The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Nadine Dorries 

Andrew, Stuart (Pudsey) (Con) 

Blackwood, Nicola (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con) 

Blenkinsop, Tom (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab) 

Brokenshire, James (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)  

Crockart, Mike (Edinburgh West) (LD) 

Dobson, Frank (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab) 

Duddridge, James (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)  

Farrelly, Paul (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab) 

Fuller, Richard (Bedford) (Con) 

Hart, Simon (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con) 

Hoey, Kate (Vauxhall) (Lab) 

Holloway, Mr Adam (Gravesham) (Con) 

Huppert, Dr Julian (Cambridge) (LD) 

Johnson, Diana (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab) 

Mann, John (Bassetlaw) (Lab) 

Moon, Mrs Madeleine (Bridgend) (Lab) 

Shannon, Jim (Strangford) (DUP) 

Uppal, Paul (Wolverhampton South West) (Con) 

Alison Groves, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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First Delegated Legislation Committee 

Monday 23 April 2012  

[Nadine Dorries in the Chair] 

Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2012

4.30 pm 

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire):  I beg to move 

That the Committee has considered the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2012. 

The order was laid before Parliament on 28 February. I welcome you to the Chair, Ms Dorries. The Committee will recall the Government’s pledge to have an effective drugs policy. Our drugs strategy sets out clear commitments to fulfil that pledge. The consideration of evidence and expert advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is naturally at the heart of enabling the delivery of the strategy. Another key commitment is to provide the UK with an advisory and legislative process which enables us to respond to the modern challenges of drug policy. I speak, of course, of the temporary control power that we introduced to tackle the emergence of harmful new psychoactive substances. 

Those substances are advertised as “legal” and “safe” alternatives to controlled drugs. The reality, as in the case of desoxypipradrol, or 2-DPMP, is that some are anything but safe. Government intervention is needed where the harm of these drugs clearly constitutes a threat to public health. It was in that context that I wrote to the ACMD asking it to monitor 2-DPMP in the summer of 2010. The Government acted promptly on initial advice and evidence of harm to ban its importation in autumn 2010, pending further advice in relation to control under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The ACMD’s full advice leaves no doubt: the harms of 2-DPMP and related compounds to users include chest pain, agitation as well as symptoms of anxiety, insomnia and paranoia lasting for several days among many patients. 

The ACMD further highlights the issue that related compounds could have replaced 2-DPMP to circumvent the importation ban or control, as we saw with naphyrone after mephedrone was banned. It recommends controlling these drugs by generic definition to future-proof control under the 1971 Act. On that basis, the order reflects the Government’s decision to accept the ACMD’s advice to control 2-DPMP and related compounds as class B drugs, by generic definition, under the 1971 Act. In addition, the order makes a technical amendment to include any ester or ether of pipradrol as class C drugs, alongside the main drug pipradrol to which they are chemically related. That ensures consistency with the structure of the 1971 Act. 

The order also adds phenazepam to the list of benzodiazepines which are controlled class C drugs under the 1971 Act. The ACMD made that recommendation on evidence that sellers of so-called “legal highs” exploited the current position that phenazepam is not controlled

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alongside other benzodiazepines. They sell it online as counterfeit “Valium”, despite the significant risks of overdose and withdrawal symptoms that the drug poses. 

I take the opportunity that my time before the Committee provides to highlight two drivers of the policy decisions that I am presenting today. First, I commend the ongoing support that the ACMD has provided pending completion of the parliamentary process. It has continued to review the latest evidence on 2-DPMP related compounds, including D2PM, to provide further advice and support our decision to ban their importation pending control. 

Secondly, we have improved the UK’s drugs early warning system to facilitate the evidence gathering and forensic work that the ACMD undertakes in the preparation of advice within even shorter time scales. That ensures the quality of evidence and advice put forward by the ACMD, enabling Government to take considered and rapid action under the temporary control power. Health and enforcement agencies also benefit from our early warning system through the improved information flow on new drug threats. The case of methoxetamine, now subject to a temporary class drug order, exemplifies the increase in the UK’s ability to respond to an emerging harmful drug. 

I should add in the context of this order that there will be two negative instruments to complement the order. A designation order will be made to designate 2-DPMP and its related compounds under the generic definition, as they have no recognised medicinal or legitimate use. The designation order will amend the Misuse of Drugs (Designation) Order 2001. Regulations will also be made to amend the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001. Designated 2-DPMP and its related compounds will be included in schedule 1 of those regulations, authorising activities for research or other special purpose under Home Office licence. Phenazepam and esters or ethers of pipradrol will be placed with schedule 3 drugs under the 2001 regulations to reflect their medical properties. 

The order will enable law enforcement agencies to take further steps to curtail the availability and misuse of harmful new psychoactive substances. It will send a clear message to those who may be tempted to use them. The ACMD and the Government will continue to review evidence on those drugs to confirm that their legislative control supports the delivery of the drugs strategy. 

4.36 pm 

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab):  It is a pleasure, Ms Dorries, to serve under your chairmanship, I think for the first time. I thank the Minister for his explanation of what the statutory instrument will do with regard to the control and classification of the substances he listed. I would also like to take the opportunity to congratulate him on his grasp of the complicated pronunciation of many of these chemical substances. 

There are a few issues I would like to raise with the Minister. I noted his opening remarks about the effective drugs policy that the Government are pursuing; the need for the evidence base from the ACMD; and the advisory and legislative process to deal with the modern challenges that we face, particularly in relation to legal highs. As a member of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill Committee that looked at temporary banning orders, I know that that is certainly one step on which the Opposition have supported the Government. 

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However, I have a few issues. First, I am concerned about the length of time it seems to have taken to get to this point. Secondly, I would like to ask the Minister a few questions about the Home Office’s forensic early warning system. Thirdly, I want to ask about educating the public about the effect of this order and generally about legal highs. 

With regard to the length of time it has taken to get to this point, it was clear from about August 2010—according to paperwork that I have seen from chief medical officers in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland—that a problem was developing, particularly with the substance commonly known as ivory wave. The National Poisons Information Service in Edinburgh had highlighted a number of individuals who had presented to Edinburgh infirmary with hallucinations, paranoia and severe agitation in the summer of 2010, following the use of ivory wave. That lasted several days in some cases. 

On 9 September 2010, column 155 in Hansard, the Minister indicated that swift action would be taken; he referred to that in his opening comments. I wonder whether he will set this issue in the context of what that swift action was. As I understand it, an open general import licence ban was issued on 4 November 2010. However, there is a problem. I have seen a letter from the ACMD, dated 13 September 2011, which refers to a letter of 29 October 2010. That letter refers to the banning order, but says that it was brought in on 4 November 2011. Will the Minister confirm whether that is correct? The letter says 2011, but I assume it should be 2010. 

James Brokenshire:  Just to save time, I wonder whether I could intervene to say that the open general import licence ban was introduced on 4 November 2010. 

Diana Johnson:  I am grateful for that clarification. However, although that open general import licence ban was introduced, no action was taken looking to control and classify ivory wave—will the Minister confirm that? Am I also right to think that, although someone could not import ivory wave, there was nothing to stop them setting up a production line in the United Kingdom and starting to produce it, as it was still a legal high at that point? Does the Minister think, on reflection, that taking that step was the way to stop the problem that was identified that summer? 

The ACMD, in its letter of 13 September 2011, indicated that it wanted a reclassification soon, but it is now April 2012; I do not understand why we waited seven months to get to this point. Why did the ACMD take just short of a year to reach its conclusion? Is the Minister satisfied that the ACMD has all the resources it needs to make speedy decisions on matters that can be about life and death? Lots of parents are particularly concerned about legal highs. The Minister referred to the introduction of temporary banning orders being an opportunity to deal with how quickly things change in the marketplace around legal highs. Is he satisfied with the length of time it has taken to get the information from the ACMD, setting out its belief that the drug should be reclassified? If the Minister could explain where he thinks the timeline might have gone askew, that would be helpful. 

Secondly, we now face a problem with the volume of legal highs and how quickly the Government can deal with new substances emerging on to the market. Will

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the Minister say more about the Home Office’s early warning system? He said that it was improving and is able to provide considered, rapid information and action, and that there is better information flow. What resources does the early warning system have? I am also concerned, as the Minister will appreciate, because the Forensic Science Service, which now no longer exists, used to do drug profiling and European liaison in this area. Will he set out where that work has now gone, what labs in this country are now doing the drug profiling, and the cost that has been allocated to that particular budget heading? 

From information provided for the Committee, it appears that, although the National Poisons Information Service has given information about the toxicology of these legal highs to the chief medical officers in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, that seems to have got lost in the system, in terms of being able to use that information quickly to reach a decision. I note that ivory wave was first put on the TICTAC—The Identification CD-ROM for Tablets and Capsules—database in 2009. It seems that that would have been a useful source of information in reaching a conclusion about what should happen to it. 

How many drugs have been identified by the early warning system since it was introduced? I am particularly concerned that the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction identified 41 new legal highs in 2010, and according to press reports, even more in 2011. The Home Office system, however, only seems to have identified 10 during 2011. Will the Minister comment on that? As he has said, D2PM was first identified by the Home Office’s forensic early warning system in January 2011. What happened before that? Concern was raised about that substance in summer 2010, so why was there a time lag? 

Will the Minister set out what liaison there now is between the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and the Home Office on drugs profiling, identifying new legal highs and monitoring shops, suppliers and the centres of production? The EMCDDA has identified a whole set of widely available legal highs and its latest report in 2011 identified 26 new legal highs that are available in the United Kingdom. The EMCDDA points out that more than half of the 40 legal highs identified in 2011 were first identified in the United Kingdom, so there is real concern about the volume and level of legal highs in this country. 

The third issue I would like the Minister to address is the education work that is needed, especially with our young people. I refer particularly to the explanatory note’s statement on the guidance that will be issued. The explanatory note makes it clear that 

“information about the changes will be made widely available via FRANK—the Government’s national drugs awareness service.” 

I want to raise with the Minister my concern that a lot of the very good drugs education work that has been going on in our schools now seems to have less focus. A particular concern is the removal of £69,000 from the Drug Education Forum, which, as the Minister knows, works with more than 30 organisations to co-ordinate best practice on drugs education. The Drug Education Forum draws on a wide membership, from the Association of Chief Police Officers to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and many other very good organisations, so the fact that that work could be lost is of concern. 

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I am also concerned—I have raised this with the Minister before—about the long-running saga of the Department for Education’s review of personal, social, health and economic education. When will the Department reach a conclusion on whether it wants to give attention to the work on drugs education, which seems to me to be an important part of any Government’s drugs education strategy? 

Is there any additional money available for the important work that is needed on legal highs to ensure that our young people in particular fully understand what a legal high is and the consequences of taking substances that describe themselves at times as bath salts or plant food? It would be helpful if the Minister could give his views on that final point. 

4.47 pm 

James Brokenshire:  The hon. Lady has referred to the various substances that are before the Committee this afternoon: 2-DPMP and D2PM. Another, pyrrolidine, is linked to those substances. She also mentioned ivory wave. In making that comment, she highlighted one of the issues of novel psychoactive substances: brand names are sometimes used for these drugs when, actually, if samples of a branded drug are analysed, one can discover that they are often quite different and contain substances that are already controlled by the law. Buying a “legal high”, therefore, might not actually be legal and certainly may not be safe. She has flagged up some of the important issues by using some of the terminology in the way that she did. 

On the timing of the issues that the hon. Lady sought to highlight, the Government have learnt from the experiences of the previous Government and the real challenges that they got into on mephedrone. Mephedrone took a foothold in the UK amid evidence of stockpiling and growing prevalence until it was controlled. I remember some of the debates we had at the time during the previous Parliament. Having learnt from that experience and the real difficulties that the previous Government got into, we have taken immediate action to curtail the availability of the harmful substances that are the subject of the order, pending completion of the legislative process, by using the open general importation licence to ban importation. I know that the hon. Lady referred to that. 

We took action in relation to 2-DPMP on 4 November 2010 following receipt of initial advice from the ACMD a few days earlier. We took action in relation to phenazepam on 22 July 2011 following consideration of the ACMD’s advice of 20 July 2011 amid, it must be said, evidence of low prevalence. We took action in relation to D2PM and diphenylmethylpyrrolidine on 15 November 2011, balancing the expected time required to complete the legislative process and evidence of toxicity and prevalence of these 2-DPMP related compounds in the UK through our drugs early warning system. The decision was immediately supported by the ACMD and further advice provided on receipt of that latest evidence. 

The hon. Lady highlighted the letter of 13 September 2011, but the Government received further advice on 10 November 2011 in relation to D2PM and diphenylmethylpyrrolidine—the two linked substances—

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which supplemented the initial advice and assisted the consideration on the generic definition. It is notable that, in its letter in November 2011, the ACMD did not recommend going for a temporary class drug order at that stage and was satisfied that the parliamentary process was advancing. Obviously, the restrictions under the open general importation licence were also in place at that point. 

One of the reasons why the temporary control order was brought in was that it takes some time to examine the prevalence issues and toxicity and whether other lawful uses may by applicable. The temporary class drug orders were introduced to enhance the open general importation licence protections, as well to bring in temporary control, over a defined period, to give the ACMD time to come up with its advice, rather than forcing it to come up with a snap decision that might not be based on all the science, experience or expertise. That is why we took the steps that we did in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011. These issues can be considered appropriately based on the science and the available evidence, so when a final decision is taken by the ACMD, in terms of its advice to the Government, the Government know that the matter has been considered properly and can proceed on that basis. The hon. Lady has a quizzical look in her eye and so I give way to her. 

Diana Johnson:  I just wondered whether on that basis the Minister can say that this will be the last time it will take this long to get to this point because in future the Government will be minded to move to a temporary banning order much sooner. 

James Brokenshire:  Certainly we will always look at the evidence that is there. Obviously this is based on issues of harm and prevalence of a particular drug. Clearly we will be advised by our experts, the ACMD. As we have seen with methoxetamine, if the ACDM is concerned about public health issues around a particular substance and recommends that a temporary class drug order be introduced, we will do that to give an extra layer of protection to enable the ACMD to consider the evidence properly when reaching a final determination. I think that is appropriate. It gives flexibility and will avoid some of the issues that the previous Government had in relation to mephedrone, where it seems they were unable to act quickly enough when a drug was really taking hold. These new arrangements will provide that extra flexibility and enable the ACMD and the Government to consider the evidence and the harms and to act accordingly based on the information that is being presented to them. 

One of the important parts of this is the new forensic early warning system, to which the hon. Lady referred. That was set up in response to the availability of newly emerging psychoactive substances and was launched in January last year. She will see in the advice that the ACMD has provided on these substances the benefit of having the forensic early warning system in place. It brings together expertise from forensic and chemical standards suppliers, UK-wide law enforcement agencies and experts in the field to develop a co-ordinated, UK-wide approach to laboratory testing, analysis of law enforcement seizures and test purchasing to identify new psychoactive substances more quickly. 

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The project also includes the trial of forensic testing equipment at UK borders to establish whether currently available technology is an effective tool in identifying suspicious substances at the border. That is done by conducting test purchasing of samples from the internet, by “headshop” analysis and by collecting music festival and non-casework police samples for analysis. A virtual reference library of chemical reference standards to aid identification by enforcement partners will also be created. That in itself—the building of a library in identifying precisely what we are seeing in terms of seizures—is an important way of addressing some of the new challenges in what is a fairly dynamic situation. 

I think that the hon. Lady made reference to the number of substances that have been identified since January 2011. I understand from the most recent information I have seen that 17 newly emerging psychoactive substances have been identified. Clearly this is a fast-moving environment. I reassure her that results from the early warning system are shared with our European partners via regular submissions to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction through our relationships with them. It is important that we look to share knowledge across the EU, so that if there is evidence of a newly emerging problem we are best equipped and best able to analyse the evidence that is there. We can then determine what law enforcement, public health or education stance may be appropriate for dealing with that challenge. 

There is a separate drugs early warning system that is, in essence, a means of joining up health professionals. In other words, we have a forensic early warning system and a drugs early warning system to ensure that there is, effectively, an information hub to collate and pass Home Office information from national and international partners’ drugs warnings systems to the ACMD. The system has that join-up to ensure that we are as best informed as we can be about the changing situation. 

On the issue of drugs education, I reassure the hon. Lady of the Government’s commitment to ensuring that appropriate public health information and information from an education standpoint are provided in a clear and up-to-date way. I am sure that she will be aware that the FRANK advice system was updated towards the end of last year. I can say to her that the Department

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for Education and the Department of Health remain committed to an improved FRANK service, with up-to-date drug information and advice and new ways of interacting with young people. FRANK provides an important means of ensuring that young people are alerted to the dangers and risks attached to a number of these substances. 

The hon. Lady referred to the current Department for Education review in relation to personal, social, health and economic education. To support schools in delivering effective drug education, the Department for Education has asked the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions to assess the strength of evaluations of programmes and services for young people, including drug and alcohol programmes, and to make them available. That will support those wishing to deliver drug education. I know that she has flagged up the issue of the review, and the Department for Education will be responding in due course. 

The hon. Lady also highlighted the standpoint of the Drug Education Forum, which has done a valuable job. Colleagues are exploring options for retaining its expertise. We are certainly committed to education in schools around the drugs issue to ensure that young people are properly alerted and aware of the issues surrounding “legal highs,” other psychoactive substances and drugs more generally. 

With those comments, I hope that the Committee is minded to support the order, which is an important step towards ensuring that we are better protected against these specific “legal highs”, as were. Although they may be described as “legal highs,” they are certainly not safe and, in many cases, they are simply not legal at all. We remain very focused on and committed to dealing with the issue, to following advice and to keeping the policy reviewed. We will be proposing further approaches in relation to “legal highs” and will be bringing those to the House in due course. 

Question put and agreed to.  


That the Committee has considered the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2012. 

5.1 pm 

Committee rose.  

Prepared 24th April 2012