First Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Monday 31 March 2003
[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]
Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) Order 2003
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) Order 2003.
The purpose of the order is to bring under the control of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 eight previously uncontrolled substances. As is required by section 1 of that Act, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has been consulted on the proposals and it agrees with them.
The order is needed to enable the United Kingdom to comply with a decision by the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs to bring four of the substances under the control of the 1971 UN convention on psychotropic substances. The remaining four are anabolic steroids, which are banned by the International Olympic Committee.
The order proposes that dihydroetorphine and remifentanil be added to the list of controlled drugs specified as class A drugs in schedule 2 to the 1971 Act; and that 4-Hydroxy-n-butyric acid and zolpidem be added to the list of substances specified as class C drugs. The most widely recognised drug is 4-Hydroxy-n-butyric acid; it is commonly known as GHB. There have been media reports about its possible use as a date rape drug.
Four other substances are to be controlled, all of which are anabolic steroids. They are 4-Androstene-3, 17-dione; 19-Nor-4-Androstene-3, 17-dione; 5-Androstene-3, 17-diol; and 19-Nor-5-Androstene-3,17-diol. Those four drugs are to be controlled as class C drugs. They have recently been added to the IOC list of prohibited substances.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has considered the misuse potential of all eight substances, and has recommended that they should all be brought under the controls of the Misuse of Drugs Act and its associated regulations. If the order is approved, we will lay before the House an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001, which will bring all eight drugs within their scope. The amendment regulations will impose a regime of controls for legitimate medical and research use of the drugs.
In accordance with usual practice, we have consulted the organisations that represent the medical professions and the pharmaceutical industry. No one raised any objections to the proposals. If the order is approved, we will aim to bring it into effect, together with the relevant amendment regulations, on 1 July.
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Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The Minister says that the consultation produced no objections. Other than statements of support for the recommendation, did the consultation produce anything else of interest or relevance? If so, will he tell us or put the results of the consultation in the Library?
Mr. Ainsworth: I have no desire to prevent information going into the public domain. If there is anything of note, I will put it in the Library and write to all members of the Committee. I am fairly sure that there was not and that, as I said, the comments were largely supportive. If there is anything that detracts from that, I will put it in the Library and circulate it to members of the Committee.
If the Committee supports the order, we intend to introduce the regulations on 1 July. The order, together with the amended regulations, will make it an offence to supply or to possess any of the eight substances, except for legitimate medicinal or research purposes. I commend the changes to the Committee.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I welcome you, Miss Begg, to the Chair, and assure the Minister that I do not intend to speak for long about the order. In broad terms, I have no objection to it. I accept that powerful opiates should be classified as class A drugs. I have seen no literature to make me doubt that, and I am persuaded by the advice that the Government have received.
I make one comment about the drugs that are intended for class C, although not because I do not believe that that is where they belong—anabolic steroids have already been placed in that category, and the order merely adds to the list. However, I wish to put on record, as I did in the Committee that considered the Criminal Justice Bill, that if, as the intention seems to be, those drugs are punishable with much higher sentences and are transformed for the purposes of supply into class B drugs, that will be very regrettable and seem to be out of all proportion to the sort of drugs with which we are dealing.
I appreciate that that is not the Minister's immediate problem, for at present he is simply putting those drugs into a class C category where they do not constitute an arrestable offence. If, however, the Criminal Justice Bill becomes law, they will constitute an arrestable offence. For reasons that I have already made clear, I see few grounds to justify that, except for the bizarre anomaly that, by moving cannabis and cannabis resin from class B to class C, it has been necessary to raise the penalties for all class C drugs to continue to make possession or importation of cannabis an arrestable offence punishable by much higher sentences. That, however, is a matter that we will have to deal with in another place. At present, I am satisfied with the Minister's explanations and will not vote against the order.
Simon Hughes: I, too, welcome you to the Committee, Miss Begg. This is the first time that have I served in a Committee with you in the Chair. I
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am happy to do so, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton).
I too shall be brief. I thank the Minister for a straightforward statement of his position. The Liberal Democrats have always believed that matters that the relevant advisory body recommends for legislative change ought to be considered seriously, and that unless there is a very good reason we ought to follow its recommendations. There is no point in having an advisory body that tells us what category a drug should be and then ignoring its advice. The measure is a perfectly proper response to the advisory body. If we have an advisory council, I hope that we will continue to follow its advice almost without exception. We should not be selective in what we choose to follow, unless there is a mighty good reason. That almost happened last year.
Our party has always believed that if a drug is listed under UN conventions as one that should be illegal, we should sign up to that. The Minister knows that the Liberal Democrats argue that we should comply with international law, and it would be inconsistent of us not to do so now. I know that there has been discussion about the remit of the international narcotics conventions, and I received a press notice telling me that the Minister was to give evidence next month to the Select Committee on Home Affairs on the matter. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government have an open mind? Are they willing to consider in each case whether a drug should automatically be illegal?
The Minister will know what I am getting at. My colleagues and I think that, for example, cannabis should remain illegal for as long as the law says so. However, it is no secret that we are not sure that it should be illegal, and we should like the Government to have the power under an international agreement to decriminalise it, and for other countries to be able to do the same. That approach would be far more honest than the approach that the present constraints have forced Portugal and the Netherlands to adopt—the Minister and I have discussed the matter before. That approach muddies the question of whether the drug is legal or illegal, because it allows people personally to trade but not suppliers to supply. That obviously causes difficulties.
Given that the Minister is about to enter discussions and has been given advice, will he at least say whether the Government have on open mind with regard to reviewing the convention in order to give signatories the flexibility not to make every substance in the convention illegal, and to securing a national discretion or opt-out for at least some drugs—class C is the obvious category?
I endorse the point that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) made. He and I served on the Committee that considered the Criminal Justice Bill, as did others. We said that it is nonsense to make cannabis a class C drug while simultaneously making arrestable offences in relation to it carry a penalty of 14 years imprisonment. We shall argue that case on the Floor of the House on Wednesday. The Minister may find the matter as bizarre as we do. Our argument is on all-fours, and we have made it clearly.
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The Conservative party has advanced the argument that some class C drugs ought to be in a category with a higher penalty. However, a lot of drugs are used solely for medical purposes, and the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) argued convincingly on behalf of a member of his family about that. Drugs that those with asthma are required to carry may suddenly put someone carrying them for no explicable purpose at severe risk. I hope that the Government will consider that.
The International Olympic Committee has said that certain drugs that are performance-enhancing and potentially character-changing should not be allowed, although that is not an international obligation in the same way. It is sensible to register such drugs as controlled drugs in domestic law. My researcher went on to the IOC's website to search for details of those drugs, and he found lots of sites mentioning ''bodybuilding supplements''. That did not help us to analyse or understand the effects of those drugs, other than what one might look like if one used them, which was not terribly appealing.
The order is perfectly reasonable and proper. The so-called date rape drug to which the Minister referred has received public attention, and his colleagues have been lobbying to make it illegal. I gather that it has not been easy to discover how often that drug is used. It is thought that the drug is used in clubs frequently, as ecstasy is.
The Minister has diligently looked into such matters. Is he satisfied that the Government and others have identified the supply chain and distribution network? If that drug is made illegal in, say, four months, will the Government be able to get the message out that it is a dangerous drug and people ought to stay away, and deal with the big guys—they are normally the villains behind these things—who make lots of money out of other people's amnesia and the undesirable consequences of the drug?