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House of Lords

Friday, 27th February 1998.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon.

Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) Order 1998

Lord Hoyle rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 15th January be approved [20th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. The purpose of this order is to bring under the controls of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 six previously uncontrolled substances--namely, aminorex, brotizolam, etryptamine, mesocarb, methcathinone and zipeprol.

The order is necessary to enable the United Kingdom to comply with a decision made by the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs to control the six substances under the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances.

Four of the substances--aminorex, brotizolam, mesocarb and zipeprol--have medicinal uses. They are used as medicines in other countries but are not currently licensed for use as medicines in the United Kingdom. The other two substances--etryptamine and methcathinone--have no recognised medicinal uses.

All six substances have abuse liability and are potentially attractive to drug misusers. There have been a few reports of the misuse of methcathinone in the United Kingdom, but no evidence that any of the other five substances is currently misused here.

Before an order of this kind is brought before Parliament for approval, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 requires that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the expert body which advises the Government on drugs issues, is consulted. The council has been consulted and has advised on the measure.

The order proposes that etryptamine be added to the list of controlled drugs specified as Class A in Schedule 2 to the 1971 Act; that methcathinone and zipeprol be added to the list of controlled drugs specified as Class B; and that aminorex, brotizolam and mesocarb be added to the list of substances specified as Class C.

Subject to the order being approved, the Government would then intend to lay before the House amendment regulations to bring the six drugs under the control of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 1985. These regulations will provide the regime of control over them. Here again, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has given its advice, which the Government have followed. The changes would, as your Lordships will have seen from the draft order, take effect from 1st May.

The amendment regulations to which I have just referred will also increase the regime of control on the drug flunitrazepam, or Rohypnol, the drug which has

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been referred to in the press as the "date rape drug". I am glad to be able to tell the House that, notwithstanding that appellation, the Forensic Science Service has found very little evidence of its use in that way. It is already controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act and as a result is not covered in the modification order which is before the House.

The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs decided-- at the same time as it made recommendations relating to the six substances which are the subject of the modification order--that flunitrazepam should be subject to a stricter regime of control under the UN convention. The amendment regulations which the Government propose to lay shortly will provide for the drug to be transferred from Schedule 4 to Schedule 3 of the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 1985, imposing stricter controls on the drug in compliance with those now required by the UN convention. The effect will be to make it an offence to possess the drug without lawful authority, apply import and export controls, and require the drug to be stored securely in warehouses and pharmacies.

So far as the United Kingdom is concerned the order is essentially a pre-emptive measure enabling us to comply with our international obligations. It will help to protect the United Kingdom from the misuse of these drugs. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 15th January be approved [20th Report from the Joint Committee].--(Lord Hoyle.)

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns: My Lords, as the Minister said, the order adds six substances to Schedule 2 to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 which specifies drugs which are subject to control under that Act. I am more than usually grateful to the noble Lord for rehearsing the pronunciation of all those drugs. As a result--thank goodness!--I shall not even attempt to do so.

We on these Benches support every effort of the Government to prevent, and to prosecute, the abuse and misuse of drugs. I say straightaway that we shall not oppose the making of the order but, as I was reminded in another discussion with regard to the Social Security Bill, where there is consensus between the main parties it is sometimes all the more important that we test the reasons why we are making changes and the necessity for adding to regulations.

It was in that spirit that I gave notice to the Minister before today that I would raise a question about the relevance of the Medicines Act in relation to just three of the drugs, which he expertly pronounced, to be added under the order as Class C drugs. I did so simply to give the Government the opportunity to say whether they had considered whether these three drugs were already sufficiently covered by the provisions of the Medicines Act and therefore did not need to be included in the Order. I assume from the fact that the three drugs are associated with Class C drugs in the order that they give rise to a very low level of risk of criminal misuse or abuse and that the Medicines Act may be an appropriate vehicle for prosecuting their misuse. That Act provides that one must not sell or supply certain medicines off

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prescription, even if they are not named in the Misuse of Drugs Act as Class C drugs. They are already covered. The Act provides that,

    "no person shall sell by retail, or supply in circumstances corresponding to retail sale, a medicinal product of a description, or falling within a class ... [except] in accordance with the directions of an appropriate practitioner".

It gives Ministers the opportunity to specify what kinds of medicinal products are covered by the regulations.

I understand that the underlying intention of the Medicines Act is to prevent the off-prescription sales or supply of particular drugs by certain less scrupulous medical practitioners. But the definitions in the Act of "retail" and "supply in circumstances corresponding to retail sale" make clear that the Act includes the wider activities of those who indulge in, or benefit from, the promotion of the illegal sale of drugs.

Have the Government considered whether these three Class C drugs can be more appropriately dealt with under the Medicines Act and, if so, why have they decided against doing so? I suspect that the Minister gave the major part of the answer but I should like to know the criteria that are used to determine whether a prosecution should be brought under the Medicines Act or the Misuse of Drugs Act. It may well be that the Government do not believe that the penalties available in a magistrates' court are sufficient. However, magistrates are allowed to pass a maximum sentence of six months on each individual offence and on two offences they may pass a consecutive sentence of six months, raising their maximum sentencing power to 12 months. I should be grateful if the Minister would address those points. However, we have no intention of opposing the making of the order.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, it goes without saying that we too welcome any attempt to clamp down on the misuse of narcotic drugs that is drawn to our attention by the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. I wish to ask the Minister just one question having listened carefully to everything he said about these particular drugs. I echo the congratulations expressed by the noble Baroness on the Minister's pronunciation. I shall not attempt to emulate it except for one drug that the Minister said had been the subject of a few reports of misuse: Methcathinone. Can the Minister inform the House what reports have been made to the Government about the misuse of this particular drug? I believe that it is the only drug mentioned in the order which has been the subject of such reports. I believe the Minister said that the others were referred to in the order by way of pre-emptive action to stop any possible future misuse whereas in the case of Methcathinone there had already been some reports of its misuse. Perhaps the Minister can describe the nature of the reports and how extensive the misuse has been.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I am very pleased that I am a qualified engineer rather than a pharmacist or medical practitioner and I do not have to pronounce the names of these drugs all the time. I deal first with the point raised by the noble Baroness. While some of the drugs

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mentioned today are in Class C, all of the Class C drugs in the Misuse of Drugs Act are also covered by the Medicines Act 1968. But the latter Act does not contain the same teeth or clout as the Misuse of Drugs Act.

The primary purpose of the Medicines Act is to regulate medicines in normal usage. While it makes unauthorised sales an offence, it does not cover the wider concept of the supply of drugs; nor does it make an offence to possess with intent to supply. In addition, the use of the Medicines Act would not fulfil our obligations under the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances. The Misuse of Drugs Act and its accompanying regulations ensure that we fulfil those obligations. Referring to Methcathinone, there have been reports of its misuse in the United Kingdom. All we have at the moment is a small number of reports by the police. They are very few.

The order will enable the United Kingdom to fulfil its international obligation as a party to the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, while we in the United Kingdom are fortunate that we have not suffered any significant degree of misuse of the six substances, there is appreciable misuse of the substances worldwide. Approval of the order will help to ensure that, should any unlawful activities involving these drugs reach the United Kingdom, the necessary controls are in place to deal with them. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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