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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Greg Pope
Campbell, Mr. Alan (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Clegg, Mr. Nick (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD)
Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Fabricant, Michael (Lichfield) (Con)
Featherstone, Lynne (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD)
Garnier, Mr. Edward (Harborough) (Con)
Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
Hands, Mr. Greg (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con)
McCafferty, Chris (Calder Valley) (Lab)
McDonagh, Siobhain (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Owen, Albert (Ynys Môn) (Lab)
Pelling, Mr. Andrew (Croydon, Central) (Con)
Spink, Bob (Castle Point) (Con)
Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab)
Vis, Dr. Rudi (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab)
Wills, Mr. Michael (North Swindon) (Lab)
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Sixth Standing Committeeon Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 31 October 2006

[Mr Greg Pope in the Chair]

Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2006

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2006.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pope. This is my second statutory instrument and I look forward to the experience of being under your chairmanship.
The order was laid before the House on 12 October. Its purpose is to reclassify the substance methylamphetamine from class B to class A under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This is a change in the law that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) has sought and I am pleased to see him here today. I commend him for his work on this matter. As required by the Act, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has been consulted and agrees with the proposal.
Methylamphetamine was controlled as a class B drug under schedule 2 to the 1971 Act from the outset of that Act. It has recognised medicinal benefits when in the form of a medicinal product. Those benefits include the treatment of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and it is categorised as a schedule 2 drug under the misuse of drugs regulations so that doctors may prescribe it when necessary.
The prevalence of misuse of methylamphetamine has, to date, been very low in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, there are sound reasons for this proposal to reclassify the drug to class A. Relative harmfulness is central to our drug classification system and our drugs laws should accurately reflect the relative harm of drugs when they are misused, both to the individual and to society at large.
The Committee will know that the drug classification system under the 1971 Act has come under close scrutiny recently, but the Government continue to believe that the current three-tier system—classes A, B and C—is fit for its fundamental purpose of providing a framework within which criminal penalties are set with reference to the harm caused by a drug and the type of illegal activity undertaken in regard to that drug.
In the case of methylamphetamine, we must decide how to respond to a drug that can be misused and cause serious social problems, but has no significant prevalence in the United Kingdom currently. In this instance, its potential for harm, rather than its current prevalence here, is central to the proposal to reclassify it to class A. Its harmfulness equates with that of other class A substances, both to the individual and to society. It is a derivative of amphetamine, which is a class B drug, but is much more potent than other forms of that drug with the potential for greater physical and psychological harm, especially when smoked, and it can quickly become highly addictive. Its reclassification to a class A drug will accurately reflect that relative harmfulness.
International experience documents the devastating impact of widespread misuse of methylamphetamine on society and the environment. Its use can increase risky sexual behaviour, thereby increasing the risk of blood-born virus transmission, and it is a risk factor for aggression and violence, as well as acquisitive crime. Methylamphetamine manufacture exposes individuals and the environment to flammable and hazardous chemicals and production methods, and to toxic waste by-products.
In its report published in November 2005, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs considered that, based on the then current situation in the United Kingdom, it would be inappropriate at that stage to reclassify methylamphetamine to class A. Instead, the council recommended the development of an effective early warning system to monitor any shifts in the patterns of prevalence of methylamphetamine in the United Kingdom. The council’s report is accessible on the Home Office website. In May 2006, the council reviewed its decision in the light of further evidence and recommended that methylamphetamine be reclassified as a class A drug. The council’s advice is also available on the Home Office website.
The prevalence of the drug in the United Kingdom continues to remain low. However, the council was persuaded by the harmfulness of methylamphetamine and the international experience of the serious social problems caused by its misuse. It was also persuaded by intelligence provided by the Association of Chief Police Officers of a small number of methylamphetamine manufacturing laboratories in the United Kingdom. ACPO supports the reclassification of the drug to class A.
If the order is approved by both Houses and signed in Privy Council when it meets on 14 December, it will come into force five weeks after it has been made to allow sufficient time to advise the police, the courts and other interested bodies that methylamphetamine will be subject to control as a class A drug. That would result in a commencement date of 18 January 2007. As a class A drug, the maximum penalty for its unauthorised production, importation and supply will be life imprisonment and/or a fine. The maximum sentence for the offence of possession will be seven years’ imprisonment and/or a fine.
Reclassification to class A will be a key strand in preventing a significant escalation in the illicit use of methylamphetamine and the social problems that that could cause. It will provide a platform for greater enforcement activity, enabling the police to close premises where methylamphetamine drugs are being used, sold or manufactured, as they may currently do with crack houses under the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. That police power of closure is for class Adrugs only. In particular, as a class A drug, methylamphetamine will be an explicit priority for the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which will direct its resources and enforcement activities accordingly. We are also implementing key recommendations of the ACMD’s report for an early warning system to monitor prevalence.
Methylamphetamine’s main precursor chemicals—ephedrine and pseudoephedrine—are already listed as controlled precursors under European legislation and we have now reached agreement to place red phosphorus on the EU voluntary monitoring list that checks for suspicious transactions in chemicals. We are exploring ways to make a more robust response, but it must be remembered that these substances also have legitimate industrial uses, so it is not simply a case of halting their supply. We are also taking steps to ensure that national survey data differentiate between methylamphetamine and amphetamines. That will assist in our monitoring of prevalence.
The Government will publicise the change inthe law covering methylamphetamine in a Home Office circular and through the and websites. Reference to the law change and the health risks of methylamphetamine will be included in future Government educational material for young people.
The measure is very much in line with the Government’s commitment to cause maximum disruption to drug markets and to protect young people from the harm of being exposed to dangerous drugs. I commend the order to the Committee.
4.38 pm
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I welcome you to the chairmanship of our deliberations, Mr. Pope.
I could say a great deal that is critical of the Government’s handling of public policy on drugs, as the Minister might realise from our joint appearance on the “You and Yours” programme on Radio 4 not so long ago. However, that debate would be outside the narrow confines of this one, so I rise simply to commend my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point on his work and to support the Government’s proposal.
4.39 pm
Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope?
The situation surrounding methylamphetamine is apparently complex. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs originally said that it should remain in class B, but six months later changed its mind and said it should be switched to class A. The Select Committee on Science and Technology does not say clearly which classification it thinks is correct, but has a go at the whole system of classification. My understanding is that the Committee was somewhat divided, although a majority was in favour of reclassification, and we support that.
Bob Spink: As a member of the Science and Technology Committee—I am not the only one in the room—I want to clarify that it was not for that Committee to say how a drug should be classified. We simply examined the process of classification of all drugs, so we did not take a view or divide at all.
Lynne Featherstone: That would explain why I could not quite understand which way around the Committee had decided. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will advise me if I am wrong in this, too, but interestingly the report’s key point about crystal meth was that either the ACMD made a mistake in not reclassifying it or it was leaned on.
Also worth noting is the report’s criticism of the Government’s lack of investment in research into the impact of classifications on the take-up of drugs. We would welcome more time being spent investigating reclassification and the confusion that surrounds it. I have received notice of a system that was devised by Government advisers under the former Home Secretary, but which is now on hold. That system rates alcohol as the fifth most harmful drug, ahead of some of the current class A drugs. I cite that example to demonstrate the confusion around classification. It needs more investigation and surety if we are to have a system in which people can have confidence. However, if we are to have the current system, we support the reclassification as the best way forward.
4.41 pm
Bob Spink: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Lady, who spoke a lot of good sense, but I should like to thank the Minister in particular for his kind words. I introduced a private Member’s Bill in the spring to reclassify methylamphetamine as a class A drug, so I am delighted to be discussing the order.
The Minister is right that misuse is quite low in the UK, but there are three factors. First, misuse in theUK is growing. Secondly, ACPO discovered that production centres were growing, with some being found where before there had not been any, whichis a great concern. Thirdly, other countries have encountered great problems with the drug, which almost destroyed society in Thailand and is endemic in America, where the chief of police of New York, Anthony Izzo, has said:
“Crystal meth makes crack cocaine look like a Hershey Bar”,
which, for those do not enjoy American confectionary, is a chocolate bar.
Methylamphetamine is a nasty drug. It becomes addictive very quickly—sometimes on first use—and is extremely harmful psychologically. Its effects can last for eight to 12 hours, unlike those of crack cocaine, which last for just 20 minutes, so the violent behaviour and other psychological problems that it causes canbe very serious. I am therefore grateful to the Government, who have shown government, politics and politicians at their very best, by listening to the public, taking preventive action and closing the stable door before the horse bolts. I congratulate the Government roundly on the measure, which shows politics at its best, and thank the Minister again.
4.43 pm
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): It is a pleasure—which I do not think I have had before—to appear before you, Mr. Pope. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Castle Point for the work that he has done. Had the explanatory memorandum said earlier than at paragraph 7.2 that we were talking about crystal meth or “ice”, I would have understood more quickly what the order was about.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) seemed to intimate that the ACMD might have been leaned on—I think that that was the verb she used—so, with all due respect, I refer her to paragraph 4.5 of the explanatory memorandum, which says:
“In May 2006, the Council reviewed its decisions in the light of further evidence”.
Paragraph 4.4 points out that, following the council’s report of November 2005, the Home Secretary asked for another report within 12 months. Clearly the council seemed to have been concerned about the emergence of fresh evidence, because its further report was issued within six months, not 12 months. As paragraph 4.5 points out, one of the pieces of further evidence that it took into account was ACPO’s comments about crystal meth, to which the hon. Gentleman adverted. It seems unlikely that an independent body such as the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was in any way leaned on.
Lynne Featherstone: I was merely quoting from the report.
Rob Marris: I beg the hon. Lady’s pardon. That was not clear, and perhaps I misunderstood that she supported that conclusion in the report. If it was merely a quote, I now understand her position.
I have a question for the Minister. I understand that there has not been a regulatory impact assessment, because the instrument will not have an impact on business, charities or voluntary bodies, and none on the public sector, as it maintains the status quo where appropriate. I understand also that it is Government policy to have a kind of legal aid regulatory impact assessment on all measures, because of the increased pressure on the legal aid budget that has resulted from the creation of more offences or, in the current case, the upgrading of offences. Upgrading can take up more legal aid resources, as defendants may perhaps fight harder to get off a charge resulting from the upgrade to class A. Has such an assessment happened in this case, or would the impact be de minimis, with so little effect on the legal aid budget that an assessment was not believed necessary?
4.46 pm
Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): May I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pope, and also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Castle Point for his valuable work? I particularly want to thank the Minister and the Government for introducing the measure. Some of the most deprived parts of my constituency are blighted by the use of drugs and by drug dealing, and because of Swindon’s position on the M4 it is often a target for organised crime and drug dealing. I wish to record my appreciation of what the Government have done in sending a powerful signal of intent that the growing use of this dangerous drug will not be tolerated and that they will do everything possible to stop it taking hold in my constituency and throughout the country.
4.47 pm
Mr. Coaker: The Committee’s unanimity of view demonstrates the point made by the hon. Member for Castle Point—that we are all determined to work together to deal with the problem of drugs. We will have differences on the best way to do it, but one of the key policy aims of any Government must be to try to deal effectively with drugs in all our communities, and I take my hon. Friend’s point on that. We all see the damage that drugs of all types do in our communities, and although there will be quite serious differences at times on how to tackle it, the Committee has demonstrated that there is no difference of view about the importance of the work that we are all trying to do. His remarks were very pertinent and I think that we could all have made similar comments.
I thank the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) for his support. I accept that he could have made many points, but we all accept that this particular drug is very harmful, and today’s reclassification will send a strong message to the law enforcement agencies that we intend to do all we can to prevent its increased prevalence.
What the hon. Member for Castle Point said about the measure being preventive is key. We have received advice from the police and other law enforcement agencies, and we have seen intelligence from abroad—from Australia, Canada and the United States, where there is much greater prevalence of the drug—that shows just how dangerous it can be, both to individuals and to society. We need to do all we can to deal with that, and the measure is preventive, rather than one that reflects a huge prevalence of the drug in the UK.
On the point raised by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, the ACMD is an independent body from the Government which makes various recommendations to us. We are not obliged to accept them although we usually do, but there is always the possibility that we will not accept its recommendations. It is a valuable body with integrity and it will consider all aspects of drugs in this country and advise us accordingly. It is then for the Government to decide whether to accept its advice.
The Science and Technology Committee has discussed the classification system, and the Government and the ACMD have responded. I am returning to that Committee in a couple of weeks to continue the discussion. The Government have no intention at present of changing the classification system. We want to concentrate on our drug strategy, which is to enforce the law, to educate our young people, to get more people into treatment and to keep them in treatment so that the retention rate continues to improve.
On alcohol, perhaps I may be indulged for a moment, Mr. Pope, to say that the Government have an alcohol harm-reduction strategy. We spend a lot of money on that and a lot of time discussing how to deal with the problem.
On the regulatory impact assessment to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) referred, we will consider his points, but prevalence is low at the moment and we must consider whether we need to investigate further.
With those brief comments, I thank the Committee for its support and hope, as we all do, that in some small way the reclassification will help in our common goal of trying to defeat the scourge of drugs on our streets.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2006.
Committee rose at eight minutes to Five o’clock.

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