Drugs Bill

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Clause 21

Inclusion of mushrooms containing

Psilocin etc. as Class A drugs

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I beg to move amendment No. 23, in clause 21, page 21, line 8, leave out 'A' and insert 'C'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 24, in clause 21, page 21, line 9, leave out 'A' and insert 'C'.

Mr. Carmichael: The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who tabled the amendments, is not present. I move the amendments in his stead, because they raise important issues on which I would like to hear the Minister's views, but I am not inclined to support them—[Interruption.]

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): We have all afternoon.

Mr. Carmichael: The classification of these drugs, and the way in which it has been approached, is a matter of some significance. The Minister should be prepared to put the Government's thinking on record, and I am surprised that she regards the subject with some levity. It is incumbent on her to explain why the Government have chosen to classify these drugs as class A. What was the reason for the current law? Why were magic mushrooms—if I may use the vernacular—classified as class A drugs only in a prepared form and not in their fresh form?

My view, which I put on record on Second Reading and which grows stronger every day, is that this issue highlights the inadequacy of current classifications in the 1971 Act. On what basis has the Minister decided to classify these substances as class A? Is she trying to draw a parallel with other class A drugs such as heroin and cocaine? Is she looking at harm to the individual or to wider society? Why do the Government suddenly feel it necessary to act on this?

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw suggests that we should classify these substances as class C, but I do not think that they sit well in class C or in any other classification under existing law. It does not make sense to put them in with substances such as anabolic steroids, temazepam, and diazepam, which make up the bulk of class C drugs—but I thought that about cannabis too. Will the Minister tell us why the Government are making these substances class A drugs? What was the original reason for the current law?

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): The clause, small though it is, has created more controversy in my mailbag than all the other clauses put together.

The Chairman: Order. Let us get the ground rules right. I am perfectly happy to have the stand-part debate now and to embrace it with the debate on the amendments, but at the moment we are debating the amendments only.

Dr. Iddon: I apologise, Mr. Gale. I would prefer to address this issue in the stand-part debate.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The Minister was on the Front Bench, next to
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the Home Secretary, on Second Reading. She may recall that the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) asked the Home Secretary about this issue, and that the Home Secretary was, unfortunately, unable to answer him. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) has asked similar questions, and I very much hope that the Minister will be able to tell us exactly what her response to the amendments is. I also hope that she will be able to satisfy us as regards the clause stand part debate that we shall have in a moment.

Caroline Flint: I was amused at the start of this discussion because we have an opportunity to discuss the whole clause in a clause stand part debate, but the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland had to move an amendment that he did not actually support.

On the amendments, we must be aware of the fact that the clause does not reclassify these mushrooms; it is about clarifying the law. I shall try to explain to hon. Members on both sides of the Committee where we started, where we have got to and why we have some problems, and I am sure that those points will be picked up in the clause stand part debate. There are problems interpreting the law, and the courts feel unable to adjudicate on the issue. Prosecutions have been brought to court, but the police and others feel that the law is being circumvented in different ways. People might have their own views about that, but I hope to explain in the next few minutes why we need to clarify the law. Of itself, that does not change the position on classification, and we could have another debate about that; we are trying to make sense of the law because we have got ourselves between a rock and a hard place in terms of the current interpretation of the law.

Clause 21 clarifies and extends the law on so-called magic mushrooms to remove any doubt that the importation, exportation, production, possession and supply of fresh mushrooms, as well as prepared ones, is an offence. On Second Reading, there was cross-party support for the measure, although there were those on both sides who queried why we were introducing it. Some hon. Members said that they felt it was inappropriate to classify hallucinogenic mushrooms as class A drugs. There is a debate to be had about that, and people have their own views on the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West obviously felt quite strongly that the classification was inappropriate, and he probably continues to do so.

The amendments would reclassify magic mushrooms as class C drugs, but they do not seek to reclassify the active ingredients, psilocin and psilocybin, which would remain class A drugs. I am unable to accept the amendments.

The clause is not about the classification of magic mushrooms, and as my right hon. Friend Home Secretary said when he presented the Bill, the active ingredients are already class A drugs. I accept that people may not feel that they should be, but they are. Therefore, when mushrooms are prepared or in the form of a product, they are already class A drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
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Mr. Carmichael: On Second Reading, several hon. Members said that much of the debate was about the signals that we send out. Is the Minister content that the signal that she should send out is that magic mushrooms are somehow the same as heroin and cocaine?

Caroline Flint: I am not saying that they are exactly the same as heroin and cocaine, but when the issue was discussed it was felt that the harmful effects of their active ingredients, psilocin and psilocybin, were such that those ingredients should be classified as class A drugs. We know that heroin and cocaine can have a different effect on the individuals who use them, but that was the classification into which it was felt these ingredients should be put. I will talk more later about the international treaties that we have signed and their effect on this aspect of the matter.

Mr. Carmichael: The Minister has been generous with her time. She will know that different drugs in different forms and preparations can be classified differently, as happens with amphetamine. Surely the mere presence of psilocin in psilocybin should not necessarily automatically place magic mushrooms in class A?

Caroline Flint: The debate offers us a chance to explain what has been happening. A legal loophole has been created enabling fresh mushrooms to be sold and imported with the idea that people will prepare them—at which point they come within the classification. A problem has been the development of outlets where an attempt is made to get round the law by selling fresh mushrooms, in packets or otherwise. The sellers expect people to prepare the mushrooms, and eventually to be affected by the ingredients that are classified A.

The clause is a response to a relatively new phenomenon of the importation of fresh mushrooms, which are currently not held to be a product or preparation; that practice leads to an anomaly in the system.

2.56 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.12 pm

On resuming—

Caroline Flint: As I was saying before the Division, the measure deals with the relatively new phenomenon of imported fresh mushrooms that may not be held to be a product or a preparation. It ensures that magic mushrooms, even when fresh, are class A drugs, and the Government hope that that will act as a deterrent for those wishing to sell or import hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Officials informed the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs that the provision would be included in the Bill, and the ACMD agreed that the law would benefit from clarification in this area. Not all Members will be aware that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of outlets selling imported fresh magic mushrooms in the past two years, and there is growing concern about their impact on public health. I have recently had several letters from Members of Parliament whose constituents have expressed concern about the open sale of the mushrooms.
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Some constituents have reported very negative effects from taking them or have expressed alarm about their sale to minors.

The Government estimate that more than 400 establishments in the United Kingdom sell these drugs, and it is estimated that hundreds of kilos are being imported, predominantly from Holland. I believe that members of the Committee will agree that it is not right for these drugs to be sold openly on the high street.

Dr. Iddon: I know that this point was made on Second Reading, but will my hon. Friend clarify yet again the position on mushrooms growing wild in woods and the ownership of those woods? Do the people who pick those mushrooms become instant criminals, if caught?

Caroline Flint: We do not believe that someone would be committing an offence solely because a naturally occurring substance—a magic mushroom—was growing in their garden or on their land, or if they came across it in some woods. If necessary, we will consider bringing in regulations when this provision comes into force to make it clear under what circumstances it will not be unlawful to possess magic mushrooms. That will include mushrooms growing without the owner's knowledge in a garden or on land. A farmer might own woods on which these mushrooms may be growing without his knowledge, and we would not want him to be caught by the provision. Imported mushrooms and their sale are a particular problem.

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