Drugs Bill


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Mr. Carmichael: The Minister said that anyone growing magic mushrooms unknowingly would not be committing an offence. That is absolutely right, but surely a person in that position would be guilty of possession the second they became aware of the mushrooms, unless they immediately destroyed them. The two elements of possession under section 5(2) of the 1971 Act are knowledge and control. If the mushrooms are on someone's land and they know that they are there, they are guilty of possession.

3.15 pm

Caroline Flint: I will check that. One of the questions is whether a person is picking the mushrooms. I understand that as soon as someone starts picking the mushrooms the active ingredient that creates psilocin starts to formulate itself, although psilocybin is present in fresh and prepared mushrooms. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman on that, because he is right that we need to clarify the circumstances, while dealing with what we think has become a problem for law enforcement and the courts.

There has been a lot of debate about what exactly the harms and potency of such mushrooms are. Perhaps the name ''magic mushrooms'' makes them sound quite harmless, but they are hallucinogenic. Psilocin and psilocybin are class A drugs because they are similar in effect to LSD and have hallucinogenic qualities. They can trigger psychosis and are very harmful to those with mental illness, and can also be harmful to those with a heart condition. Because of the hallucinogenic effects, users are vulnerable to self-harm while under the influence and, as with LSD,
 
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those using mushrooms may experience negative flashbacks.

The international position on mushrooms is as follows. The 1971 United Nations convention on psychotropic substances places both psilocin and LSD in schedule 1, the highest level of control. There is an international consensus that such substances present serious harms. For those reasons it is our view that magic mushrooms should remain a class A drug.

I think that the hon. Gentleman asked why fresh magic mushrooms, which are not a product and not prepared, seem to be excluded from the 1971 Act. The short answer is that we are not really sure and we do not even know if that was the intention. However, we can say that the problem has since worsened. Thinking back over the past 30 years, I can only say that marketing fresh mushrooms in the new way was perhaps not a problem then and that it was felt that defining the drug as a prepared product was enough, without creating problems to do with naturally growing, fresh magic mushrooms.

That said, although magic mushrooms have for a number of decades not been a huge problem, the emergence of 400 outlets in the past few years is an example of the direction in which we might be headed. We must be mindful of that. We do not know for certain, but the problem may have been less of an issue when the 1971 Act was drafted and not at the forefront of the drafters' minds then.

Dr. Iddon: I understand that under the Vienna convention 1971 fresh mushrooms are considered legal, and that there is a case before the European Commissioners. Does my hon. Friend have any information about that? What bearing does that case have on our discussions?

Caroline Flint: I will look into the case that my hon. Friend cites. I should like to say something about our European Union colleagues and their respective mushroom controls. In Belgium, the possession and sale of hallucinogenic mushrooms is prohibited, in Denmark psilocybe cubensis is listed as a controlled plant, and Germany has comprehensive legislation banning possession and supply of substances where abuse for the purposes of intoxication is envisaged. In Poland, mushrooms are treated as psychoactive substances. Thus any general rules on possession, cultivation and introduction to the market also apply. We do not have a relevant list of all the EU countries, but Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and the Slovak Republic have controls in place. In Holland, prepared mushrooms are illegal, but fresh mushrooms are legal.

The Chairman: Order. I said at the start of this debate that I was fairly relaxed about whether or not we had the stand part debate with these two amendments, or separately. One or two hon. Members, however, indicated that they wished them to be held separately. We are straying very wide of the amendment, Minister.
 
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Caroline Flint: I apologise for contributing to the widening of the debate, Mr. Gale.

The International Narcotics Control Board has recently written to the Dutch health ministry, expressing concern about the open sale of mushrooms in Holland. There are clearly some outstanding issues about this, and how one country is potentially contributing to the problems of another. As I understand it, most of the importation of these fresh mushrooms is from Holland.

As to fresh mushrooms growing on land, if the person does not know the mushrooms are growing, they benefit from a defence, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said. We will look at some further regulations to ensure that those who know that mushrooms are growing on their land will not be committing an offence if they are not picking them, and therefore preparing them. There are some issues there, and I will look into that matter further and examine different scenarios to ensure that we are getting that right.

We would be willing to consider advice on mushrooms from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and will consult it when considering any reclassification, which is what these amendments attempt to do. We already have a power to change the classification of substances in schedule 2 to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, by an Order in Council under section 2 of that Act, following such a consultation. We keep the ACMB informed of developments. Regarding our plans for the measure in this clause, it too feels that the law needs to be clarified. That said, I hope the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendments.

Mr. Carmichael: I may seek the leave of the Committee to withdraw the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). However, I thought it would be helpful to have a fairly focused debate on classification. I am a Liberal Democrat, and I realise that one does not always get what one wants in life. Unfortunately, we have not really had the debate that I had hoped for. The Government's case on classification is generally not particularly robust. I am surprised that nobody in the Home Office, during the drafting of this Bill, thought to ask why the distinction was made in the first place, and to go to Hansard for 1970 or 1971 for an answer. If one is minded to change something, it is always a good idea to know the reason for it being in the shape it is. I cannot believe for a second that Parliament unintentionally created this distinction between prepared and unprepared mushrooms.

The Minister has given no proper explanation of the parallels being drawn between mushrooms and other class A drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. She just seems to shrug her shoulders and say ''We are not saying that they are the same''—except that when the same penalties are imposed on them, then, effectively, to many people, that is saying that they are the same.

As I said, this has not been the debate that I had hoped for. There are other issues that have been raised in the course of the debate that I will not respond to at this stage, because I shall seek to catch the Chairman's
 
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eye again in the course of the stand part debate. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.24 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.39 pm

On resuming—

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mrs. Gillan: I do not want to delay the Committee because I have a great deal of sympathy with what the Minister is trying to do. However, I have had an unprecedented amount of post, from individuals and from the most extraordinary number of organisations. I had no idea that so many people were concerned about mushrooms in a way that I did not envisage when thinking of the humble mushroom.

It all sounds terribly innocuous, but having read quite a large amount of the scientific background I do not think that it is as innocuous as it at first appears. That is why I have sympathy with the Minister in trying to sort out the anomaly that has arisen—regardless of the debate about whether the correct classification is A or B. We shall have a debate along those lines later if there is time.

I want to give the Minister the opportunity to comment on a series of questions that has been asked by another organisation. I should also say that the London Drug Policy Forum, which is the London community against drugs, was almost in isolation in writing to me to welcome the provision. It welcomes the fact that the Bill seeks to improve the range of responses available to the police and courts to deal with drug-related crimes, and to address areas such as the sale of hallucinogenic mushrooms, which are currently not covered in criminal law. I thought that that was rather nice, and I wanted to give the Minister a little support, because it appears that everyone is arguing against the provision, and I cannot imagine why.

A wonderfully named organisation, the Magic Mushroom Consumers Group, which says that it is protecting the rights of magic mushroom consumers in the UK, asked several questions. I do not want the Minister to dwell on them, but she should have the chance to bat back. To be fair, its points should be heard. I have often been in the position of putting across points made by organisations with which I do not agree, and this is one of them, but I would like her to have the chance to respond.

The group believes that adding unproblematic magic mushroom consumers to the statistics detailing class A drug users, whom they believe to be problematic users, which is interesting in the light of the report on heroin taking that was released this morning, would falsely exaggerate the level of problematic drug use in the UK. The Minister should respond to that point.

The group also believes that there will be an increase in the number of wild mushroom poisoning incidents in which eating the wrong sort of mushroom
 
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can make one seriously ill or even cause death. I hope that that is not the case, because there are some terrible toadstools or mushrooms such as fly agaric, which is a red toadstool with white spots that is used to illustrate fairytales. It is not a true psychodelic drug, but it can kill if ingested, so I hope that the group is wrong about the provision increasing the number of wild mushroom poisoning incidents.

The group's argument that there will be a decrease in the perception of the dangers of addictive class A drugs sits alongside the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that people will be inclined to consider drugs such as heroin or crack cocaine to carry a similar risk. Magic mushrooms really will have gone to its brain if it believes that heroin or crack cocaine will do little harm.

The group's argument that there will be a reduction in respect for drug laws and policy among young people really worries me, because it means that magic mushrooms have been marketed so widely that it openly admits that they are being sold to young people, presumably to minors. That is a serious problem, which the Minister is right to address. Indeed, the report that I obtained from the Library on the Bill said that there were some 300 outlets, but the Minister says that there are 400 shops and market stalls throughout the UK acting as outlets. It is alarming to think that they are selling magic mushrooms to children.

The group made another point about the loss of revenue to the Treasury and an increase in revenue for illegal drug dealers. Fortunately, it has not put a value on the prohibition market, but it believes that the price and the illicit attraction will increase. I honestly do not believe that. There are so many other illegal drugs around that I cannot believe that the coffers of illegal drug dealers will swell enormously, ostensibly because the people who deal in magic mushrooms are illegal dealers without the routes into the supply that legal shops have. There is, however, a pertinent point to be made. Given that there are about 400 outlets selling these mushrooms illegally, the Minister must clarify when the clause will take effect and how long the shops will have to dispose of their stocks. Indeed, she should clarify whether those stocks should be destroyed, whether there will be any inspection regime, whether the dealers will be convicted immediately of an offence the day after the legislation comes into force, and how notification will be made to the outlets.

I hope that the Minister will tell me that there is a mistake in clause 24, entitled

    ''Short title, commencement and extent''.

It states that clause 22 will come into force on the day on which the Act is passed. I hope that she will add section 21 to that provision.

3.45 pm
 
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