HL Deb 07 April 1964 vol 257 cc11-9

2.57 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, in rising to move the second of the Private Members' Bills standing in my name I am afraid that I must take up rather more of your Lordships' time. However, I assure noble Lords that I will be as brief as I possibly can. The purpose of this Bill is to make amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act, 1951, to enable the United Kingdom to ratify the Single Convention which was founded by the United Nations in 1961. At the present time, 64 countries have signed this Convention, which will come into force when it has been ratified by 40 countries. At the present time, ratification has been carried out, I think, by about 20, but we expect that more will follow suit when the United Kingdom does so.

The Bill has a second point: to make additional provisions concerning offences about a drug called Indian hemp (which has now been re-named "cannabis") from which I gather people make cigarettes called "reefer" cigarettes.

The Single Convention to which I have referred consolidates a number of Conventions which have been passed over the last 20 or 30 years dealing with narcotic drugs. If your Lordships will bear with me I should like to run very briefly through one or two of the clauses of the Bill. Clause 1 brings up to date the list of drugs to which the Dangerous Drugs Act, 1951, applies; this will be found in the Schedule to the Bill. Clause 2 arranges that the list of substances named in the Schedule may be amended by Order in Council, provided that the United Nations or the World Health Organisation suggest that they should, or if Her Majesty's Government wish to do so in advance of action by the United Nations or the World Health Organisation. There is some need to make changes in this respect, because quite a number of narcotic drugs are now made of synthetic substances rather than from the original substances.

Clause 3 repeals part of the 1951 Act to conform with the Single Convention recommendations. Clause 4 adds poppy straw, from which morphia can be extensively made, to the list of substances and substitutes the word "cannabis" for Indian hemp, because cannabis has now become the internationally agreed word for that particular substance. Clause 5 makes it possible for a person who has been convicted for customs offences concerning these drugs to be considered an unsuitable person to deal in these drugs in the future; and, there again, the word "substances" comes in to take the place of the word "drugs". Clause 6 adds the Single Convention to the other Conventions now in force under which people can be prosecuted if they break laws in force in another country. Clause 7 abolishes the idea of "approved ports", which is one of the relicts of the Opium Protocol of 1912. At the present time if you wish to export or import dangerous drugs the port from which they are to be exported or imported is mentioned on the licence. The Customs and Excise are entirely in agreement with this Clause.

Clauses 8 and 12 deal with certain provisions concerning Northern Ireland. Clause 9 strengthens the powers of the police in dealing with offences with cannabis. But it involves the provision that a person cannot be prosecuted unless he knowingly permits his premises to be used for the manufacture or smoking of cannabis. Clause 10 makes it an offence to grow cannabis in this country, because although it is something one cannot do regularly, in a fine warm summer it is possible to grow the drug here. That prohibition has been agreed to by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and by the Board of Trade. The word "knowingly" is put in this clause because it is possible that some cannabis seeds may be found among seeds which are for feeding birds, and one would not like a person to be prosecuted for cleaning out a birdcage in his back garden and dropping a few cannabis seeds there which might grow. Obviously, one would not prosecute for that. Clause 11 gives the definitions. I trust I have given your Lordships a short and intelligible account of this quite important little Bill, and I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Amulree.)


My Lords, this is another short Bill but one, in my opinion, of extreme importance. First of all, I would say how well the Title has been chosen—Dangerous Drugs Bill. It focuses attention on one of the problems of our contemporary society. It does, however, seem to me again a little unusual for a Bill of this considerable social importance, which indeed enables the Government to ratify the Convention on Narcotic Drugs, of 1961, to be left to a Private Member to introduce. I must admit that my curiosity is whetted, and I am hoping that the representative of the Government, the noble Lord who winds up, will answer some simple questions.

Is there any significance in the fact that the secretary of the Pharmaceutical Society took the initial step, having regard to the number of interests which might prove unco-operative? He was responsible, of course, for the initial step in another place. Three years have elapsed since the Convention on Narcotic Drugs was made. Could the Government say, in view of the importance of this matter, what difficulties have confronted them in seeking to frame legislation themselves? I must confess that in a wide experience, a quarter of a century in another place, I have never known a Bill of such social importance to be left to a Private Member. There have, I agree, been some minor Bills, but not Bills of this social significance, which have been overlooked for a number of years and then for some curious reason left to a Private Member to introduce. Knowing the difficulties of piloting a Private Member's Bill—it becomes almost a Parliamentary steeple chase—I find it incomprehensible that this method of legislation has been adopted to-day, unless, as I say, over the last three years a Department has been confronted with a serious lack of co-operation. I think that on an occasion of this kind one is entitled to ask these questions of the Government spokesman.

We are grateful for the Convention to control the smoking of Indian hemp, now to be called cannabis. This is a habit which has unfortunately been imported from the United States and is now indulged in by some of our teenagers, as we were told on television last night, for a "kick". On February 27 the Home Secretary announced that he had decided to introduce legislation to deal with the amphetamine drugs, and the drug which is most popularly known as "purple heart". This, apparently, is very easily available, and indeed we are told that teenagers can go to the West End on Saturday nights and buy it with considerable ease, and consequently it is becoming rather popular.

It seems to me a pity that the opportunity has not been seized by the Government to introduce to-day, when we are dealing with the Dangerous Drugs Bill, the legislation promised by the Home Secretary. I am not suggesting, of course, that the two Bills should be introduced as one; they could be Bills to be dealt with consecutively just as we have had other consecutive Bills on related problems. If they had done this, if they had taken an afternoon on which to discuss the two Bills, I feel it would have served the purpose of focussing the attention of the public on the serious and growing menace of these drugs of addiction. Indeed, although we are concerned with drugs of addiction, and it is recognised by people other than doctors what a menace they are to health and happiness, there are other drugs of the simplest kind which apparently have a danger lurking in them. We were told during the week-end—and I am told there is an article in the Daily Mail on the subject—that sugared aspirin for children has been distributed to such an extent and has been taken by children to such an extent that last year there were 7,000 children in hospital with aspirin poisoning. This is something which really must be talked about.

The noble Lord on the third Bench opposite always interrupts me on this subject, as though I am discussing something slightly indecent which should not be ventilated in this House, and I always have to remind him that he has a special interest in the matter and I can always understand why he interrupts. But when we are told that 7,000 children were in hospital last year after taking sugared aspirin, here is a matter which should be ventilated. I am sorry the Home Secretary, who has recognised the importance of this problem, who has promised us legislation, has not thought fit to take some time of Parliament to discuss the whole matter, and indeed to introduce the Bill he has promised us on the amphetamines and the "Purple Hearts", and one would hope on other drugs of addiction; and at the same time he could have introduced this little Bill. However, perhaps he may be preparing his Bill, perhaps he may be consulting the experts, and I am hoping that before this Parliament is over and before the year has gone by the Bill will be introduced.

There is one very comforting thing about this Bill before us this afternoon, and that is that the long list of drugs in the Schedule was prepared, I understand, by United Nations experts. I think it is a matter of considerable satisfaction that most of these names are internationally approved, and consequently they are understood and properly evaluated in every country; because this is, of course, no longer a national problem: it is an international problem. Most of the drug firms of the United States now have subsidiaries in this country. If a drug which is harmful to human beings is produced, as we saw in the case of thalidomide, very soon of course it is distributed in another country, and any harmful effects will be felt not only by those who live in the country of origin, but in other countries to where it has been exported. Therefore, this is an international matter. Apart from my comments and my first questions which I asked as to procedure, I can only say that I welcome this Bill on behalf of my noble friends.

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, I had not intended to take an active part in this debate, but after the noble Lady's challenge, I feel—


You always interrupt me.


I beg your pardon?


I said, you always interrupt me.


I am horrified if that is really the case. I have interrupted the noble Baroness in the past, and may do so again; but not always. But in regard to this question of sugared aspirin, as a father and grandfather, it seems to me that if the noble Baroness's figures are correct, and that 7,000 cases of aspirin poisoning among children have arisen through sugar-coated aspirin, it is probably worth looking into. But, of course, sugar-coated aspirin are not made for children. Here it is the problem of children having access to drugs which should be kept under lock and key, which should not be left on bedside tables and so on. This is a serious problem, and one which deserves the fullest publicity, and I am sure that the Home Office will continue, as the pharmaceutical organisations do, to draw the attention of the public to this terrible danger.

As to this Bill, I am looking forward to hearing the noble Lord's reply to the question of the noble Baroness, as to whether the other Bill, the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Bill, might have been taken with it. But that he will doubtless tell us. A good deal of time has gone by since this Convention was signed, but the complexities of embodying its provisions within an enactment have been considerable. But since the Convention was signed and the text was published, I should like to assure your Lordships—and I feel certain that the noble Lord in reply will confirm this—that there has been close co-operation and consultation between the Home Office, the industry and the pharmaceutical organisations, as a result of which a satisfactory solution of the various problems has been found which will impose the minimum difficulty upon all parties whilst ensuring that a record of transactions is available. I feel that your Lordships would like me to say that the industry is most appreciative of the help that it has received from the Home Office in dealing with this matter.

3.13 p.m.


My Lords, may I, too, start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, on undertaking the task of bringing this useful and, in its way, important Bill before your Lordships, and on the able way in which he has presented these rather technical matters to the House. The Bill has the full support of the Government. I think we have been able to help in its preparation, and I hope that your Lordships will give it a favourable reception. Particularly in view of one or two things that the noble Baroness has said, I should like, briefly, to fill in a little of the background which I think the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, did not do, as he was describing the Bill in detail. As the noble Lord said, its first purpose is to make some minor changes in the existing law which are necessary to enable this country to ratify the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961. The second purpose is to create certain new offences in connection with the misuse of the drug cannabis, which used to be better known as Indian hemp but is no longer to be known as such.

So far as the first purpose is concerned, the Government wish to ratify the Single Convention as soon as the necessary changes in the law have been made. The Single Convention is so called because its main purpose is to replace the numerous existing multilateral treaties concerned with the international control of narcotic drugs. Perhaps I might just say, in answer to the noble Baroness, that it has not really been a long time, because not only have our ordinary laws had to be considered in this matter, but all these treaties have presented certain extremely complex questions which have now been satisfactorily settled. These treaties go right back to 1912, when the first International Treaty for the Control of Narcotics was signed at The Hague.

The United Kingdom Government has been associated with, and has played a prominent part in, the movement for international control of narcotics ever since it began to gather momentum at the beginning of the century. We continue to give every support to international efforts to deal with the problem, and to the useful work which the United Nations does in attempting to deal with this extremely sordid traffic. The United Kingdom is a party to nearly all the existing international treaties concerned with narcotics. It is therefore appropriate that we should ratify the Single Convention, which will not only replace the existing treaties but also extend in some respects the present controls over narcotic drugs. Fortunately, we in this country do not have a very serious problem of addiction to narcotic drugs, but the United Kingdom is one of the main exporters of manufactured narcotic drugs for legitimate therapeutic use; and for that reason also it is desirable that we should show that we are anxious to give every support to the efforts of the United Nations to prevent the misuse of these drugs.

As regards the second purpose of the Bill, it is an unfortunate fact that the misuse of cannabis in this country has increased considerably in recent years. The best index that we have of the misuse of this substance is the number of convictions for offences involving cannabis. These offences, the great majority of which consist of the unauthorised possession of cannabis, have risen from 17 in 1946, to 203 in 1954, and to 603 in 1963. At the same time, there has been an increasing proportion of offenders who are United Kingdom citizens. Before 1950, nearly all the offenders were of African or Asian origin, but in recent years the number of other persons convicted for such offences has increased considerably; and in 1963, of the 603 persons convicted, only 344 were coloured. The additional powers given by the Bill to deal with the cultivation of the cannabis plant, and with the owners of premises who allow them to be used for smoking or trading in cannabis will, it is believed, help the police in dealing with this growing problem, and are welcomed by the Government.

If I may deal, quite shortly, with the other point raised by the noble Baroness (I have dealt, I hope satisfactorily to her, with the question of delay), I would say that there is plenty of precedent for a Private Member's Bill to be introduced to make possible the ratification of an international Convention where, as is the case here, the Convention itself is wholly non-controversial. It has happened before, and it has been found a convenient method.

The other question that the noble Baroness raised concerned pep pills—"purple hearts". This Bill was not a suitable vehicle, as she herself says, for dealing with legislation about those types of drug, which are not really drugs of addiction, and the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Bill, dealing with amphetamine drugs, has been introduced into another place and the Second Reading will be on Monday next. I hope that that will satisfy the noble Baroness. On behalf of the Government, I strongly commend this measure to your Lordships, and I hope that you will give it your support.


My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord puts the Question to the House, I should like to add a word to what the Minister has said about the history of this matter. When I was a temporary civil servant during the First War I got to know Sir Malcolm Delevingne of the Home Office. I think that Sir Malcolm Delevingne, one of our great civil servants of this century, is an international figure in regard to this problem, and it is right that a tribute should be paid to his memory in your Lordships' House. The Home Office, under his leadership, played a very great part in the attempt to control this international scourge; and this afternoon, when this important Bill is receiving its Second Reading, our memories should go back to the great part played by Sir Malcolm in this matter.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.