HC Deb 06 November 1970 vol 805 cc1441-8

11.56 a.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Richard Sharples)

I beg to move, That the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1964 Modification Order 1970, a draft of which was laid before this House on 9th July, be approved. Essentially, the Order is intended to bring certain additional substances within the Schedule to the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1964, and to remove others from that Schedule. The result of these changes is as follows.

When a substance is scheduled under the Act, there are three consequences. First, manufacturers and dealers in bulk have to be registered with the Home Office. Second, import is prohibited, except under licence. Third, anyone who possesses the substance commits an offence, unless he has obtained it on prescription, or he is a practitioner or a member of certain other defined classes who need to possess the substance for professional purposes.

The substances affected by the draft Order are listed on pages two and three. There are three lists. The first, in Schedule 1, is of substances added to the Schedule to the Act and so brought under control. The second, in Schedule 2, is of substances removed from the Schedule to the Act and so relieved from control. The Appendix beginning two-thirds of the way down page two is a statement of the complete Schedule to the Act with these additions and deletions, the additions being stated in bold type.

I think that it would be helpful to the House if I were to deal briefly with the additional substances listed in Schedule 1 which are brought under control. Item (a) refers to the chemical substances which are contained in the plant cannabis and which are responsible for producing its harmful effects. Natural cannabis is controlled by the Dangerous Drugs Act, 1965. But synthetic forms of cannabis, which are reportedly being developed, cannot be controlled under the 1965 Act unless the World Health Organisation or the United Nations Narcotics Commission decides to list them in the international treaties. Such action has not happened and seems improbable at present. On the other hand, the World Health Organisation's Expert Committee on Drug Dependence has classified these synthetic constituents—commonly known as THC—as especially dangerous. It seems right, therefore, to place them under the control of the 1964 Act pending the enactment of the comprehensive provisions in the Misuse of Drugs Bill which is now being considered in Standing Committee.

Item (b) in Schedule 1 relates to a drug which has been misused in the United Kingdom. This is methaqualone, which is an active constituent in various proprietary tablets, the best known of which is Mandrax. Although these tablets are normally made available to the public only against a medical prescription, recent information has shown that they have become subject to misuse. I should like to confirm that the manufacturers have made clear that they will welcome any measures to prevent the drug falling into irresponsible hands, and this is our purpose in including the drug in the Order.

Items (c), (d) and (e) in Schedule 1 have somewhat elaborate formulae which I shall not attempt to pronounce. Fortunately they have code names and are known as DET, DMT and STP respectively. Like THC—I apologise for all these letters—they have been classified by the World Health Organisation Expert Committee as especially dangerous, and none of them is required in the United Kingdom for legitimate therapeutic purposes.

Items (f)-(h) in Schedule 1 are necessarily expressed in technical terms and they are included to cover other forms of the substances now added which I have described and so avoid loopholes, particularly if clandestine laboratory operators ever become active here. Then, to complete the control, the salts and preparations of all the additional substances are included by items (i) and (j).

I turn to Schedule 2 which lists the substances to be removed from control. This is a somewhat more complicated exercise which can best be described perhaps as the jettisoning of a generic formula in such a way as to leave a list of specific named substances still under control. Items (a) and the first three lines of item (b) of Schedule 2 to the draft Order were included in the original Schedule to the Act as a composite generic formula to bring in a wide range of substances as a buttress to the new restrictions imposed by that Act against misuse of amphetamines. The idea was to extend control over those drugs to which amphetamine misusers might be tempted to turn as alternatives, but without adding to the risk of temptation by naming those possible alternatives. As things have turned out, there has been no significant move of people who misuse amphetamines to alternative drugs. But in any event the formula has become something of an embarrassment, because it has now been found—in this complex field of organic chemistry—that it is capable of interpretation as covering a much wider range of substances than was intended. For example, forensic chemists have formed the view that the formula takes in a substance known as ambutonium bromide which is used as an ingredient in a well-known indigestion remedy called Aludrox SA. This remedy is not known to be misused; does not seem likely to be misused; and was certainly never intended to be controlled under the Act.

It is obviously right to remove ambutonium bromide from control, but we cannot stop at that because many other harmless substances have been unwittingly caught by the formula; scores of them in fact; so many that an exhaustive list cannot be prepared. So the best way to proceed is to repeal the formula, which is the effect of the inclusion of the first three lines of item (b) of Schedule 2—thus decontrolling in one sweep every substance that it could possibly be interpreted as containing—but to go on to list as exceptions to the repeal those specific substances within the generic formula which we think should continue to be controlled. There are 10 of these and all are included in the Misuse of Drugs Bill now before Parliament.

A similar approach is used with items (c) and (d); substances only of academic interest are descheduled and control is retained only over two substances which are capable of being misused.

The changes proposed are made with the full support of the Poisons Board and I hope they will commend themselves to the House.

12.5 p.m.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)

On behalf of the Opposition I warmly welcome this Order. It is part of the continuing fight against the misuse of drugs. May I thank the Minister of State for the very lucid way in which he has explained it. He was as lucid as his hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in the previous debate. Last night we had the initials F.I.S. used, but I feel it is much more justifiable to use initials when discussing drugs than discussing social services.

I notice that this Order has been made under the powers conferred upon the Secretary of State by Section 6 of the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act 1964. I understand that this Act will be totally repealed by the provisions of Schedule 6 in the Misuse of Drugs Bill now before the House. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us what will happen to the provisions of this Order when the Misuse of Drugs Bill, which is a non-controversial Measure, becomes law? It is true that Schedule 5 to that Bill has savings in transitional provisions but it does not seem that any of them apply to this part of the 1964 Act. The only Instruments made under the 1964 Act which are saved by Schedule 5 are certain licences. I would be glad if the hon. Gentleman could assure us on this point.

In the Appendix Schedule headed "Substances Referred To In This Act" there are some of the principal substances not previously controlled by the Act, shown in bold type. I notice there Cannabinol and its tetrahydro derivatives, prepared wholly or partly by synthesis … and some other homologues of those substances. I hope that this is not indicative of the fact that synthetic cannabis is being manufactured or imported into Britain. My impression was that it was difficult but not impossible to manufacture. I hope this is not a sign that this sort of thing is going on. We all realise this is a difficult problem, we hope not a growing one. Because this represents part of the fight against the misuse of drugs, I warmly welcome the Order from this side of the House. If by chance these technical questions I have put require some formulation perhaps the hon. Gentleman could let me know the answers on another occasion.

12.9 p.m.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor)

I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend on the very clear way that he has set this out in the Order and upon his exposition. I wish to raise two small points. It is a great step, on his behalf, to have been ahead of the recommendations of the World Health Organisation. I do not think we should be in any way inhibited if we feel that we ought to do something here which as yet has not been recommended by that organisation. What I am not quite sure about is this. I presume that if the Bill before the House becomes law, the Order falls to the ground. It seems that it must be in the nature of an interim measure, necessary until such time as a new Act may come into force.

One of the greatest difficulties, which is pinpointed by draft Orders, is that with the continuous change in the manufacture of synthetic drugs it is necessary to include new substances in the prohibited list. This means that the schedules will have to be altered continuously. I hope that the new Bill will make this unnecessary and that the Minister will have the powers to do this. It is vital that this should be done extremely quickly immediately new methods of manufacture are found.

This subject is of tremendous interest to the House and we welcome the Order, but it can and must be only a part of what we are endeavouring to do. I hope I shall not be out of order in saying that in the long run I am convinced that what will stop people are increased penalties for actually owning the drugs and distributing them—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is now out of order.

12.10 p.m.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

I approach this only as a layman, but has cognisance been taken of the possible dangers of removing from the list those substances listed in Schedule 2? My hon. Friend's explanation was that many of those substances, although they had noxious qualities, had not been abused and it was therefore safe to remove them from the list. Could not the reason why they have not been abused be that they were previously on the list? At a time when we want to discourage the use of drugs because of the occasional danger, should not those substances have been left in the list? If the drugs have been used slightly but not dangerously wrongly, surely there should be discretion in the hands of the people who prosecute as to whether or not they proceed, on the basis of the malice behind the action.

I have no doubt that detailed thought has been given to this, but at the time when we should all be straining every nerve to underline the dangers of drug taking and its consequences we must be careful, in removing substances from the list, that we do not give the impression that the over-riding danger does not exist. Although it may be technically right from the point of view of people who understand the ingredients involved, in the context of the general drug danger this may be a wrong action.

Mr. Sharples

In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) I can give an absolute assurance. It is a mistake to include substances unless there are real dangers. By doing so, difficulties are created for doctors who are prescribing normally for their patients, and no realistic or useful control is achieved. I assure him that before any substance is taken out of the Act full consideration is given to the points he has mentioned. I am grateful to him for mentioning this.

I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) who has himself dealt with these problems and understands the difficulties which face the layman. He asked me about cannabinol—I think he pronounced it rather better than I have. I am informed that this substance is an active ingredient in the drug cannabis. It is the dangerous part of the drug cannabis, rather as one might say that nicotine is the dangerous part of tobacco. It may be prepared synthetically. I have no information that such preparation is going on at present, but, as it is known elsewhere that it can be prepared in this way, I think it right to take precautionary measures.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Dr. Glyn), what would happen when the Misuse of Drugs Bill now being considered in Standing Committee takes effect. We have secured that the Schedule to the Bill is in line with the modifications which are being made by the Order. The only change necessary in the Misuse of Drugs Bill is the insertion of the drug known as methaqualon into the Schedule of the Bill. That will require an amendment to the Bill upstairs.

I should be out of order if I discussed the Bill which is being considered upstairs, but I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor, if I might be allowed, that I agree with him that what is needed in the changing circumstances of the drug picture is flexibility. I hope we shall have that, and that is in fact the purpose of the Bill now being considered upstairs.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1964 Modification Order, 1970, a draft of which was laid before this House on 9th July, be approved.