it came to this piece of legislation.
I will set out the legislation in the Republic of Ireland a little because in the headline of this debate we are invited to say what assessment Her Majesty’s Government have made of the effect of introducing a ban in the Republic of Ireland. That assessment was set out in the expert panel’s review last year since the ban in Ireland came into force in 2011 following the 2010 Act. The expert panel went away and evaluated that. I have a long section in my speaking notes which I will try to avoid reading out and I will just cite it. Page 38 of the expert panel’s report sets out the basis by which it concluded that there was evidence that this was the model which should be followed. In addition to that on page 38 there was also the Scottish Government’s—
It may be relevant to note on the record that when the BBC journalist began interviewing a very senior official, that official said, “Oh yes, the ban has been going well”, and it was only through rather expert probing by the BBC journalist that gradually the truth came out that the ban was not working at all as anticipated. So in terms of an expert panel from Britain going over, I think we need to be aware that the Government need to do more work on Ireland.
I will come to that in just a minute because it is a specific point which the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, raised in the earlier debate on the issue of the “Newsnight” report, of which I have read a transcript although I did not actually catch it last night. I want to address some of the points in there. What I am going through is the methodology by which we arrived where we were. Taking the amendment at its word, we are effectively deciding whether we should delay the progress of the UK introducing the new psychoactive substances legislation and the blanket ban in order to undertake an assessment of how effective the 2010 Act has been in the Republic of Ireland. Our view on that is no, because that assessment has already taken place in the expert panel review and—
The Minister invited us to look at page 38 of the expert panel’s report, where it recognised that there were some risks. It said that:
“A precautionary principle would now be used rather than one of acting proportionately in response to evidence of harm”,
and went on to suggest that very significant difficulties would attach to this approach. It was by no means unambiguous in its recommendation of the blanket ban.
Let me try to avoid the ambiguity in it. The expert panel recommended that there should be a blanket ban. A blanket ban in the Republic of Ireland had been operating for three years, so it had had an opportunity to look at that. It looked at New Zealand and what had been happening there as another example. I can also point to the report in March from the Health and Social Care Committee of the National Assembly for Wales, in which recommendation 13 of its inquiry said:
“The Committee welcomes the Home Office’s expert panel’s recommendation of a ban on the supply of NPS in the UK, similar to the approach introduced in Ireland”.
I also have a quote from paragraph 4.23 of the report from the similar expert group set up by the Scottish Government:
“The Group agreed that there are a number of benefits to the Irish model, which could strengthen the tools that are currently available and being used by agencies to tackle NPS supply in Scotland”.
What I am doing here is piecing together the information to show that we did not whistle this out of thin air. Some serious people—whether you agree or disagree with them—looked at what was happening in Ireland, and this was their conclusion on which they based their recommendation.
To the next point, I am very much with the noble Baroness. I happen to think that one of the things with which we got close to this, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was the Modern Slavery Act. It is without doubt the piece of legislation in either place with which I am most proud to be associated. One reason why was because of the process in which it actually engaged. It listened to the people who were on the ground, it talked to people, it talked to the experts, it framed legislation, it had pre-legislative scrutiny and there was an ongoing system of monitoring. Also, the Government committed themselves to proper post-legislative scrutiny; we will need to look at that. Should your Lordships and Parliament determine that the Bill gets on to the statute book, in our plans, although there is no set time for it, in a period of three to five years and certainly within the lifetime of this Parliament there will be some post-legislative scrutiny.
The other point which I make in passing here is that, if our friends in the Republic of Ireland were to undertake an impact assessment of our politicking to tackle this, it might not look so sharp. They would say, “Well, what has the UK been doing popping around with temporary banning orders, and every time they tweak one molecule the perpetrators and the traffickers simply change the packaging and change the molecule? What a ridiculous system that is”. In a sense it can go both ways and we must be conscious of that critique of us.
Can the Minister go back to his point on post-legislative scrutiny? I think the House at a subsequent stage may feel much more comfortable with this Bill if he were able to make some time commitment about when that would take place. Clearly he cannot now but I would be grateful if he would consult colleagues and see if he can be a little more specific at a future stage.
Of course we will take it into account, but should we necessarily stop taking our own advice and implement what has been recommended to us until that time happens? Of course this is a fast-moving world in which there are very devious forces—“ingenious forces” is the correct term—using their dark methods to perpetrate these drugs, which are blighting the lives of communities. That was a key message that came out of the “Newsnight” documentary. Here was a community that was absolutely blighted. Unless I actually misread the transcript that I saw, the people there certainly were not saying, “Hey, listen, let us just have a free-for-all”. They were saying, “Where are the Gardai? Where are the police? We want them to come down, because these drugs are running rife in our community”.
Of course, there will always be chancers—we will come up with one answer to this, then people will come up with something in response, whether it is on the dark web or elsewhere. One of the wonderful things about this House is that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, who is an acknowledged expert in drug policy, mentioned the dark web, while behind her sits the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, who can offer her a tutorial on the dark web if required. The point is that we are all moving in the same direction.
I am conscious of the figures that have been put out in the Eurobarometer poll, which talked about the level of usage. This figure should be viewed with caution, because: the sample for each member state is relatively low, at 500 respondents; the questions used have changed over the years, making comparisons over time less reliable; and the Eurobarometer survey tends to overestimate usage when compared to more robust surveys.
As I touched upon earlier, we can say categorically that prior to the introduction of the Irish legislation in 2010, 102 head shops were operating in Ireland. After the legislation came into force, the trade virtually disappeared, and the Garda drugs unit told the BBC just last week that the head-shop trade has gone. Furthermore, no Irish-domain web pages selling NPS are still in operation. Those are examples of concrete progress. They may not address all the points, but I hope that they might demonstrate to the noble Baroness that the Government have considered this.
One has to think about whether the demolition of the head shops is a positive or a negative when you consider that the young people will have moved from the head shops, which do not sell very dangerous substances, into the dark web and the back streets, where they will buy very dangerous substances that are completely unknown to them, which probably do not have any kind of labelling at all.
We can debate what benefit labelling that says “Plant food” or “Not for human consumption” is. The fact is that the head shops are absolutely at the heart of this problem. I, for one, will be very happy if they are removed from our high streets, as will the Local Government Association and countless parents who are worried about the availability of drugs—earlier I gave an example from Canterbury. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will consider withdrawing her amendment.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Obviously, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, my expectations are not massively high at this stage of proceedings, but I look forward to discussions with the Minister between now and Report on some of these issues. I have a great regard for the Minister with regard to his willingness to listen and certainly to learn from professionals who, with any luck, will be able to come to a meeting with us. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
4: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
Following the commencement of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish a report annually setting out the impact of this Act, including on deaths and other harms caused by all controlled and banned substances.”
My Lords, Amendments 4 and 6 seek to ensure that following commencement of the Act, the Government will undertake an annual impact assessment of the Act—as the Minister has indicated he might be willing to do anyway—including an assessment of,
“deaths and other harms caused by all controlled or banned substances”.
The important points in that sentence are “all controlled”, under the Misuse of Drugs Act, and “banned substances” under the Bill. Of course there is always an interrelationship between those two groups of substances, as I mentioned in an earlier debate. In addition, the Government would have to,
“publish a report annually setting out the impact of this Act”—
again, including information about the impact on the number of deaths and other harms caused by all these controlled and banned substances.
The point behind these amendments is that, as I mentioned earlier, we do not have two separate markets: one for substances controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and another quite separate one for psychoactive substances that will be controlled under this legislation. The reality is that once substances are illegal, they join a single market and are purchased from the same illegal drug barons or from the web. This is an absolutely crucial point, which runs through a number of these amendments. Social media are also absolutely vital in this. It is through social media that young people immediately communicate about a banned psychoactive substance or something new arriving from somewhere, or that a traditional drug such as ecstasy has suddenly become more pure, and the young people will all rush into that area of the market rather than moving from one market to another.
For those of us with a substantial concern about the unintended consequences of drug policies in this country and across the globe, this is a profoundly important amendment. The point is for the Government to begin to move towards a rational, evidence-based drug policy. If they do that, it will be the first time in 50 years that any Government will have done it. That is a fairly remarkable point for anyone in this House to make, but it happens to be true. In that sense, how can the Government not do what this amendment suggests? It is interesting that the Minister indicated that perhaps this is one area where the Government might be willing to move towards us. Let us hope that that happens.
It may be that in view of that offer from the Minister, I do not need to continue with this speech. I was going to give examples of how these things happen, but if we are going to have a dialogue about a genuine impact assessment of the Bill when it becomes law, I hope that we are all on the same page at this point. On that basis, I beg to move.
My Lords, I just wonder whether it would be for the Secretary of State to monitor this. I would have thought that the importance of this topic, particularly in the light of the concerns that the noble Baroness has expressed, would merit post-legislative scrutiny by a committee—usually a Joint Committee of both Houses—rather than by the Secretary of State. There is room for that sort of consideration to be kept in mind. I think that the Minister has given at least some encouragement to that and I certainly think that that would be a good thing to do, rather than have the Secretary of State in a sense being his own monitor in this area. It is better that it should be independent, in the sense of being done by Parliament.
My Lords, I suggest that post-legislative scrutiny would be assisted if the Home Secretary, on behalf of the Government as a whole, were to make an annual report to Parliament along the lines that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has suggested. I propose that an annual report from the Government as a whole should cover the three principal strands in the drug strategy introduced by the coalition Government in 2010: reducing demand, restricting supply and building recovery.
I hope that the annual report would begin with a presentation of the facts, in so far as they had been ascertained by the Government, and that it would cover developments in the usage of drugs of all sorts: controlled drugs, psychoactive substances under the terms of the Bill, exempted substances under the terms of the Bill, and prescription drugs of which there is abuse. I would also want to see a breakdown by age groups and by regions. We need to know about consumption patterns—whether the consumption of one drug is being displaced by consumption of another; what new drugs are available to consumers in this country; what the most popular ones are, and the ones about which there is the greatest cause for anxiety. We need to know about developments in purity, potency and toxicity.
I hope that the Government would advise Parliament on the development of markets in drugs and tell us what us has happened to the head shops, year by year. Maybe they will all close down quickly, as in Ireland. If so, I hope that the Government would then tell us where people are finding their drugs—perhaps from online sources such as the surface web, but perhaps from the grey net or the dark net. All this is usefully discussed in a preliminary way in the latest annual report from the European monitoring centre. But 18 months ago, the European monitoring centre reported that there were 651 websites selling drugs to Europeans. We need to know what the evolution of this online market is and about the shifting locations. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, told us just now that, following the legislation in Ireland, Irish web-based domains were closed down. But we know that at the same time the consumption of new psychoactive substances has risen in Ireland. Where, then, are Irish consumers obtaining their drugs? We would need to have that equivalent information here. We need to know about patterns of social media use relevant to the drugs trade and what is happening in terms of street markets and gangs.
I hope also that the Home Office would report to Parliament on the drugs situation in prisons, which is an extremely disturbing situation, one understands. Which drugs are most in use in prisons? How have they been obtained? The Home Office should report on any issues there may be about corruption in the National Offender Management Service; on the effectiveness, as it believes it to be, of the means it is using to try to reduce drug consumption in prisons; and on the effectiveness of rehabilitation. Very importantly, the Home Office needs to report on the question of continuity. What happens to prisoners when they leave prison? Do they continue to have the benefit of rehabilitation services? What is the relapse rate? The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, told this House, perhaps a couple of years ago, that the Chief Inspector of Prisons had reported that in Her Majesty’s Prison Oakwood it was easier to obtain drugs than soap. We need to know what progress the Home Office and the Government as a whole are making with regard to prisons.
We should be advised on the Government’s dealings with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs—what advice they have sought from the council, what advice they have received from the council, what advice they have accepted from the council and what advice they have rejected from the council. In the case of rejection of the council’s advice, I hope that the Government would offer a reasoned explanation as to why they have declined to accept the advice that the ACMD has given—as has occurred on a number of occasions in recent years.
We should be told what drugs have been newly controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act regime and about how, in practice, the relationship between the various relevant regimes—the MDA regime and the regime created under this legislation in respect of psychoactive substances and exempted substances—relate to each other, and whether it is effective co-ordination or the Government see problems in having at least three different systems of regulation operating concurrently. I hope that we would hear about the dealings of the Government with other consultees and partners: people with academic expertise, the voluntary sector, non-governmental organisations and other expert organisations.
We should be provided with information about the state of forensic services, about which the Home Secretary has recently expressed her own personal anxiety. We will come a little later in our proceedings to talk about the possibility of a network of testing centres. Do the Government think that that is desirable? If so, what progress is there in making testing facilities widely available around the country? We will need a report on progress in education and training, but, again, we will have an opportunity to discuss those issues more extensively a little later.
I hope that we would hear about the impact of drug usage of all kinds—controlled drugs, psychoactive substances and the exempted substances—on health, society and the economy. The European monitoring centre has particularly asked the Government to monitor acute drug-related harms. Again, I would expect to see their response to the EMC reflected in the report. Of course we would want to know about the progress of treatment and engagement strategies with different groups of consumers or people at risk.
We should hear a report on enforcement and the strategies of the NCA, the police and Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. If the online trade is thriving, and if that is becoming the principal source of supply, we should be advised what percentage of postal packages, for example, the system is able to check for drugs. We should also know what percentage of shipping containers the Government are able to inspect.
Surveillance will be another important component of the report. What powers are the Government using to ascertain what is going on in the drugs trade, particularly the online trade? We need to know the statistics on the usage of data-search powers and have an assessment of their effectiveness. Perhaps a little later, the Minister will give us some preliminary thoughts on how the enforcement regime that the Government are proposing to create through this legislation will relate to the new surveillance regime, which we understand the Home Office will introduce later in the year. Undoubtedly, these things will need to be understood in conjunction.
The Bill creates powers of prohibition notices and prohibition orders, and we would want to hear about the incidence and effectiveness of the use of those powers. We would want to know the number of seizures and successes, but also about the challenges that the Government identify. The new stop-and-search powers created in the Bill are another appropriate subject for report and we will debate those towards the end of Committee.
We would need to hear about the Government’s progress in dealing with the problems of money laundering and the extent to which the proceeds of the drugs trade are thought to be funding terrorism. We will need to know about the costs of enforcing this regime—not just to the NCA, the police and HMRC but to the Financial Conduct Authority, which I think has lead responsibility for dealing with money laundering; the criminal justice system, which, for example, will incur costs in hearings in the attempt to establish definitions of psychoactive substances; and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. At Second Reading, the Minister was kind enough to say that he would follow up the point I made previously, that when mephedrone was banned, the Government did seek to come to an understanding with the Chinese authorities so that they would facilitate the effective interdiction of supply. However, it appears that that did not work very well because production shifted to India. We will want to know what part the Foreign Office is playing in assisting the Home Office to make a success of its strategy.
The local government dimension is hugely important. The Minister has explained that the Government are acting in response to pleas from the Local Government Association, and we all understand how very unpleasant and difficult it is for people if they have head shops in their neighbourhoods and the anti-social behaviour that may be associated with that. But there will be costs for local government in training and maintaining in the field the numbers of trading standards officers that are going to be needed and, I dare say, in prevention, more youth workers. Again, it would be useful to know what is going on there. The Department of Health will have a whole complex story to tell.
I think that the Government would owe it to Parliament to provide in the annual report a cost-benefit analysis of the overall strategy: have they found, with experience, that the policy is working as they hoped? How does it need modification? What do they see as the way forward?
I acknowledge that all this may make for quite a long report, but I think that it would be very interesting and worthwhile and a very useful form of accountability of government to Parliament.
My Lords, I am sympathetic to the noble Baroness’s amendment. Of course, we need some monitoring information and we need information around effectiveness, but I am just not sure that the Home Office or a government department is the right body to produce such independent information. It may be, but I have my doubts.
My main concern about the noble Baroness’s amendment is the timescale. Having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, I am now very concerned about the timescale if the Government, or anyone else, attempted to report on the wide range of things he has suggested. I am not being facetious, but it struck me that compiling a report of the length that the noble Lord wants would probably end up taking longer than the new sexual abuse review by the distinguished New Zealand judge. I do not mean that as a facetious comment or to diminish the work she is doing.
The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, and many others in this Chamber have some experience in government. I think we know that if a government department were to produce a report within 12 months, it would have to be approved by the Cabinet at month 11. This is a territorial Bill and would need to go round all the territorial Governments in months 9 to 11 to be checked by them. It would need to go round the UK government departments in Whitehall, probably in month 8 or 9, to be amended by them, which means that the Minister in the Home Office, or wherever, would need the first draft in about month 6, which would mean that civil servants would start writing it in month 3.
I say to the Minister: if the Government have to produce a report, preparing one within 12 months of the Act would not be sensible. It would be impossible—no, it would not be impossible, but it would include only a fraction of the information that one would want. There may be merit in the Government producing a report, but not of the length that the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, has suggested and certainly not within the 12-month timescale.
We have an amendment in this group and it is not about post-legislative scrutiny. It calls for the Secretary of State to publish an annual report on new psychoactive substances and sets out some of the information that must be included in the report.
There is currently a real lack of data collected and published on new psychoactive substances and their impact. For example, the first indication of a new drug tends to come from a hospital admission. If this happens in the United Kingdom, the National Poisons Information Service is informed and it then advises the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drugs Addiction. The EMCDDA tells the National Poisons Information Service of drugs detected elsewhere in Europe. However, the Home Office keeps its own lists, the main one being the forensic early warning system, and, to date, successive Ministers have been unable to explain the relationship between the EMCDDA list and the Home Office list, which suggests that data are not being collected and published in a consistent or helpful way. Similar problems arise with monitoring drug-related deaths and overdoses. No proper data are collected on drug deaths as the data we have rely on examining countless records, which is why they are often incomplete and take years to publish.
There is a significant problem, too, with hospital admissions. The National Poisons Information Service collects new drugs but does not collect data on all drug- related overdoes. We do not know how many hospital admissions result from taking these new substances. Nor do we know in how many cases new psychoactive substances were a factor for those needing to access mental health services. Anecdotal evidence suggests that legal highs are a major factor, especially for adolescent mental health services.
In their response to the expert panel, the Government accepted the importance of information on new psychoactive substances and that it should be shared systematically at both a local and national level in a timely manner. However, the Government did not appear to accept the current inadequacies in the information, including those to which I have referred.
The expert panel said that, with the rise in the availability of NPSs, coupled with possibilities for NPS market development via the internet, the UK drug scene had become increasingly complex and fractured, and that a number of information issues arose from this. These included,
“the difficulty for any one agency to keep to keep abreast of all the new developments … the acknowledgement that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 needs to be supplemented by other legislation has meant that more professional networks require information including trading standards … the current time lags involved between data collection and publication of data obtained by current networks mean these systems cannot be employed in the service of providing more timely early-warning-type information; and … the need to collect, analyse and distribute information in a more systematic and timely fashion to help inform policy and practice at both a national and local level”.
Frankly, the Government’s response did not address all these issues since there seems to be a view that the forensic early warning system’s annual report can fit the bill. In its recommendations, the expert panel says:
“There is a need to establish prevalence, evidence and harms associated with NPS”.
It suggests that we should:
“Develop detection and data collection tools across criminal justice and health services, and other relevant settings, for example, schools and universities”.
A recommendation refers to developing,
“internet tools to monitor internet activity around NPS”,
and to the need to:
“Record health and social harms related to NPS by utilising professional networks and other early warning systems … understand local markets, including through headshops, retail outlets, prisons and local police assessment”.
On enhancing the share of information on NPSs, the panel said:
“Sharing information at both local and national levels is essential in helping to achieve a reduction in the demand and supply of drugs and in promoting comprehensive and effective interventions”.
It is fairly clear from the report of the expert panel that it does not think enough is currently being done in the area of the provision of information. The purpose of this amendment, as I said at the beginning, is to provide for the Secretary of State to publish an annual report on new psychoactive substances. The amendment sets out, in not quite so extensive a list as that of my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport, some of the information that should be included in that report.
I hope the Minister will reflect further on this issue—the importance of information on NPSs—and the adequacy of the current information and the systems and methods by which it is provided. Our amendment gives the Minister the opportunity to do just that and I hope it is an opportunity she will take.
My Lords, I waited until this moment to speak because it seemed unfair to comment on the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, without his having spoken to it first. I have some sympathy with what the Labour Party is proposing, but I prefer Amendments 4 and 6 proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for the very reason that she articulated. The market for new psychoactive substances and that for other substances covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act cannot be treated as separate. The whole reason for the existence of new psychoactive substances is the controlling of other drugs. There would be no need for people to develop so-called legal highs if they could get the high legally from controlled drugs. It is essential that the annual report includes exactly what the noble Baroness proposes: an assessment of the impact on health and the social harms brought about by the Misuse of Drugs Act and this Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, gave a long list of things that could be included in the report. If everything he suggested was included, it might not only put the Government off producing the report but put me off reading it or trying to wade through it. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, that post-legislative scrutiny of a Bill such as this by a Joint Committee of both Houses would be appropriate, but it should not mean that there should not also be an annual report, because things are changing so quickly. We have heard from other noble Lords about how different drugs come into mode and out again. We therefore need an annual assessment of whether the legislation is still fit for purpose.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Howarth, for setting out the case for their respective new clauses. In one way or another, these all require an annual report on the impact of the Bill, and we have covered a huge amount of ground. Let me say at the outset that good lawmaking absolutely dictates that all new legislation should be reviewed post implementation to consider its effectiveness, and this is no exception. We are committed to post-legislative review of all new primary legislation. I can therefore assure the noble Lords and the noble Baroness that the Government fully intend to carry out a review or reviews of this legislation, once implemented.
Of course, data are hugely important, and it is important that we take in all aspects of the Act. It is right that the evidence required to produce an adequate review of the Act is fully and carefully considered. However, it is really important to remember that, given the time lag of some of the key data sources, it is unlikely that any useful data will be available within the first year of the implementation of the Act. Such a review normally takes place three to five years after Royal Assent to allow for a rich source of data to be collected, particularly if we are going to collect the amount of data that I feel is important, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, suggested. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Blencathra said, it takes time to collect the data. It is important for the departments to conduct a particular review to make sure that they have everything in place. Certainly, in this case, we would not want to wait three years to review this legislation.
Understanding the evidence for and against the different legislative options to tackle the growth of psychoactive substances was central to the terms of reference of the Home Office’s New Psychoactive Substances Review Expert Panel, set up by the Liberal Democrat Minister Norman Baker. Alongside the expert panel’s report, the Home Office also published an evidence review last autumn. This set out the available evidence at the time on psychoactive substances. The review examined the identification of new psychoactive substances, along with the characteristics of users and their motivations for using these substances. It also examined the market and the evidence of harms. The evidence review provides us with a good basis for understanding the extent of the market, the uses and the problems associated with new psychoactive substances, and for measuring any changes over time.
The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, also mentioned that it was necessary for a wide range of data to be collected on the prevalence of traditional illicit drug use and its related harms. While the evidence on psychoactive substances is less established, there are data on a number of previously unseen substances identified in the UK, as well as on the prevalence of the use of some types of psychoactive substances, related deaths and treatment demand. Of course, the monitoring of data, along with the way they are collected so that they can be strengthened to provide a more complete picture of the use and harms of psychoactive substances, will continue over the period until a full review is done.
I would expect any such review to include the kind of information outlined in Amendment 105, to the extent that it is available, as well as examining more generally the workings of the Act, the current nature of the psychoactive substances market and the present harms that we are seeing in the UK. Additionally, the advisory panel will of course be continually monitoring the harms presented by these substances in order to assess whether they need to be made subject to tighter control under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
As I have indicated, it is now an established practice for all new primary legislation to be subject to post-legislative review. Given that such reviews are now routine, I hope that perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and the noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Howarth, will accept that we do not need to provide for this in the Bill. Even if a case could be made for such a provision, I would have strong reservations about the necessity for an ongoing requirement to publish an annual report, because of the problems that I have already stated. I will happily share with noble Lords our plans for the review of this legislation once they are further developed. Of course, I am more than happy to reflect on the debate between now and Report. With that, I hope the noble Baroness will be content to withdraw her amendment.
Before the noble Baroness tells us what she wishes to do with her amendment, I want to say that I do not think that the issues raised in Amendment 105 will need three years. They are about the collection of basic data, where we appear to have a distinct weakness, which was identified by the expert panel and was the subject of recommendations by that panel. Why do we need to wait so long to address an issue of concern to the expert panel; that is, the lack of data?
I just want to explore the point in Amendments 4 and 6 that, because there is only a single market that incorporates all the controlled drugs under the 1971 Act and psychoactive substances, post-legislative scrutiny will not make any sense unless it looks at the overall impact of this Bill. For example, what we can expect to happen is that if you ban synthetic cannabis, people will move straight over to the cannabis controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act. If you ban a substitute for cocaine, people will move straight back to the natural cocaine, if you like, that is controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act. In order to assess the impact of the Bill, it will be essential to look at the overall consumption of illegal, banned drugs and the deaths from those drugs. The deaths may move across from one type of drug to another, as would the harms and so forth. It is essential that the Government begin to look at this as a single, illicit market for banned substances. Does the noble Baroness agree that, therefore, post-legislative scrutiny has to look right across the piece?
I am not sure whether it is fair to ask the Minister this, but perhaps her noble friend sitting beside her will find an opportunity to comment. While I readily accept that it is unrealistic to expect the Home Office within 12 months to produce a report remotely of the range that I suggested, none the less over time the compass of the report should grow so that it does address itself on behalf of the Government as a whole to that range of issues and concerns.
I wonder whether some of the difficulty that the Government may find in producing an annual report on their policies in relation to drugs and how they are proceeding may be because there have been such extensive reductions in staffing in Whitehall that it is very difficult for departments to get this work done. It would be helpful to have some comment on that and on the structure within government whereby the Home Office works in co-ordination with other government departments in the broader strategy to deal with the problem of drugs, to which I understand that Government are committed.
I thank the noble Lord. I have a lot of sympathy for what he said, and I think that it is right for us to go away and reflect on this and come back at Report. Of course, the Home Office has every intention of reviewing the Bill once it is implemented. We just do not feel we should put such a commitment in primary legislation. It is in our interests to consider the impact of this Bill and how the psychoactive substance market is changing to ensure that both our legislative and non-legislative responses are as effective as possible. Having said that, of course we will go away and think further on this.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who contributed to this debate, particularly the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, for his helpful proposal that there should be post-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee. I hope that that can come about. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, that that sort of scrutiny does not detract from the need for the Government’s post-legislative scrutiny, so I think that we are all going in roughly the same direction.
I was very pleased with the noble Baroness’s response about the recognition of the single market for these illegal drugs, because it would be an enormous step forward if we stop seeing these things as separate and start examining what is going on across the piece. That has all been extremely helpful. The timeframe is an issue: three to five years seems an awfully long time particularly as some of us do not really expect this legislation to work, especially bearing in mind the Irish experience. It is a great pity—Ireland is now four years on and still wondering what to do.
Given all of that, this is Committee and we have had a useful debate on this issue. I look forward to meeting Ministers between now and Report. On that basis, I am more than happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.
Amendments 5 and 6 not moved.
Clause 2: Meaning of “psychoactive substance” etc
7: Clause 2, page 1, line 14, after “Act”” insert “synthetic”
My Lords, in moving this amendment, I will also speak to Amendment 8. I apologise that these have all come one after another and I was not anticipating that, but I will speak extremely briefly, noble Lords will be pleased to hear.
These amendments seek to limit the scope of the Bill to those substances that are synthetic—produced by chemical synthesis rather than grown naturally. The Government’s manifesto commitment, if I understand it, was to ban new psychoactive substances. All such substances identified by the EMCDDA have been of a synthetic nature. To broaden the scope of the ban beyond the limits of substances that are synthetic will create far more unintended consequences than I believe the Government really had in mind.
The point behind this amendment is that the Bill as it stands is disproportionate and will engender an intolerable degree of legal uncertainty for an awful lot of people—researchers, medical people or whoever—who have no interest in consuming these substances but may be involved in handling them. Actually, one should extend that to people who are in the commercial sector trading, producing and so forth who may need to use these substances and really do not want to be questioned by the police.
It would be helpful to know why the Government have extended the scope of the Bill to include natural psychoactive substances. Are the Government aware that there are many natural substances, included in perfumes and other products, for example, which could be caught unintentionally by the Bill as it stands? We had a debate earlier about the whole business of definition and in a sense that comes up here again. Things might be a bit simpler if the Bill were limited to synthetic substances. Will the Minister explain to the House what investigations have taken place to establish the unintended consequences of the extension of this definition to include natural substances? I beg to move.
My Lords, my noble friend and I have Amendments 9 and 10 in this group. Amendment 9 presents me with a dilemma, given the comments that we have been making about what has been happening in Ireland. Amendment 9 would import into the Bill the Irish definition in terms. Given where we are and given that the definition in the Government’s Bill is more telegraphic than the Irish one, I would nevertheless like to hear what the Government have to say about the differences.
I and other members of the Committee will have received from the Minister a response to points made at Second Reading, for which I am grateful. In response to one point that I made, the Minister wrote that,
“we have retained core elements of the Irish definition but sought to refine it so as to make it more concise”—
given the length of most of our legislation, that is not the most persuasive argument that I have heard—
“by removing reference to different substances and behaviour changes, and remove the element of subjectivity inherent in … the word ‘significant’”.
I understand that the Government do not want this to be read subjectively, but can I add a thought? Different people react differently and they react differently to different drugs. We have heard that. There is something in the connection between that and subjectivity and maybe neither of us is quite right, but there is an issue there. The Minister talked about removing reference to behaviour changes. The point about the Irish definition is the impact on behaviour changes.
The second limb of Amendment 9, which is not an addition to the first because it does not qualify the first, refers to the substance having the capacity, as in the Irish definition, to,
“cause a state of dependence, including physical or psychological addiction”.
We are told that that has been removed because the Government have,
“concluded that this was captured as part of affecting a person’s mental functioning or emotional state and was unnecessary duplication”.
That surprises me. The Irish looked on it as an alternative in their definition. Perhaps the way I can best put it is to ask how the scientists look at this. I would have thought it was completely separate from affecting mental functioning or emotional state and is therefore not an unnecessary duplication.
The second of our amendments, Amendment 10, would leave out the term “or allows” from Clause 2(3), where,
“a person consumes a substance if the person causes or allows the substance … to enter a person’s body”.
Would the Minister expand a little on that in particular? I think he is aware of this specific question—whether it somehow goes further than, or is different from, what is brought into the Bill by the element of recklessness in the offences clauses. Is allowing something to enter the body different from being reckless as to its consumption?
My Lords, the definition of a psychoactive substance in the Bill does indeed seem to me rather vague. We should be grateful to both noble Baronesses who have so far spoken in this debate for pressing the Government to tighten the definition and to give us some clarification. It would be helpful if the Minister would explain to the House the basis upon which he was able to give us an assurance—I thought he gave it rather tentatively and with less than full confidence—at Second Reading, that if he were to send a bouquet of flowers for the gratification of Lady Bates, he would not be in breach of the law. I see that it is suggested that incense might be caught under the law. How can he be sure that all kinds of substances and activities that, on a common-sense view, people would regard as innocent may not in fact be caught?
I would also like clarification—if this is not leaping ahead too far—as to what is, in Schedule 1, a traditional herbal remedy. The term is terribly loose. I fancy that it is going to be quite difficult for police officers or courts to be very clear what the term “traditional” in a legally binding context means. How in practice does he foresee psychoactive substances are going to be identified? Will there have to be tests in court? That would seem to be expensive and disproportionate. Will there have to be a large number of placebo-based comparative scientific trials? Again, that would seem expensive, disproportionate and impractical. I think he owes it to us to clarify a little further than the drafting of the Bill does what he means by psychoactive substance.
My Lords, I would be interested in hearing the Minister’s response to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. She seems to have a fairly good point—to me as an amateur anyway.
I wish to make my remarks mainly about Amendment 9. This may be heretical to noble and learned Lords and parliamentary draftsmen, but why can we not have the Government’s definition and the definition in Amendment 9? Definitions are going to be the big problem with this Bill—everybody recognises that—and I see no merit in brevity of definition if it makes for confusion. On the other hand, we do not want it to be tautological and we do not want too big a definition which is contradictory. I am sure that noble and learned Lords and parliamentary draftsmen will ensure that that does not happen. I ask the Minister to keep an open mind on this and be relaxed about extending the definition or picking up bits of Amendment 9 if it helps to bring more clarity, irrespective of the length of the definition.
My Lords, I shall comment briefly on this group. I hear the debate on Amendments 7 and 8 and will be interested in the Minister’s response. On Amendment 10, similarly, we will be interested in the Minister’s response.
On Amendment 9, I see this Bill—and I will be grateful if the Minister can flesh out whether he sees it in the same way—as a very narrow Bill. Broadly speaking, everything is illegal except the things that are defined as legal. Bringing in the word “significant” seems to me to be getting into significant bad and not significant good, and therefore we are into the area of legal challenges et cetera. The idea of the Bill, I think, is to be free from legal challenge and that is why it is formed in that way. The Minister will no doubt enlighten me.
The point of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, on the process—of how the judgment will be made that a substance is psychoactive—is a good one. I would be grateful if either now, or perhaps in writing, the Minister could spell out how the Government envisage determining whether a substance is indeed a psychoactive substance.
My Lords, these amendments seek to reframe the definition of a psychoactive substance for the purposes of the Bill. This Bill is designed to capture substances supplied for human consumption that have psychoactive effects. Its aim is to capture substances that are not currently controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, but, as with all drugs when misused, carry health risks.
Subsection (2) provides that,
“a substance produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state”.
We accept that this definition has been drawn purposefully wide. The nature of this market and of experience to date shows that producers of the substances are constantly and actively looking for loopholes to exploit, thereby fuelling this reckless trade. This learning has been central to how we have designed this Bill and in particular our definition.
By using a definition based on a substance’s effects rather than the chemical composition of substances, this legislation will avoid the issues that we have continued to face with the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Many new psychoactive substances are still legal due to the speed at which they are produced, with manufacturers inventing new substances by tweaking chemical formulas in order to avoid the existing controls. The need to capture such a wide range of substances, and any that might be invented in the future, necessitated a broad definition. The definition is in two parts: the trigger and the effects. The main effect of psychoactive substances is on a person’s brain, the major part of the central nervous system. By speeding up or slowing down activity here, psychoactive substances cause an alteration in an individual’s state of consciousness.
Amendments 7 and 8 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, seek to restrict the definition of a psychoactive substance so that it captures only synthetic substances. The nature of this market and of experience to date shows that producers of new psychoactive substances are constantly looking for loopholes to exploit, thereby fuelling their reckless trade. There are any number of natural products—such as fly agaric mushrooms and salvia divinorum—that are openly on sale in head shops and elsewhere which are far from safe though they are not banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The Bill should give us a proportionate way of dealing with these substances as well.
Amendment 9 seeks to import the definition of a psychoactive substance—
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I would like to understand—maybe if I had heard some of the other amendments I would have understood, but I am not sure I would have done given the comments that have been made—how, if the police, for example, have seized a product which may or may not be a psychoactive substance, they assess whether it is going to have these effects on somebody’s brain. Do they feed it to a tame police officer, or to a young person whose brain may be less developed? How is this going to happen? Is that something that then has to be replicated in a court room? What is the process going to be for saying, “This is definitely a psychoactive substance”? How will they tell?
That is a good point. There are a number of ways. Perhaps I may make the point that I have been trying to set out the terms so that a future reader of the Official Report may actually be able to deduce—I will be careful here—what the Government intended when they set out the definition in this particular way. The noble Lord’s intervention is entirely appropriate and I do have an answer which I will give to him, but I want to make sure that we do not lose the flow of what underlies this, which is the rationale behind the definition.
There are a number of ways, and these include data based on a human user’s experience, argument by analogy and in vitro neurochemical profiling. Working with the Centre for Applied Science and Technology at the Home Office, we will identify and build the capability in the UK to meet the demand for this new forensic requirement, as well as working with the Office of the Forensic Science Regulator to ensure that the high standard of quality that forensic evidence meets is maintained.
The Home Secretary has written to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs seeking its views on how we can strengthen the UK’s forensic capacity and capability to support the implementation of the legislation. We remain ready to consider carefully any recommendations the council may have about other aspects of the Bill. We will continue with the forensic early warning system, which has enabled forensic providers more easily to identify new psychoactive substances coming on to the UK market through the provision of reference standards and establishing a new psychoactive substances community. I am sure that that has entirely answered the noble Lord’s point.
It seems to me that this is a fairly crucial part of the Bill because the argument, quite rightly under the present procedure, is the length of time it takes to ban a psychoactive substance. I have listened with interest to what the Minister has said, and I suspect he has listened with interest to what he has been reading out—I am not trying to be rude; I mean that. But what is really needed is an indication of how long it is going to take to ban one of these substances as compared with the current procedure. What the Minister has said does not help me form a view on how long it will take to ban such a substance in the future, compared with the current situation, and that surely is the key aim of the Bill: being able to ban these substances with a degree of rapidity.
That is so, and many a true word is often spoken in jest—such as when the noble Lord talked about my going through the answer which has been provided. I accept that the key point here, which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, was getting at, is to look at how a police officer would actually start the process of gauging whether a person was being disorderly, search them in the belief that they are in the possession of a new psychoactive substance, and then, if they find something, how it will be determined whether that substance is banned. I am going through the process whereby the substance will have to be sent to the lab, where it will be tested for certain chemical compounds which might be on a list or subject to a temporary banning order.
What we are saying is that a different approach will be taken in the future. We are setting up a very broad definition in order to avoid the constant race to hybrids and changes which officers are facing on the street. We arrive at a definition which is set on one day, but the substance has miraculously morphed into something else the next day and gets through the loophole. What we are dealing with here is a definition of the effect which a substance has or is intended to have on the person who is in receipt of it.
If I make a little more progress on my brief, the position might become clearer. The nature of this point is our experience of the loophole, which I have covered. There are any number of natural products, which takes me to Amendment 9. The amendment seeks to import the definition of a psychoactive substance used by the Republic of Ireland in its Criminal Justice (Psychoactive Substances) Act 2010. Indeed, we used the same definition as a starting point. As the Committee might imagine, during the drafting of the Bill we discussed the definition with counterparts in Ireland, and in Australia and New Zealand, and with scientific and law enforcement experts. Following this advice, we have retained the core elements of the Irish definition, but have sought to refine it to make it more concise.
On the first limb of the Irish definition, we judge that a more general description of the effect of the stimulation or depression of a person’s central nervous system is preferable to what could be an incomplete list of different behavioural changes. On the second limb—that the substance causes “a state of dependence” —we concluded that this was captured as part of affecting a person’s mental functioning or emotional state and was an unnecessary duplication. We have also removed the element of subjectivity inherent in the use of the word “significant”. Substances that might have a mild psychoactive effect, such as food, are of course exempted under Schedule 1.
The focus of the Bill is the production and distribution of psychoactive substances for human consumption only. It is therefore important that the Bill addresses how a substance might be consumed. Clause 2(3) provides for this and makes it clear that an individual consumes a substance if they cause or allow the substance, or fumes given off by the substance, to enter their body in any way. This will include injecting, snorting, inhaling and smoking, as well as eating or drinking.
Amendment 10 seeks to narrow this definition so that the circumstances in which a person allows but does not cause the substance to be consumed are taken out of the scope of the Bill. We are mindful of the need comprehensively to capture all methods of taking a substance into the body and not allow any loopholes which will give the suppliers of these substances a “get-out”. I recognise the concern expressed at Second Reading that, under the definition we are proposing, any number of products may be inadvertently swept up. I recall the example of flowers, although my recollection is that they were flowers for my noble friend Lady Browning, which may have caused even more concern to Lady Bates.
I will send her chocolates.
I can assure noble Lords that we are dealing here with the trade in new psychoactive substances. In looking at the workings of the Bill it is necessary to consider the definition of a psychoactive substance alongside the elements of the offences in Clauses 4 to 8, which we will come to shortly. It is not correct to equate the effect of a scent wafting through the air with the direct inhalation of fumes, such as from a solvent, and the offences apply only where a substance is likely to be consumed for its psychoactive effect. We may all appreciate the sight and smell of a fine bouquet of flowers, but we are not consuming the flowers or their scent for their psychoactive effect.
The noble Baroness asked whether the reference to “allows” in Clause 2(3) goes further than the recklessness test in the offence clauses. The noble Baroness is, I fear, seeking to compare apples and pears. In Clause 2 we are not dealing with the mental elements of criminal offences. The phraseology in Clause 2 is designed for a wholly separate purpose compared with that used to determine the mens rea of the various offences, so the question whether “allows” is a higher or lower test than recklessness does not arise.
I shall respond to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. The ban will come into effect as soon as the Bill is brought into force. What we are debating here is the quality of evidence required to pursue a successful prosecution. As I have said, we have asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to provide advice on how we can strengthen our forensic capacity to this end. It goes without saying, therefore—given that we are consulting widely on this— that the opinions and views of your Lordships’ House will also be helpful at arriving at that definition of minimal harm.
For the avoidance of doubt, I think that something should be done in this area and I am concerned that the Government’s proposals may not work.
I understood what the Minister read to us, in terms of the guidance on how you would test. It seems to me that the case rests on this: you have a substance that you think is psychoactive and you need to test it, because you need to establish whether it raises or depresses someone’s mental state. Does this mean that it has to be tested on a human being? If so, what are the arrangements for doing it? What are the safety provisions, given that some of these substances are extremely dangerous? Is there, therefore, a process that we can use when we think something is a psychoactive substance but the only way to find out is by finding a human being and testing it on them?
If that is not the case and the intention is to look at whether a substance is chemically similar to something else, you are back in the same routine of demonstrating that this is a small variant on something seen before. That is what I am trying to establish—the practicalities. Here is something. We have found it. We think it is psychoactive. Can we do something about it? Most Members of this House—there are a number of exceptions —think that something should be done. How do we know that something is psychoactive?
That is a fair point, in that it is asking how this will be tested. We will come to those points because we are going to deal, to some degree, with medical testing and how it is possible to license some of these drugs so that they can continue to be tested. We were talking earlier about how universities and research institutions can continue testing on drugs such as cannabis. That is a key point: that testing will go on. I will make sure about that before Report.
I am happy to do that—let us set the matter out in writing. However, I want to state two basic principles that I hope that the noble Baroness in particular may just accept and will enable her to withdraw her amendment. First—going back to the first point—is that what is being sold in our streets and in head shops has never been tested on anything or anyone, yet is consumed by people in this country. That is the basis on which we are taking action. Secondly, we are mindful that the skilled perpetrators, manufacturers and distributors of this drug are in the sights of this legislation because we want to target them rather than the individual user. When they see a written definition they then go and find a potential loophole, something else appears on the market and the Bill becomes ineffective. We want to avoid that. Those are the two principles in play.
In the context of those two principles I am very happy to write with more detail on the mechanics of how that might be done, and perhaps a little more—looking at the Bill team—about the process we went through in consulting, to arrive at this definition. I hope that that will be helpful to the House and I undertake to do it before Report.
My Lords, when we talk about “banning”, we mean the substance being used to commit an offence under the Bill. There are two ways of reaching that conclusion. If you see someone taking a tablet or a substance and suddenly his mental state has been altered, cause and effect is likely to be demonstrated. The second way is that if you know the nature and qualities of substances, when you analyse the substance you may be able to do it that way too.
The important thing, however, is that it is not a question of the substance not being banned until you discover it: the definition applies right from the beginning. As the Minister said, when the Bill becomes law, substances with that character become the possible ways of committing the offence. The question of whether a particular substance is of that character can, I think, be approached in these two different ways, according to what is convenient in the circumstances of the individual case.
My Lords, before the noble Baroness responds, may I ask a question? It will display the depths of my ignorance, which will gratify the noble Lord, Lord Harris, who can never resist teasing me. If one has a herbal product and it is genetically modified, does that make the outcome synthetic, or does it remain herbal?
I thank the Minister. I also thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I spoke extremely briefly but it has proved a very illuminating debate. We have drawn out a number of issues, and I am grateful to the Minister for his reply and for agreeing to write to us about these matters. I hope that in that letter he may be able to answer the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about herbal remedies that are genetically modified, because I would not presume to take the place of a Minister in these matters.
Could the Minister also clarify whether, in tweaking the Irish definition of psychoactive substance, the Government have gone back to the Irish and to their experts to seek their opinion on whether this adjustment to the definition will overcome the apparently insuperable problems that the Irish have encountered? It is incredibly important that we accept and acknowledge that the ban in Ireland has failed and that we make sure, before this Bill is through, that it is adjusted as necessary to become a useful tool in the armoury of government drug policy. With that I am content to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 7 withdrawn.
Amendments 8 to 10 not moved.
Clause 2 agreed.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.28 pm.