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Drug Reclassification: Monkey Dust

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 1 November 2022

I will call Jack Brereton to move the motion and then I will call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for a 30-minute debate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the reclassification of the drug Monkey Dust.

It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Dame Maria, although this is not a pleasurable subject for debate. My aim is to see monkey dust, a new psychoactive substance that is currently a class B drug, reclassified as class A. There are compelling reasons for doing so. I have received considerable local support in my constituency for reclassification, including through the survey and petition that is currently live on my website, which calls for the reclassification of that horrific drug.

If I explain that up to two thirds of all monkey dust-related incidents in the west midlands region are reported to occur in Stoke-on-Trent, the House will understand why local feelings in my home city are running so high. Monkey dust is a class B drug from a set of stimulants known as cathinones, which include the class C drug khat. Unlike khat, which is a reasonably mild, natural stimulant, monkey dust is a powerful synthetic drug. It is a stimulant that can make the user euphoric or hallucinate, lose control of their body, become aggressive and/or fall into a deep depression. It is a fine off-white powder costing £10 to £15 per gram, with only 3 mg needed for a hit. That means that a hit can cost as little as £2 on the street, making it cheaper than alcohol. Its effects usually last a few hours, but they can last for several days.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. He is absolutely right to refer to the cost factor. Does he not agree that the fact that monkey dust can be bought for such a small fee means that our young teenagers can afford to use that toxic substance, which can spiral to using other drugs? Immediate reclassification is needed to send a clear message that any abuse of drugs will not be tolerated, that the consequences will be substantial and that it is simply not worth the risk to sell or buy monkey dust, Spice, or any other new fad that is making the rounds.

I entirely agree with the hon. Member. That is a key factor. It is very sad to see that a lot of the people who are addicted and taking the drug are very young. That is one of the biggest tragedies.

Both the effect of monkey dust and its duration are unpredictable. In Stoke-on-Trent, it is known simply as “dust”, and it comes in sub-categories that include the street names of fluff and tan. Dust can be snorted, injected, piped or bombed. Piped, as it sounds, means smoked in a small pipe, and bombed, also called parachuted, means wrapped in edible paper and swallowed. That can include the use of cigarette paper or toilet tissue, which are not obviously palatable, but such is the strength of the addition that synthetic cathinones can hold, users will endure great indignities to consume it, never mind acquire it, and there is scant dignity in the effects.

Dust can lead to a psychotic state. Because it dulls all pain, it can lead users to harm themselves while feeling nothing short of invincible. Police officers have described tackling those under the influence as like trying to wrestle with the Incredible Hulk. Dust can also cause convulsions and lead users to overheat. Death from hyperthermia is a result of the most extreme cases of overheating.

Sometimes users will combat the feeling of heat by stripping off clothing—which, as they are totally disinhibited by the drug, can mean any and all clothing. There are also the risks of hypoventilation and acute respiratory distress. The collapse of users into a seemingly comatose state is a sight that residents fear is becoming normalised in our city.

I thank my hon. Friend and Stoke-on-Trent buddy for securing this fantastic and important debate. In 2018, it was described as an epidemic in Stoke-on-Trent and, sadly, we are back there again. The drug takes advantage of vulnerable people and creates severe mental health issues. That is why I implore the residents of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke to sign my hon. Friend’s petition. Does he agree with me that what we want is not just a reclassification, but additional support for Staffordshire police to catch the criminals who push such filth on our streets?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we are seeing an epidemic on our streets in Stoke-on-Trent. We do need additional support for many of those services, because what we see on the streets of Stoke-on-Trent is totally unacceptable.

With such unpredictable and severe effects, it is little wonder that this drug is also known in other parts of the world as zombie dust and, most disturbingly, cannibal dust, after reports of face-eating in America. In my constituency, a user actively ate through a glass window of a local shop.

Tragically, Stoke-on-Trent has been hit with an unenviable reputation as the centre for monkey dust abuse. The human cost of this awful drug and the gangs pushing it is a continuing problem for the city and local services, despite considerable efforts from Staffordshire police. The consequences of this illicit drugs trade hit residents, who live in fear of violence from dealers and users.

I can give many examples of those fears and the reality behind them. The responses to my survey fall into roughly five categories of concern. The first focuses on the effects on the users, and includes a response from an ex-user with first-hand experience of what they called “this poison”. Another respondent said:

“You become unrecognisable as a person.”

Secondly, there are concerns about the consequences for neighbours and communities, particularly children and pensioners. Comments include:

“As a hard-working, law-abiding citizen, I don’t feel I should have to walk among zombies.”

“It is frightening walking around with our children seeing people high, shouting at the top of their voices.”

“Monkey dust creates antisocial behaviour and misery that does not belong in any decent society.”

“We saw a man standing on a bus shelter. He was throwing things at people and shouting abuse.”

Thirdly, there are concerns about the strain on the time and financial resources of the emergency service, and other local services in responding to dust-related incidents, or fighting the addiction. A respondent who works for the rough sleepers’ team told me:

“I and many professionals have been of the opinion that monkey dust needs to be correctly classified urgently, in order to reduce the impact it is having.”

Another, from a community church, wrote of feeling

“so helpless in how to care for and support people who have become addicted to monkey dust. I see them ruining or losing their lives.”

There was a suggestion that dust is

“taking up hundreds of hours of emergency services’ time every month.”

Fourthly, there are concerns about the problems caused for local businesses, and the viability of our high streets and town centres. That was a common theme in responses. Comments include:

“Another nail in the coffin for our town centres.”

“I feel unsafe when shopping.”

“A terrible impression of our town. People after taking drugs are stumbling around and begging outside supermarkets.”

“The theft if rife. Everything you work hard for gets taken.”

“It is intimidating to leave the office late at night when there is a gang of six, eight or more drug dealers and/or drug users loitering on a private office car park. The dealers consider themselves to be above the law.”

Fifthly, there is the devastating, tragic situation of family and friends. Those comments are particularly distressing. On respondent wrote simply:

“My son is a drug addict.”

Another said her children’s father turned to the drug when they split up:

“My children now have an absent father. He was a man that worked all the hours God sent until he had a momentary weakness and accepted this drug.”

Another said:

“My daughter was introduced to this horrendous drug, which was instrumental in causing her death.”

Another wrote that her daughter, aged 37, when on the drug had her three children taken off her:

“I am at my wits’ end how I can help her off this vile poison.”

There was also a case where a couple were raising her sister’s four children because the sister had fallen to this addiction. These are truly tragic cases that are becoming far too frequent.

How would reclassifying monkey dust help? As one respondent to my survey put it:

“Authorities need to come down hard on the dealers. Reclassifying dust at cat A sends a clear message that this won’t be tolerated.”

Several respondents compared monkey dust to heroin in its effects and its addictiveness, and could not understand why dust is not in the same category. In fact, there are examples of users and people around users confirming that monkey dust is in some ways worse than heroin—there is, for example, no equivalent of methadone as a synthetic replacement, because dust itself is a synthetic drug. In a documentary produced by the University of Westminster called “Stoke-on-Dust”, a user said that the psychological effects of dust were, to her, worse than heroin, which she had been addicted to since the age of 14.

That documentary features a campaigner called Baz Bailey. Baz tragically took his own life in July 2020, having struggled with his own mental health. He was a great man who did amazing charitable work, and his efforts to rescue his son from monkey dust became for him, typically, a campaign to rescue everyone’s son and everyone’s daughter. Baz said:

“I 100 per cent believe the drug should be reclassified because it’s something that can take over someone. We want to send a message to these dealers that the community won’t just lie down and take what they’re doing.”

He was right: we won’t—we can’t. That reclassification needs to be part of a wider push that includes much more action on preventative work to reduce the root causes of drug abuse and addiction.

I thank my hon. Friend for paying tribute to my constituent Baz Bailey. Monkey dust is a big problem in Newcastle-under-Lyme, which borders Stoke-on-Trent. We have had a number of deaths associated with monkey dust; we have also had a number of intimidatory behaviours, with people climbing on to buildings or breaking into people’s houses naked at 3 am. We have seen people in Newcastle town centre in the zombie-like state that my hon. Friend referred to. I urge him to continue his campaign to get monkey dust upgraded to category A, and to work with me and my colleague and hon. Friend, the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), to help the police treat this issue with the seriousness it deserves in north Staffordshire.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the need to take a holistic approach to this issue. The local police, local authorities, health services, schools and third-sector organisations should work together to address the wider issues in our communities. It is very positive that earlier this year, Stoke-on-Trent City Council was awarded more than £5 million by the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities to invest over the next three years to develop the substance misuse service locally. We also need a wider conversation about how we divert young people from gang culture in the first place and protect the vulnerable, who are targeted by drug pushers, from being criminally exploited. Reclassification will help to disrupt supply by increasing the risks and consequences associated with being involved in supply; prevention and rehabilitation will help to disrupt demand. We must not neglect either side of the drugs market equation, and we have yet to do enough to tackle monkey dust—demand and supply, which go hand in hand—because we are failing to punish with the sanctions required.

My constituents are regularly aghast at the lenient sentences reported in our local newspaper, The Sentinel. Those include a 12-month sentence, suspended for 18 months, for a user who terrified a pensioner by climbing into her house at 5.30 in the morning, leaving her with ongoing flashbacks, before going on to undertake shoplifting. Another user stabbed her partner in the hand with a kitchen knife before going to Tesco, having twice attacked him with a meat cleaver previously—she got just 12 months. We need to be much, much clearer that the sanctions for supplying and acting under the influence of monkey dust will be severe.

My hon. Friend makes a great point: it is essential that we get the additional support that we urgently need as a city. We are trapped in part between Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, where gangs operate and come into our city—there are also gangs within the city of Stoke-on-Trent. That is why we need additional resources: this cannot just be left to the local authority, which is the second poorest in England when it comes to collection of council tax, to deal with. Does my hon. Friend agree that for that reason, the Minister needs to make sure that the Home Office comes up with a special taskforce, almost, for Stoke-on-Trent to tackle this scourge?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Stoke-on-Trent is fantastically located right at the heart of the UK, but that also means that we are more exposed to those county line drug issues and the trade of drugs that is coming through our country from Liverpool through to other larger cities. It is absolutely vital that we get those resources and support.

To conclude, I again turn to a comment from my survey, because it sums everything up:

“Monkey dust is a scourge, similar to heroin, and should be treated as such.”

I hope the Minister will have time in his diary to visit Stoke-on-Trent. My fellow local MPs, along with Ben Adams, the Commissioner for Police, Fire & Rescue and Crime, Councillor Abi Brown, the leader of the council, and I would all welcome the opportunity to show him some of those issues on the ground in our area.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing this important debate, supported as always with enthusiasm, passion, conviction and ability by his colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon). They are phenomenal advocates for their city and their part of Staffordshire.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has made an extremely moving and compelling case for the terrible effects that monkey dust, and in particular the forms of monkey dust known in Stoke-on-Trent as either fluff or tan, has on his constituents—not just those who are taking it but those affected by their behaviour. I was struck by the eloquent description towards the end of his excellent speech where he described the shocking activities of people under the influence of the drug, and the impact that that has on their partners and innocent members of the public going about their daily business or even asleep at home late at night. It is very clear the drug can have a devastating impact, both on those who use it and on law-abiding members of society.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South set out, monkey dust is the street name for drugs that form part of a family called cathinones, which are central-nervous-system stimulants that act in a similar way to amphetamines. My hon. Friend has raised concerns about that previously, including in a 2018 Westminster Hall debate on synthetic cannabinoids. He has at least a four-year track record of raising the issue in the House.

As he set out, drugs, including monkey dust, are a corrosive and destructive force in society. This Government are very focused on preventing drug misuse through the criminal justice system and policing, as well as through treatment and recovery. The Government have a 10-year drugs strategy. We want to force down drug supply though the criminal justice system. That is one of the reasons why we are recruiting 20,000 extra police officers—a key focus for them will be combating drugs. Of those officers, over 15,000 have already been recruited, I think. As of 30 September this year, 265 extra officers are now policing the streets of Staffordshire, and part of their focus is on the drug problem.

We also need to ensure that people who are suffering from drug addiction are treated. There is a whole programme of expenditure that the Government have set out in our 10-year strategy published last December. In the current three-year period, £780 million has been allocated specifically for treatment and recovery to cure people’s addiction. That is on top of the existing public health grant expenditure. Stoke-on-Trent is in the first wave of authorities receiving that extra money; the funding this year specifically for Stoke-on-Trent is approximately an additional £1 million, over and above the existing public health grant, to try and treat addiction. If we can stop people becoming addicted it removes the market from the people who are supplying those drugs, and it stops members of the public being harassed and intimidated in the way that has been described.

We are, of course, delighted with the 265 brand-new police officers in Staffordshire, which has been welcomed by the commanders of Staffordshire police. Sadly, our former chief constable was an abomination. That meant we had a really poor neighbourhood policing plan, which sadly led to a tough inspectorate report of Staffordshire police by His Majesty’s inspectors. That is why any additional support that can be given to enable our fantastic new chief constable, Chris Noble, and our police and fire commissioner, Ben Adams, to get the technology and to get the officers and police community support officers time in the community to build intelligence on where criminal gangs and county lines are organising would be of great help. Will the Minister ensure that he takes that case of additional funding back to the Home Office?

We will look at police funding in the relatively near future. Next year’s settlement will be published in draft form for consultation in December and then finalised, typically, in late January or early February. I will certainly take on board that representation for Staffordshire.

I am delighted to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North that his new chief constable is taking a good approach to policing, including by focusing on neighbourhood policing, getting police visible on the streets and spending time tackling criminals, rather than anything else. It is that focus on protecting the public and being visible that has worked in the Greater Manchester force, which has just come out of what is sometimes called special measures, because its chief constable took a similar approach to frontline policing and getting the basics of policing right.

My hon. Friend also mentioned time and ensuring that police spend time fighting crime, catching criminals and patrolling the streets, instead of being tied up in what can be counterproductive or wasteful bureaucracy. A report is currently being conducted by Sir Stephen House, a former senior Metropolitan police officer who is now working with the National Police Chiefs Council, to look at ways of reducing and stripping back bureaucracy and burdens on police time, such as administration and reporting of non-crime matters. I will work closely with Sir Stephen on that to try to ensure that police officer time is spent on the streets protecting our constituents, not doing counterproductive administration.

To reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) has just said, there really needs to be a focus on our town centres. In lots of the so-called red wall seats, our town centres have been hollowed out, with people on drugs on the streets. I am very pleased not only with our new chief constable, Chris Noble, but with my new borough commander in Newcastle, John Owen, both of whom are really focusing on antisocial behaviour in the town centre. We have so much money coming into Newcastle from the town deal and the future high streets fund, but it will not go for anything if people do not feel safe in the town centre.

I completely agree about the importance of visible, active town-centre policing. In fact, I have seen it in my own town centre in Croydon. I met our borough commander, or basic command unit commander —the chief superintendent—only last Friday, and he made exactly the same point. The police uplift programme has delivered officers to police Croydon town centre, which does make a difference. We want to see that replicated in towns and cities across the country. The police uplift programme provides the numbers of officers to do exactly that.

I should probably turn to the central ask of the debate—I am not trying to avoid the question or obfuscate in any way—which is the question of how this family of drugs, cathinones, is classified. It may be worth reminding colleagues of the maximum prison sentences available for those convicted of the supply and possession of class A, B and C drugs. These are the maximum sentences, which courts often do not use because sentencing guidelines set out the sentence that should be used in practice, having regard to the circumstances of each case. These are the current maximum sentences that the courts have at their disposal for supply: for class A drugs, it is life in prison; for class B drugs, 14 years; and for class C drugs, a maximum, again, of 14 years. For possession, the maximum sentences are: for class A drugs, a maximum of seven years; for class B drugs, a maximum of five years; and for class C drugs, a maximum of two years.

I stress that those are maximum sentences and a court will very often sentence a long way below the maximum, depending on the circumstances of the case. Increasing the classification obviously increases the maximum, but it will also increase the likely actual sentence, because courts will look at the maximum when they sentence in each individual case. The sentencing guidelines are pegged off the maximum sentence. I thought it was worth setting that out as a little bit of background.

On the classification of drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the Government have a statutory obligation to consult the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs before making any change to the classification. That was last looked at in relation to cathinones in 2010, when the ACMD advised the Government to maintain the class B classification. From what I have heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South, for Stoke-on-Trent North, and for Newcastle-under-Lyme, what has been happening in those places since 2010 represents a significant escalation, or deterioration, in what has been happening on the ground. Indeed, it sounds like a phenomenon that has been happening in the last three, four or five years.

In response to the debate, I intend to commission Home Office officials to advise on whether we should submit the cathinone family of drugs to the ACMD for an updated evaluation to see whether reclassification is needed. We need to make sure that does not displace some other drug from the pipeline, but I will ask for that advice today and I am happy to revert to my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South, for Stoke-on-Trent North, and for Newcastle-under-Lyme once that advice has been received and considered. I hope that that shows that this Westminster Hall debate has prompted action which otherwise would not have taken place. We will start the process of considering whether to submit this to the ACMD, while taking into account whether there is space in the pipeline. That demonstrates the value of these debates. I have only been in this job for three working days, but were it not for this debate the matter would not have come to my attention.

I thank the Minister for his efforts and words. That will make a huge difference. I recognise that there is an independent process, but I hope the decision ultimately results in the reclassification of the drug. I thank the Minister for all his efforts in just three days; I am sure he will continue in that regard.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. There are three steps in the process. First, we need internal Home Office advice on whether we should submit this to the ACMD, which I will commission today. Secondly, having analysed the situation, if the advice concurs with what my hon. Friend said, we will make the submission. However, it depends on what the advice says. Thirdly, after submission, the ACMD will then have to do its work. I should be honest and say that none of those steps are guaranteed, but I will initiate the first step today.

We are almost out of time, so on that note, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South for initiating the debate, my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North and for Newcastle-under-Lyme for their extremely valuable contributions and the passionate eloquence that, as always, they show, and Home Office officials who have been supporting work in this area. I look forward to further debates on topics of importance in this new role.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.