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Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2019

Volume 799: debated on Monday 15 July 2019

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2019.

Relevant document: 53rd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, this draft order differs from recent amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 in that it is based on changes to scientific and technical detail in existing legislation and does not introduce further controls on compounds under the 1971 Act. I thank the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs—the ACMD—for its expert advice on this technical matter, which has informed the draft order before the Committee.

The order was first laid before Parliament on 4 June. Its purpose is to amend Schedule 2 to the Misuse of Drugs Act by reducing the scope of the generic definition of the third generation of synthetic cannabinoids. I assure noble Lords that this amendment does not repeal the generic definition of synthetic cannabinoids under the Act, and compounds commonly known as Spice and Mamba will continue to be subject to controls under that legislation. The measure is brought forward as a result of the recommendation from the ACMD published on 22 December 2017.

It may be helpful if I explain to the Committee the history of the control of synthetic cannabinoids under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, as it helps to frame the context of this amendment. The ACMD, the independent experts who provide advice to the Government on the misuse and harms of drugs, first published guidance in 2014 on the third generation of synthetic cannabinoids. This is a group of compounds that mimic the effects of cannabis and are commonly referred to by brand names such as Spice and Mamba. The ACMD recommended that synthetic cannabinoids should be captured under a generic definition—as class B drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act—due to their associated harms and widespread availability, and it followed the control of the first generation of synthetic cannabinoids in 2009 and the second generation in 2013.

The ACMD advice also recommended that these compounds be placed under Schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, as it could not determine any known medicinal or therapeutic benefits from these drugs. Any drugs listed under Schedule 1 are deemed to have little or no known medicinal or therapeutic benefits and can be legally accessed only with a Home Office licence, which is generally issued for research or industrial purposes.

Shortly after these changes came into effect on 14 December 2016, representatives from the research community contacted the Home Office and the ACMD, informing them that a large number of research compounds not suspected as being synthetic cannabinoids were inadvertently captured under the generic definition. As a result of the controls placed on these compounds, institutions had to obtain Schedule 1 licences to conduct certain aspects of their research. The licensing process ensures that there is a minimised risk of misuse and diversion of, and harm from, controlled drugs. However, the Government have no desire to unnecessarily impose licensing requirements where compounds do not pose risks of harm. Accordingly, it is important that we amend the generic definition to remove a regulatory burden on the research industry relating to compounds that were never intended to be controlled. On that basis, the ACMD recommended in December 2017 that the scope of the generic definition be reduced.

The order amends the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to reduce the breadth of compounds controlled as third-generation synthetic cannabinoids. The ACMD’s amended definition will ensure that compounds which have been found to cause harm will continue to be caught by the generic definition. I assure the Committee that the Government are acutely aware of the continued harms posed by the third generation of synthetic cannabinoids, and I want to make it clear that the order does not revoke the generic definition. Harmful synthetic cannabinoids such as Spice and Mamba will continue to be controlled through the generic definition.

The order, if accepted and made, will come into force on 15 November. To complement it, a further statutory instrument will be introduced to make parallel amendments to the generic definition under Schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 and in the Misuse of Drugs (Designation) (England, Wales and Scotland) Order 2015. As a result, the compounds currently captured unintentionally will no longer require a Home Office licence for the conduct of research as they will no longer be controlled.

I hope that I have made the case to amend the generic definition of the third generation of synthetic cannabinoids to remove the compounds that were unintentionally controlled from the generic definition. I commend the order to the Committee.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the draft statutory instrument.

It is regrettable that, in 2016, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs advised the Government to include such a wide definition of third generation synthetic cannabinoids. Between 40,000 and 90,000 compounds captured by this wide definition were not synthetic cannabinoids and therefore were not intended to be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. In addition, it inhibited research by requiring researchers to obtain a Schedule 1 licence.

That highlights a series of issues with the Government’s approach to drug misuse. First, the ill-thought-through Psychoactive Substances Act, while making previously so-called legal highs illegal, did not make the possession of such substances an offence—only their manufacture, sale and supply, even though some of the substances are more dangerous than the substances controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act that they were designed to replace.

Secondly, as a result, the ACMD still has to play catch-up with synthetic alternatives to controlled drugs, such as synthetic cannabinoids, which need to be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act because they are so dangerous. To get ahead of the game, on the basis of what the Minister said and what is contained in the material published by the Home Office on the SI, the ACMD appears to have gone to the other extreme and banned swathes of innocuous substances.

Thirdly, these synthetic alternatives to controlled drugs were created only because the controlled drugs that they were designed to replace were illegal. For example, I know a doctor who has had to deal with a number of patients with serious psychiatric problems caused by these synthetic alternatives; they took the synthetic alternatives because they were legal at the time, but they would not have had psychiatric problems if they had stuck to the controlled drugs that the synthetic alternatives were designed to replace. My understanding is that the synthetic cannabinoid Spice, which the Minister mentioned, induces far more psychosis and is far more addictive than even the strongest form of cannabis, for example. Can the Minister confirm that?

Fourthly, this sort of mistake further undermines the credibility of the system of controlled drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Drugs are being classified primarily on the basis of politics rather than scientific evidence. For example, the previous Labour Government downgraded cannabis from class B to class C on the basis of scientific evidence only for the same Labour Government, under a new Prime Minister, to reclassify it back to class B for political reasons. Some drugs, such as GHB or GBL, that cause a large number of deaths—particularly among gay men, including a former partner of mine—are in class C while MDMA or ecstasy, which cause far fewer deaths, are in class A. We do not oppose the correction of this mistake by means of this SI but we clearly state it again: drug misuse should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue; all the efforts of government and law enforcement should be focused on harm reduction, not criminalisation; and the Government need to expand their review of drug misuse to include law changes, including potentially legalising and regulating controlled drugs.

The Liberal Democrats are not the only ones saying this. Last week, a survey showed that twice as many people were in favour of the legalisation of cannabis than against it. Research published last week showed that fewer teenagers used cannabis when it was legalised in the United States. The debate on drug misuse is changing. We believe that it is time that the Government paid attention to that.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for her explanation of the content and purpose of the draft order, which we do not oppose. It amends the Misuse of Drugs Act by narrowing the previous definition of synthetic cannabinoids, as the previous definition has had the effect of requiring compounds that are not of concern to be licensed as class B drugs.

Following the control of the first generation of synthetic cannabinoids in 2009 and of the second generation in 2013, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs first published advice in 2014 on the third generation of synthetic cannabinoids—a group of compounds commonly referred to, as the Minister said, as Spice and Mamba, which mimic the effects of cannabis. The ACMD recommended that these compounds be captured by way of a generic definition as class B drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act. It also recommended that the compounds be placed in Schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, meaning that they can be legally accessed only with a Home Office licence, which is generally issued for research or industrial purposes.

Following the ACMD’s recommendations, the changes came into effect on 14 December 2016 but, as has already been said, shortly after their implementation the ACMD and the Home Office were told by research bodies that the breadth of the definition meant that it captured a large number of research compounds, many of which were not synthetic cannabinoids. The effect of this was that research institutions had to obtain Schedule 1 licences when they should not have needed to do so.

The ACMD recognised that its advice that led to the 2016 changes had unintended consequences. As a result, it made a further recommendation in December 2017 to the effect that the scope of the generic definition be reduced. Accordingly, this order amends the generic definition of third-generation synthetic cannabinoids by replacing the term “univalent” with a defined number of substituents. This will apparently reduce the number of compounds unintentionally captured by the generic definition, estimated by industry at more than 40,000 substances, while retaining those that have not been found to cause harm. As the Minister said, the revised definition does not alter the position for class A drugs or the licensed medicines previously excluded.

When this order was discussed in the Commons, the Minister said,

“so that while those compounds that have been found to cause harm are captured by it, fewer compounds are unintentionally captured”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/7/19; col. 1263.]

In view of the Commons Minister’s words, how many compounds will still be unintentionally captured by the amended order that we are discussing now, and what level of inconvenience or difficulty will that continue to cause the research community in the pharmaceutical and healthcare sector in respect of having to continue, where necessary, to apply for Schedule 1 licences? How cumbersome, time-consuming and time-delaying is the process of applying for Schedule 1 licences, the need for which this order is designed to reduce but apparently not eliminate, in respect of compounds “unintentionally captured” by the 2016 changes? Bearing in mind that the ACMD made its recommendation, which led to the Government making this draft order some 18 months ago, why has it taken as long as it has to reach this stage?

The ACMD’s 2014 recommendations did not come into effect until mid-December 2016. Again, what was the reason for the apparent delay of at least two years? If consultation took place during that lengthy period, did any individuals or organisations raise the problem about the breadth of the definition that the research community raised shortly after mid-December 2016? If not, why did the ACMD—or anyone else—not realise the problem that this order seeks to address before its recommendations were implemented? Did the changes that were brought into effect in mid-December 2016 properly reflect the ACMD’s recommendations of two years or more previously? If not, is that one reason why the problem of the breadth of the definition came to light only after the mid-December 2016 changes came into effect?

This draft order does not seek to address the issue of the use, or rather misuse, of drugs. The UK now has, I believe, the highest recorded level of mortality from drug misuse since records began. I hope that we will soon hear from the Government the different approaches, based on what would most effectively reduce harm, that they intend to consider and adopt in response to a drug situation that appears to be getting worse.

I thank both noble Lords for their points. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, made the point that this is regrettable—I agree. It is never a good place to be in, having to amend legislation for this reason. He is right that research was taking far longer because of the application process. That is why we have the order today. He also made the point that psychiatric problems would not be as problematic as they are with synthetic versions. However, I have thought back to several examples that I am aware of, for example, skunk weed, which has caused psychiatric problems. He asked whether I could confirm that Spice is more addictive than non-synthetic cannabis. It is indeed stronger than some other drugs. That is why it is controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act, in line with the expert advice. The SI does not change the control of Spice.

He also made the point that drugs policy should be aimed at reduction. Of course, reduction of the use of drugs is at the heart of what we are trying to achieve, particularly—

The two probably go hand in hand—the harm of drugs and the use of them are quite parallel to each other—but I take the noble Lord’s point. He made a slightly different point and maybe I just took licence because I could respond in the way that I did. He also talked about the legalisation of cannabis. He knows that the Government do not intend at this point to legalise cannabis. In fact, the statutory instrument is not about the legalisation or otherwise of cannabis but, again, he took the opportunity to bring the issue up.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked why it has taken so long to get here, given that the recommendation was made back in December 2017. The initial recommendation from the ACMD in December 2017 acted as interim advice, covering a range of proposed solutions for the Home Office to consider. Officials then liaised with the ACMD on the feasibility of the proposals and the ACMD made short-term recommendations amending the generic definition and longer-term recommendations. Following those recommendations, from spring 2018 the Home Office engaged in a targeted consultation with the research community on the proposals, which confirmed at the end of 2018 that it supported the short-term solution of amending the generic definition. Steps were then taken to make this legislative amendment. The unintentional capture did not come to light until after the introduction of the legislative changes in 2016. After receiving representations from the research community, the Home Office and the ACMD then acted.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked how many compounds will still be unintentionally caught by the MDA. The nature of a generic definition is such that it is not possible to specify an exact number of compounds. I will write to him with further detail once I have confirmed that point. We are continuing to work with the ACMD on longer-term solutions. With that—

I raised another issue. I am not suggesting that we should not pass this order, but how cumbersome and time-consuming is the process of applying for the Schedule 1 licences? Is it some great bureaucratic procedure or not?

I think I made that point in response to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. It is quite a procedural undertaking; hence it is good that this SI is before us today. My note from the Box just says that it varies from case to case depending on the complexity of the activity being licensed, and that clear guidance is given on the Home Office website on how to make licensing applications. However, there is a broader point: that to get a Schedule 1 licence is quite a serious matter.

There is one other point—I say this as a complete lay man. It is fairly sobering to find that the ACMD made a recommendation—I understand that it consists of people who know what they are talking about—but we were apparently not able to appreciate that this difficulty would arise, and, because presumably there was some discussion and consultation, nobody outside the ACMD realised that it would arise. Is it not quite a sobering thought that such a mistake could have been made by not only the experienced body that is meant to advise on this but by those who were going to be affected by it? To me, as a lay person, that is quite worrying. Are the Government not worried that a mistake will be made again in some other sphere?

I agree with the noble Lord that any such amendment that we have to make based on SIs that we have put before this House, without the full information before us, is always a concern. However, we are talking about new compounds that need research. We are at the forefront of research and controls but that does not take away from the fact that the noble Lord is right—it is unfortunate when we have to amend secondary legislation like this.

I am not quite sure from what the Minister says whether the answer to the point I raised is that the problem could not have been envisaged at the time—that it came to light that new substances or compounds suddenly were affected. However, if I am not right in saying that, did the Government inquire of the ACMD why it had not realised that this would be a difficulty? Did they get an explanation from it?

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 5.04 pm.