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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Joan Walley
Bailey, Mr. Adrian (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op)
Burns, Mr. Simon (West Chelmsford) (Con)
Campbell, Mr. Alan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Dobson, Frank (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab)
Huhne, Chris (Eastleigh) (LD)
Jenkins, Mr. Brian (Tamworth) (Lab)
Lepper, David (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op)
McCabe, Steve (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Mahmood, Mr. Khalid (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab)
Pritchard, Mark (The Wrekin) (Con)
Riordan, Mrs. Linda (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op)
Ruffley, Mr. David (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con)
Smith, Chloe (Norwich, North) (Con)
Syms, Mr. Robert (Poole) (Con)
Willis, Mr. Phil (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD)
Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab)
Georgina Holmes-Skelton, Jyoti Chandola, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Third Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 2 November 2009

[Joan Walley in the Chair]

Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2009
4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Alan Campbell): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2009.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Walley. The order was laid before Parliament on 19 October. If it is approved it will bring a number of substances, many of them currently known as legal highs, under the control of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and will come into force on 23 December 2009. The substances concerned are gamma-butyrolactone and 1,4-butanediol, 1-benzylpiperazine, and a group of other substituted piperazines, synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists, which I shall refer to as synthetic cannabinoids for short, as well as 15 anabolic steroids, two non-steroidal growth promoting agents and oripavine.
As is required by the Act, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has been consulted and agrees with the proposal. I wish to take this opportunity to thank the advisory council for its thorough advice—
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): Because it agrees with you.
Mr. Campbell: No, I like to compliment the advisory council whenever we work closely together. In recent times, there has not been a better example of working closely together than on these important issues.
It was following the completion of a 12-week public consultation that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced on 25 August that the Government have decided to control a range of so-called legal-high drugs to protect the public. These so-called legal highs carry varied but significant health risks. Young people in particular may often equate legal with safe and do not always understand that these drugs carry real risks. By banning such drugs, we will send a clear public health message to both users and sellers.
New legislation is only part of the work we are doing to tackle this emerging threat. We have also launched an information campaign to educate young people on the dangers of such substances, particularly when mixed with alcohol. We are also targeting those who look to purchase such drugs online, by providing key risk messages while they search the internet.
We have to be prepared to adapt our drug legislation to tackle emerging threats to health. That is why we propose to introduce generic definitions for a number of such drugs to capture very closely associated chemical compounds that might otherwise be misused instead. This is not a new approach—we have used it for other synthetic drugs—but we are again taking the opportunity to future-proof our drug legislation, responding to both current and foreseeable trends, and ensuring that we keep one step ahead of unscrupulous, illicit manufacturers.
Gamma-butyrolactone is perhaps the best known of the drugs we propose to control, with hon. Members’ approval. The Committee may recollect that much concern has been expressed about the dangers of misusing GBL following the tragic death of Hester Stewart, a young woman who had a bright future ahead of her. It is important that we impose suitable controls on the drug’s availability to help to ensure that other families do not suffer a similar loss. When ingested, GBL and a similar chemical, 1,4-BD, are rapidly converted to gamma-hydroxybutyrate, which is already controlled as a class C drug.
The effects and risks associated with the misuse of GBL and 1,4-BD are unconsciousness, a dependence syndrome if used regularly, and a risk of death by intoxication. However, unlike GHB, GBL and 1,4-BD have a wide range of legitimate industrial uses. For example, they are used in the manufacture of various cleaning agents, paints and nail polish. Our recent public consultation focused on ensuring that a control option for GBL and 1,4-BD was chosen that provides the best protection to the public from harms that those drugs can cause, while taking fully into account the use of such chemicals for legitimate business purposes.
The approach we intend to take is to amend the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 so that the prohibitions relating to GBL and 1,4-BD and the consequential offences, as class C drugs, will apply only when the substances are intended for human ingestion. The amending regulations to allow for legitimate use of GBL and 1,4-BD are subject to the negative procedure. They will be laid shortly to come into force at the same time as the Order in Council on 23 December, if it is approved. The Government accepted the advisory council’s advice on class C classification of the drug. Current evidence, especially in relation to societal harms, suggests that GBL—like the related GHB, which has been a class C drug since July 2003—is less harmful than current class B drugs.
The control of BZP is the Government’s response to the European Council’s decision to require all EU members
“to subject BZP to control measures and criminal provisions”.
The European Council states that
“due to its stimulant properties, risk to health, the lack of medical benefits and following the precautionary principle, there is a need to control BZP through measures appropriate to the relatively low risks of the substance.”
The advisory council advised a class C classification for the drug but also recommended that controls be levied on the related group of piperazines, not just BZP, and a generic definition be used, as BZP is only one of several substituted piperazines that have been found in the UK and are, or are capable of, being misused with the same or very similar harms.
For the reasons I gave in my opening remarks concerning the need for durable legislation, the Government support the recommendation. For similar reasons, we have proposed generic definitions to deal with synthetic cannabinoids. Those are man-made chemicals that mimic the psycho-active effects of the active ingredients in cannabis. They can be sprayed on herbal smoking products such as “Spice”. After consideration of the available evidence, the advisory council concluded that
“the harms of the synthetic cannabinoids are broadly commensurate with those of cannabis and...they should be classified accordingly”
under the 1971 Act. Cannabis was reclassified as a class B drug, with effect from 26 January this year, and it is logical that synthetic cannabinoids should also be controlled as class B drugs.
Controlling the potential range of synthetic cannabinoids substances, which are, or in the future could be, used in such herbal smoking products presents a challenge. As with piperazines, it calls for the wider legislative control obtained by use of generic definitions. By using the definitions provided by the advisory council, our controls will capture a range of synthetic cannabinoids and therefore address both current and foreseeable trends.
The addition of 15 anabolic steroids and two non-steroidal substances, which are growth promoters, to the list of drugs for control under the 1971 Act brings UK legislation into line with the World Anti-Doping Agency prohibited list. As class C drugs they will join more than 50 anabolic steroids. The original group of steroids that came under the control of the 1971 Act as class C drugs in 1996 was identified by reference to the International Olympic Committee prohibited list. It is therefore appropriate for the Government to update the control of such drugs by reference to its successor, the World Anti-Doping Agency prohibited list. We must have the legislation in place to underpin the anti-doping work being led by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, particularly during the run-up to the 2012 Olympics.
Control of oripavine under the 1971 Act meets the UK’s obligations to control the substance following its international control under the UN single convention on narcotic drugs of 1961. Oripavine is an alkaloid found in poppy straw of the opium poppy. It can be converted into thebaine, which is controlled under the 1971 Act as a class A drug. It is used in the production of semi-synthetic opiates, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. There is currently no evidence of its misuse in the UK, nor is there any evidence of its illicit conversion in the UK to thebaine and other opioids. For those reasons, the advisory council concluded that oripavine’s potential harm is more commensurate with drugs in class C, such as the opioid buprenorphine, and the Government have accepted that recommendation.
If the order is approved, the Government will publicise the law changes through a Home Office circular and through the Talk to Frank and websites. Reference to the law change and health risks associated with the drugs will be included in future Government materials for young people.
Mr. Willis: On the Government’s intention to put a drug into class C even though there is no evidence of it being used at the moment, I understand the Minister’s point, but is it not rather strange that magic mushrooms are a class A drug, when there is no real evidence to suggest that they are being used in a harmful way? They remain in class A, but the Minister has obviously accepted the view of the ACMD that these new drugs should be put into class C. Is that not a contradiction?
Mr. Campbell: The hon. Gentleman reasonably draws our attention to what can be seen as contradictions within the classification system. Such matters have led others to look at whether the current classification system is best suited for these purposes, but I am sure that we will not go into that today. We seek to bring new drugs that pose a threat in the future into the classification system, and to look at where they best sit in relation to their nearest drug. In this case, that is class C. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to draw attention not only to this group of drugs but to others, in relation to lots of classified drugs. The reality is that the advisory council looked for the nearest drug, and it is in class C.
The order will ensure that we have up-to-date, durable legislation for these dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs, which will enable us to respond to current and foreseeable future trends.
4.41 pm
Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Ms Walley. The order would add five types of drug to schedule 2 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Let me begin by assuring the Committee that we will not be dividing on this issue, but we have a few questions to which we would like the Minister to respond.
First, GBL and 1,4-BD are drugs which, when ingested, are rapidly converted to GHB, which has two effects. At low doses it produces an euphoric effect, and at higher doses, it acts as a sedative and can quickly make the user unconscious. GHB has been classified as a class C drug since 2003. However, there is evidence that GHB users have since switched to GBL and 1,4-BD, which produce a similar kind of experience and effect.
As the explanatory memorandum points out, GBL is commonly used in industry and retail as a solvent for stripping paint, removing stains, and other uses. Around the world, about 200,000 tonnes of GBL, and 1.9 million tonnes of 1,4-BD are produced each year for use in industry. Given the scale of the legitimate production and use of this chemical, we accept the Home Office assessment that an outright ban on the drug, which would include its use in industry, is not feasible. We also accept the decision to control the drug under the 1971 Act, but we are concerned that the proposed legal status of GBL as a class C drug might lend it a false legitimacy, and the sense that it is harmless in the eyes of potential users.
In recent months, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) has written to the Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State expressing concerns about this classification. We have already heard the tragic case of Hester Stewart, who died after consuming GBL on a night out. That demonstrated the tragic consequences that the drug can have when mixed with alcohol.
Last month, in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch, the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism (James Brokenshire) stated:
“The range of health risks, including risk of death, are increased when any combination of alcohol or other depressant or stimulant substances are taken, but classification of a drug does not, and should not, depend on whether it has been used with other substances”.
We are pleased that the Government have acknowledged the added danger of mixing the drug with other substances, such as alcohol, but does the Minister believe that it is right that the dangers of a drug such as GBL, which is often used in nightclubs, are assessed without considering the environment in which it may be consumed: one where alcohol may be taken? There is evidence that consuming alcohol and GBL or 1,4-BD at the same time is not that uncommon in nightclubs and night venues and yet, as we know from one tragic and high-profile case, it is fatal.
I would like to question the Minister about the use of GBL and 1,4-BD, which he did not touch on in detail, in sexual assaults or date rapes. The explanatory note to the instrument says:
“As with GHB, GBL and 1,4-BD has the potential to be used in drug-facilitated sexual assault, but there is no evidence to date to support this.”
In its report of November 2007 entitled, “GBL & 1,4-BD: Assessment of Risk to the Individual and Communities in the UK”, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs stated at paragraph 9.5:
“There is potential for GBL and 1,4-BD to be used as weapons in drug facilitated sexual assault.”
In the United States, GHB was added to the schedule of controlled substances by the Hillory J. Farias and Samantha Reid Date-Rape Drug Prohibition Act of 2000, which linked use of the drug with facilitated sexual assault. Given the disturbing and tragic cases linked to GBL, it is important for us all to recognise the dangers and for them to be made clear to the public. Its potential link to date rape cases is equally serious from a public protection standpoint, and, when combined with alcohol, it can, as we have noted, cause sudden death.
We are not wholly convinced that treating GBL as a class C drug will provide the required emphasis on either the potential harm or the need for robust enforcement. Unfortunately, one consequence of the chaos over cannabis classification is the damaging impression in some quarters that class C drugs are not especially harmful. GBL has very serious risks attached to it, which are becoming clearer. It is for those reasons that the Home Office should rethink and give further consideration to a higher classification. Are the Government keeping under review whether a higher classification might be justified in the coming months or in the future? The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is nodding in approval. At a minimum, we want a statement on the record that the situation will be kept under permanent review. Can the Minister indicate how frequent a review would be? I look forward to his comments on that.
Secondly, the inclusion of BZP in the order arises from European Council decision 2008/206/JHA made in March 2008. The decision specified that BZP should be subject to
“control measures and criminal provisions”.
We accept the Council’s decision, which states that
“BZP has no established and acknowledged medical value; there are no known licensed medicinal products containing BZP in the European Union.”
It also notes:
“In some Member States BZP is legally available from retail chemical suppliers; for recreational purposes it is sold as tablets and capsules via Internet sites or in some Member States in ‘smart/herbal shops’.”
Can the Minister update us on the classification of BZP in other member states? Given the ease with which the drug can be purchased from the internet and then shipped around EU member states, it is important from an enforcement perspective that all member states work individually to shut down the online retailers that work from within their country. Will the Minister comment on that specific point?
Thirdly, we support the view of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction that synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists are recreational drugs that should be controlled. We also support the provision that classifies them at the same level as cannabis.
Fourthly, on anabolic steroids and non-steroidal agents, anabolic steroids are prescription-only drugs under the Medicines Act 1968. They can be sold by a pharmacist only on the presentation of a doctor’s prescription. Anabolic steroids are also class C drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. That classification came about as a result of a decision by the then Home Secretary in November 1994, which was implemented by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) Order 1996.
The Home Office statistical bulletin, “Drug Misuse Declared: Findings from the 2008/09 British Crime Survey” estimates that between 32,000 and 62,000 people used steroids in that year. Figures from the Department of Health’s smoking, drinking and drug use survey in 2006 show a steady increase in the number of young people who have ever tried anabolic steroids from 0.2 per cent. in 2001 and 2004 to 0.3 per cent. in 2004-05 to 0.5 per cent. in 2006. However, according to a response to a written parliamentary question at column 633W of Hansard on 29 November 2007, only 28 people received cautions or were proceeded against for supplying or offering to supply controlled anabolic steroids between 1997 and 2005. What steps will the Home Office take to ensure that more people who deal illegally are brought to account? The figure of 28 is moderately low, given the British crime survey’s large estimate of the number of people who used steroids in 2008-09.
Why has the number of people being proceeded against for possession of class C anabolic steroids fallen from 402 in 2002 to just 14 in 2005? Can the Minister confirm that the Home Office is still enforcing drugs laws in relation to anabolic steroids? Moreover, how many people have been proceeded against for selling or possessing anabolic steroids in the four years since 2006? The decision to control oripavine as a class C drug brings the UK into line with its international obligations and enables the Home Office to ensure that the industry complies with the statutory controls. We accept that classification.
In conclusion, on a more general note and given the subject of today’s debate, what discussions has the Minister had with the Department of Health about the packaging for other so-called legal highs? Have there been discussions about placing more rigorous health warnings, similar to those on cigarette packets, on other legal-high drugs that are currently in circulation? Finally, despite the questions that we have been asking today, we will support the statutory instrument.
4.55 pm
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