HC Deb 04 April 1973 vol 854 cc543-51

8.25 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Lane)

I beg to move, That the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) Order 1973, a draft of which was laid before this House on 21st March, be approved. It may help the House if I briefly put the order into context. The Government—indeed I am sure that I may say the whole House—are aware of the great dangers that the misuse of drugs presents to all levels of our society and in particular to its younger members. On coming to power, therefore, we took over as a matter of high priority the Misuse of Drugs Bill that had been introduced by our predecessors and saw it enacted as the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

As hon. Members will be aware, the 1971 Act consolidated and modernised the dangerous drugs law which had grown up piecemeal, largely in response to the upsurge of drug misuse in the 1960s. The new Act will enable the Government to respond speedily and positively to the changing patterns of misuse and the complex social problems it causes, as well as to strengthen our defences against illicit traffic and misuse.

Some provisions of the Act are already in force, particularly those establishing the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and providing for research. We are anxious to get the Act into full operation as soon as possible. We shall welcome any help that we may be able to get from the newspapers and the other media in making known what is proposed as the Act comes fully into force later this year.

Since its enactment we have pressed ahead with the preparation of the detailed subordinate legislation that is needed to bring the Act into force. This has been a big task both because of the novelty and complexity of the provisions and because of the wide impact that they will have upon all those who are in any way concerned with the legal use of controlled drugs. Consequently, lengthy consultations have been necessary to ensure that the Act and its instruments will achieve their full effectiveness. I am glad to report to the House that the subordinate legislation is now ready to come into operation.

Since the 1971 Act was passed—this comes more directly to the order—there have been changes in international narcotics law and in our own assessment of the drugs misuse situation in the United Kingdom. These changes require adjustments to be made to the list of drugs that are controlled by the 1971 Act, and this is the purpose of the order. The order is a short one, but it looks rather formidable because the subject matter seems complicated and unfamiliar to many of us. Since it paves the way for the 1971 Act to be brought fully into operation the House will appreciate its importance. In fairness to the House and to those outside who are following our proceedings, I must therefore take a few minutes longer to try to explain clearly the purpose and provisions of the order.

The substances controlled by the 1971 Act are listed, in Schedule 2 of that Act, in three classes—A, B and C—according to the assessment of their danger if they are misused. Each class is contained in a separate part of the schedule. Offences in respect of substances in different classes attract different penalties. These are tabulated in Schedule 4 of the Act. It is possible by Order in Council for substances to be added to or removed from Schedule 2, or to be moved from one part of the schedule to another. This order is the first of its kind to be introduced. As the Act requires, the provisions of the order have been considered by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and the changes it makes are made upon the recommendation of the council.

In brief, the changes it will make to Schedule 2 fall into three groups. First, there is a group of adjustments occasioned by recent changes in the international controls on narcotics. Second, there is an adjustment to put right a defect in the Act because of which some drugs are placed in two different classes, and, third, four drugs are removed from control because they are no longer thought liable to be misused.

Let me explain these changes more fully. The first group is covered by Articles 2(a) and 2(c) of the order. They arise from the United Kingdom's adherence to the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. As a party to the Convention the United Kingdom must amend its domestic legislation to give effect to decisions of the United Nations with respect to drugs under international control. Since the 1971 Act was passed the United Nations has brought two drugs—drotebanol and propiram— under control. These are synthetic pain-killing drugs. Drotebanol is powerful, like morphine while propiram is less powerful, like codeine. The United Nations has also adjusted the controls on a third drug—nicodicodine—by moving it away from the most potent and dangerous drugs and putting it into the same category as codeine.

The appropriate amendments to Schedule 2 of the Act to give effect to these international changes are, first, to add drotebanol to the list of Class A drugs and to remove nicodicodine from that list; and, secondly, to add nicodicodine and propiram to the list of Class B drugs.

Next is the change made by Article 2(b) of the order. This remedies an anomaly created by oversight when the 1971 Act was drafted. Paragraph 3 of Part I of the schedule controls as Class A drugs the esters and ethers of any of the substances specified in paragraph 1 of Part I. Thus, morphine has certain ethers, and by this paragraph they are controlled as Class A drugs. Offences in respect of them could attract appropriately heavy penalties. When this provision was drafted it was overlooked that some substances which are esters or ethers of substances in Part I are in fact specified by name as Class B drugs in paragraph 1 of Part II. For example, codeine and ethylmorphine are ethers of morphine and, because they are named in Class B, the offence of being in illegal possession of them would attract a lesser penalty— which is what we intend—than for drugs in Class A. This overlap is clearly unsatisfactory, and Article 2(b) will remove it if the House approves the order. Lastly, in these changes, Article 2(d) takes out of control entirely four substances which appear as Class C drugs in Part 3 of the Schedule. These are fencamfamin, pemoline and prolintane, all of which are minor central nervous system stimulants.

To explain why we are doing this I shall have to tell the House a little of the history of why they came to be controlled in the first place.

Going back to 1964, it became necessary for the Government of the day to deal with the problem of the increasing misuse by young people of pep pills or, more precisely, certain central nervous system stimulants, particularly, of course, the amphetamines. The Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act 1964 brought these substances under control. Originally, most of the drugs under control were not mentioned by name in the schedule to that Act but were controlled because their chemical structure fell within the generic formula set out in the schedule. Unfortunately, the formula caught not only the amphetamines, which then, as now, were the main drugs of misuse in this class, but substances which were not and never have been misused. Thus, the generic formula turned out to have a much wider effect than had been expected.

Fencamfamin, phentermine and prolintane are three drugs that became controlled in this way. The fourth with which we are concerned—pemoline—was named specifically in the schedule to the 1964 Act because, although its chemical structure was not caught by the generic formula, it had a structure and clinical effect similar to amphetamine. It was therefore considered to have a potential for misuse, although there was no evidence of misuse at that time, nor has there been since.

When the Misuse of Drugs Bill was before the present Parliament representations were made to the Home Office by the manufacturers of products based on pemoline, phentermine and prolintane that the continued control of these drugs could not be justified, on the ground that they were being misused, or were likely to be misused, or that if misuse occurred it would be harmful.

In 1970 the Government had already decided to abandon the generic formula, which was done by an order amending the schedule to the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act. But the Government thought it best to keep in the Misuse of Drugs Act the list of drugs which were controlled under the existing law and to use the machinery provided by the advisory council, to be set up under the new Act, with the task of, among other things, considering changes in the list of drugs subject to control.

So one of the first tasks undertaken by the new advisory council after it was set up in January 1972 was to consider the status of these drugs. The Department of Health and Social Security suggested that fencamfamin should also be considered. The council came to the conclusion that none of these drugs was being misused, or seemed likely to be misused, or, indeed, that misuse of this kind, if it occurred at all, would be capable of having harmful effects that would constitute a social problem. Accordingly, the council took the view that in line with the criteria for control contained in Section 1(2) of the new Act there was no ground for these drugs remaining under control, and they have recommended to us accordingly.

I hope that this short explanation has enabled the House to grasp the purpose and nature of the changes that are proposed. As I have said, they are being made on the recommendation of our advisory council. I hope that they will commend themselves to the House.

8.40 p.m.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

I thank the Under-Secretary of State for his clear explanation, for which I am sure we are all grateful. I also congratulate him on his pronunciation of the names of the drugs, although he neatly side-stepped the pronunciation of the full names of drote-banol and nicodicodine—I do not blame him for that.

The statutory instrument is totally incomprehensible. That is a reflection on the way in which the House deals with subordinate legislation. As the Undersecretary of State said, this is an important subject. Dangerous drugs can ruin the lives of individual people and can ruin societies. An order of this nature should be comprehensible to the House and to ordinary men and women. It should also be comprehensible to pharmacists. During the last few days I have talked to pharmacists and asked them what the order means. Many have not been able to tell me and have never heard of some of the drugs mentioned in it. To lay an order before the House with a totally inadequate explanatory memorandum is discourteous to the House and to the specialist public who have to try to understand it. It is to treat them with contumely.

The order does not mention that some drugs are now included in Class A because of a United Nations agreement. We are all impressed that the United Nations has been able to secure agreement on certain dangerous substances being classified as extremely dangerous and being incorporated into our legislation. That should have been mentioned in the explanatory note.

I know that alteration of the classification of drugs in Schedule 2 of the 1971 Act is done on the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, but the advisory council publishes nothing. From research which I have done, it appears that the advisory council simply tells the Minister that a drug should be transferred from one part of Schedule 2 to the other part of Schedule 2, or should be included in the schedule. That advice is not made public. Once again, that is treating the public in the wrong way. These matters should be explained.

I found it extremely difficult to discover what drotebanol is, and why it has been included. I know a little more after listening to the Under-Secretary of State. When similar orders are published in future, I implore the hon. Gentleman to give us a little more information so that we can intelligently debate and understand them.

The hon. Gentleman has answered most of my questions. He has explained what drotebanol is and why nicodicodine has been demoted—I guessed that it was an ester or ether of morphine. The explanatory memorandum should have explained why four drugs have disappeared into limbo.

We all understand the difficulty of this problem. I have been told that there exists an X-ray device which is able to detect drugs carried in luggage, but so far that machinery is not in full operation at our seaports and airports. I have read articles about this X-ray device which not only finds guns and ammunition in passengers luggage but can also detect drugs. I understand that there is resistance to using the device because of the charges that would be placed upon airline carriers, but if we have to decide between keeping dangerous drugs out of the country and the comparatively small expense of operating the device I would prefer that expense to be borne.

8.44 p.m.

Mr. Lane

With the leave of the House, I will try to take up some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser), in reverse order. I am grateful for his general welcome and I understand his reservations.

I cannot answer him off the cuff about the X-ray device. I should like to go further into it and consider the possibility of making better use of the latest technology. I agree that it is vital to use all the resources of science to catch drugs that may be brought in wrongly or illegally. I will look into this matter and write to the hon. Gentleman about it. He may want to question us further in the next few weeks.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that the advice of our advisory council had not been published. There is no regular understanding that bodies of this kind which give advice will always publish their advice stage by stage as they go along. There is no particular mystery about this. I assure the hon. Gentleman that in the further information we will be giving and the further publicity as we get nearer the time when the Act comes fully into force, it will be made quite clear what the advisory council has been saying to us on particular points in preparation for bringing the Act into force, examples of which we have had tonight. I would like to look further into the desirability of more general publication of the advisory council's work and advice to us. I cannot tonight make any more commitment than that.

That brings me to the hon. Member's main criticism that this was an incomprehensible order. He particularly suggested that the explanatory note ought to be fuller and said that some pharmacists to whom he had talked had never heard of these new drugs and knew nothing at all about them. His criticism is somewhat ill founded, because we are dealing here with getting the machinery put together, ready to start work. This particular regime of control is not yet in force. Several of the drugs we are discussing are not yet available in this country; so it is not surprising that even people in the trade are not wholly familiar with them although all through our consultations the Pharmaceutical Society has been completely involved and its repre- sentatives have known exactly what has been proposed, stage by stage.

I hope I can satisfy the hon. Gentleman by saying that between now and the date when the Act comes into force, a little later this year, we shall see to it that the maximum explanation and publicity is given promptly and well before the operative date to all those who will be concerned with the new machinery when it is in force. In particular, the Department of Health and Social Security will be informing the medical world thoroughly; and the Pharmaceutical Society will certainly be informing its own members, including those of whom the hon. Gentleman spoke. We in the Home Office will ensure that those involved in the courts and the police are familiar with the changes and new machinery. For the public—whom I mention last but by no means least—we shall do everything we can via the Press, radio and television, to let people know that the Act is coming into force, what is involved and how the machinery will work, in good time before it does.

I hope that with that assurance the hon. Gentleman will feel a little more satisfied than he was a moment ago. I will look particularly at the possibility of a fuller explanation of this very technical matter in any future orders that are to come before the House. I hope on this basis we can get at least this order on its way.

Mr. John Fraser

I realise, of course, that this part of the Act is not yet in force and that full information will be given to pharmacists, the police and others about its effects. But what the House is being asked to do this evening is to add to Class A drugs in the Second Schedule the name of a drug of which probably none of us has heard before but the supply of which will carry a maximum term of imprisonment of 14 years. I do not think the House ought at any time lightly to amend the law to create a new offence carrying a maximum of 14 years' imprisonment without knowing exactly what it is doing. That was my main reason for putting forward a request for more information.

Mr. Lane

I will consider whether there is anything within the rules and form of orders of this kind that we can do beforehand, but I have detained the House, and no doubt bored a number of people stiff during the last 15 minutes, only so as to get on record, not only for those in the House who are interested but for those outside who are interested, what is involved in greated depth than in the short format of the order. I will consider this further.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) Order 1973, a draft of which was laid before this House on 21st March, be approved.

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