Drugs Bill

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Dr. Iddon: I, too, have received representations from organisations such as Cactus Trading Wholesale Ltd. and the Magic Mushroom Consumer Group, along with individuals from as far away as Scarborough, Streatham in London and Collyhurst in Manchester. The clause has raised a lot of interest. I
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am amazed by that because I did not think it would be such a big problem. I make that admission from the word go.

It is true that concern has been expressed about the clarity of the law, and I agree that it should be clearer, as do DrugScope and Turning Point—and, incidentally, Transform, which is against the prohibition of all drugs. Transform, of course, would not prohibit psilocin or psilocybin or the magic mushrooms themselves. It is significant that DrugScope and Turning Point both argue that they ought not to be class A drugs.

I am reminded that the Runciman committee and the Select Committee on Home Affairs asked the Minister to ask the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to consider the reclassification of drugs. It has also been suggested that LSD and ecstasy should not be class A drugs, although I have some doubt about that. Nevertheless, the matter should be referred to the advisory council, and I was pleased to hear the Minister say this afternoon that that will be the case. The consensus seems to be that drugs ought to be classified according to the harm that they present to individuals. I hope that all hon. Members agree; it seems a common-sense view. That is one of the things that worries me about the clause.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West tabled a question asking in how many deaths drugs had been a factor between 1993 and 2002. The table accompanying the answer, in Hansard for 31 January 2005, at column 593W, shows figures for heroin and morphine, for cocaine and crack cocaine, and for psilocybin or magic mushrooms. The table shows only one death for 1993 and none for the remaining nine years resulting from the use of psilocybin or magic mushrooms. Incidentally, thousands of deaths resulted from heroin and morphine, and hundreds of deaths from cocaine and crack cocaine. The harm presented by magic mushrooms, and psilocin and psilocybin, cannot be compared with the deaths presented by the other class A drugs, but that is how those compounds will be listed.

Other evidence has been provided to us on safety. I should tell the Committee that my PhD thesis, based on three years' research, was done on 5-Hydroxytryptamine when it was hardly known. It is now better known by the trivial name serotonin, the brain hormone that modifies our mood swings. The spectrum of levels of activity of serotonin in the brain is such that those who have a low activity will be at the depressed end of the spectrum, and those with a high activity of serotonin in the brain will be at the highly active, or even schizophrenic, end of the spectrum. Somewhere in the middle is the band of those who are considered to be normal—at least most of the time.

My PhD thesis was about trying to synthesise brand new organic molecules to act as agonists or antagonists of serotonin in the brain. I have been interested in brain chemistry for a long time, and psilocin is related to serotonin. I will not give its full chemical name, although I have it here in a scientific paper. Psilocybin is an ester of psilocin. They are inter-
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convertible. When psilocybin gets into the body, it will turn itself into psilocin, so we cannot talk about psilocybin without talking also of psilocin.

Both of the compounds found in magic mushrooms interact at one of the serotonin receptor sites in the brain. Interestingly, tranquilisers and anti-depressants act at the same receptor site; that is what we are dealing with in terms of physiology. The paper was produced recently by the Heffter research centre at the psychiatric university hospital in Zurich, and covers the acute psychological and physiological effects of psilocybin in healthy human beings. It is a double-blind, placebo-controlled dose-effect study. I shall not read out the names of the researchers, but their conclusion in the abstract is significant for this debate. They found

    ''no cause for concern that psilocybin is hazardous with respect to somatic health.''

That concurs with the number of deaths that we have not seen related to magic mushrooms and the two important chemicals in them.

Hon. Members will have received the study on psilocin and psilocybin by the co-ordination centre for the assessment and monitoring of new drugs that was presented to the Dutch Government. In its executive summary, it stated:

    ''This drug is not associated with physical or psychological dependency, acute toxicity is largely limited to possible panic and anxiety attacks and, in terms of chronic toxicity, the worst that can happen are flashbacks. Consequently, use of paddos (hallucinogenic mushrooms) does not, on balance, present any risk to the health of the individual.''

We have just moved cannabis from class B to class C on the ground of the harm that it presents to society, yet here we are being tempted to put fresh magic mushrooms into class A, along with psilocin and psilocybin, which are already there. I have a problem with that. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which comprises scores of experts in the area, should consider that before any statutory instrument places such substances in class A.

Magic mushrooms do not produce any addiction, they are not considered to be toxic and I can find evidence of only one death. We have also received the Powell report. That is interesting. It gives the species of magic mushrooms—there are many—and the range of districts in Great Britain in which they grow. I shall not read it out, but I can tell the Committee that one quarter of a mile from my house there is a small wood near a school. The children there well know the months during which the mushrooms grow. A few silly individuals, silly because they are under age and their brains are still developing, trip up to the woods—[Interruption]. Yes, they trip. I shall leave it at that.

Psilocin and psilocybin have been compared with lysergic acid diethylamide. That compound is definitely a hallucinogen. We know that it can create in people a panic so great that individuals have been known to jump out of the window and kill themselves. There is no doubt that LSD is a dangerous compound. I do not advise anybody to take it. However, psilocin and psilocybin have been classed as hallucinogens, although they are compounds that produce psychedelic effects. The Powell paper coins the term
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''emphyogenic'', meaning that the compounds give people a deep, spiritual feeling. That is precisely why the Aztec and Mayan civilisations in south America used those compounds in their religious ceremonies. I do not see many accounts of those people dying in large numbers as a consequence of using the compounds in the course of worshipping their gods. Therefore, I question whether the compounds are so dangerous that they need to be classified as class A under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. I hope that the Minister has some evidence to that effect.

As the Minister has just said, the Home Office is getting worried about the increasing numbers of traders selling these mushrooms throughout London and elsewhere in the country. They even sell them on market stalls, and there are special shops in which one can buy all the gear. I gather that some strange people—I do not actually know any of them—visit these places quite frequently.

My fear is that if we ban something, those who use it, but who do not want to break the law, will merely try to find something else. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham mentioned one such compound, and many other mushrooms and fungi contain compounds like psilocin and psilocybin. People may well try to find other, more dangerous substances if we ban magic mushrooms.

Of course, there is khat, too, and there is an amendment on it. People might well discover that the Somali community uses khat, and its use may spread. However, there are many other such naturally occurring plants, vegetables, berries and fruits from trees. All one has to do is invade the internet to find out about them; all this stuff is on the internet, and children, in particular, surf the internet. I am concerned that we will drive people away from substances that, although not completely harmless, are certainly not as harmful as the clause makes them out to be. I therefore have some difficulty with putting magic mushrooms in class A or even banning them altogether.

Finally, I think that we are acting a little soon. We should gather more evidence, because not enough research has been done on many aspects of drug misuse. We also need far more research on magic mushrooms before we consider passing Acts of Parliament, as we are in the process of doing this afternoon.

Mr. Carmichael: I do not seek to emulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and his scientific expertise; he and I are at opposite ends of the scientific spectrum. He did his PhD on serotonin, but I was politely invited by the head of science at Islay high school not to bother the science teachers after the end of my second year. I did not understand half of what the hon. Gentleman said, but he said it with great authority, so I hope that somebody here did. I certainly could not help but believe him.

In our earlier debate, the hon. Gentleman asked about possession by virtue of land, and the Minister said that it could be excluded by means of a statutory instrument. While the Committee was adjourned, I had a brief conversation with some of the Minister's
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officials, and I accept that that route is open to the Government. However, I am not persuaded that such an exclusion will be any easier to achieve in secondary legislation than in primary legislation, and I hope that the Minister and her officials will consider the problem between now and Report, because the law of unintended consequences dictates that some people will be mistakenly caught by the provisions. Furthermore, there are always those who go out of their way to put themselves on the wrong side of the law because they feel that some point of principle is at stake. All of us have no doubt had people come to our constituency surgeries who fall into that category.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a case that is, I think, currently before the European Court of Justice. The basis for it is that fresh magic mushrooms are not illegal under the Vienna convention, so their prohibition would constitute a breach of free trade rules. Such a novel and ingeniously constructed argument would never have occurred to me. Perhaps that is why I was never a very successful lawyer. However, if such a case is on the go, the Committee should be made aware of it and of the Government's ingenious and creative lawyers' assessment of it. If the Minister would write to the Committee about that, I would be exceptionally grateful.

4 pm

The hon. Gentleman suggested that other substances would be sought if we excluded this species of hallucinogen and referred to the internet. For once, I am ahead of him, because I made short use of the internet yesterday. We have all spoken about the range of briefings that we have received, and I have received as many as anybody else, but one of the most remarkable things has been the number of researchers from all parties who have sidled up to me at different points and expressed their concerns about the subject.

It was pointed out to me that the most widely identified alternative is Salvia divinorum, the leaves of which are smoked—it says here—and contain another powerful hallucinogen, salvinorin. Relatively little is known about the possible harms of salvinorin use, but it is widely available online and in what the briefing calls ''head shops'' in a variety of preparations. The Transform Drug Policy Foundation's briefing states:

    ''The spice nutmeg also is also psychoactive when consumed in larger quantities.''

That was news to me, and no doubt dishes will be proscribed from women's institutes the length and breadth of the country now that we have discovered the possible uses of nutmeg.

Having been made aware of Salvia divinorum, I typed it into Google and, sure enough, there is a ream of websites selling such things. The first site contained five pages of alternative substances. Salvia divinorum is there; so is the fly agaric mushroom and Mexican tarragon, Tagetes lucida, which is described on the site as

    ''a beautiful, bright green perennial herb from the Sierra Mandre Mountains of Mexico.''

We would not want to proscribe something like that, would we? It goes on:
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    ''It is used by the local Indians recreationally as well as in the kitchen.''

Of course, such substances will be the next fall back. Will we then include them in the schedule?

The point that I am making is that the piecemeal approach to the classification of drugs—taking cannabis from class B to C and clarifying, as we are today, the question of fresh magic mushrooms—is unsatisfactory. All that we will be doing is getting involved in a rolling programme of reclassification. The hon. Gentleman is correct when he says that we should be classifying drugs according to the harm caused. If there is an argument for the prohibition of anything, it must surely be to prevent people from doing harm to themselves and others. That should be our starting point.

On the basis of the hon. Gentleman's analysis, it is difficult to see why magic mushrooms would be classified as class A. However, having said that, it is equally difficult to see what other classification they would properly fit under. The fact is that we have had the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 for 34 years this year. Surely the time has come for a comprehensive review. Such a Drugs Bill would be useful in the run up to an election, and it is a great pity that we have not had it. We have had a running repair and sticking plaster approach.

The arguments raise as many questions as they answer. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham mentioned the magic mushroom consumer group; I must gently chide her for coming close to misrepresenting its position sometimes. As for whether ''young people'' should automatically mean minors, there are many young people who are not minors, and clearly the market in question is more popular with young people.

The market already exists. The history of prohibition over the 34 years in which the Misuse of Drugs Act has been in force has not been one of unmitigated success. There was an opportunity to consider how to deal with this matter differently. That does not mean that we would not eventually have concluded that we had to classify the substances in question as the clause does, but I fear that the rather rushed approach that is being used—and the fact that we have not yet concluded the details of all the defences suggests that it is a rushed approach—means that we are missing an opportunity for a wee bit of creative or lateral thinking. Such thinking might enable us to make the relevant drugs law more effective, because it would have more credibility among those likely to interact with it.

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