HL Deb 07 July 1964 vol 259 cc943-50

3.30 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, a few weeks ago your Lordships passed the Dangerous Drugs Bill (now the Dangerous Drugs Act, 1964) which was introduced into your Lordships' House by the noble Lord, Lord Amulree. That Bill dealt, among other things, with offences concerning the misuse of the drug cannabis, which is better known to some of us as Indian hemp. To-day I am asking your Lordships to give your approval to a Bill which deals with the misuse of drugs of another kind.

The misuse of drugs is not a modern phenomenon. Opium and hashish have for centuries been misused for non-medical purposes. Such drugs are often used either as a means of escape from reality, or to give "Dutch courage" for some perilous undertaking. It is said that the Assassins of the Lebanon got their name from their custom of taking hashish to embolden themselves before setting out on their murderous raids. While drugs may still be taken to some extent in order to escape from the pressures of this world, or to gain courage to commit crime, the modern trend seems to be to take them for "kicks". But whatever the motive may be for taking drugs for non-therapeutic purposes, the effects can only be harmful to the individual. Moreover, if this kind of improper use of drugs is not curbed it leads to serious social damage.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has been much concerned about the increasing abuse of one particular kind of drug—namely, the amphetamines and amphetamine-like drugs, which are more popularly known as "pep pills". There has been increasing evidence of the misuse of these drugs, first in London, then in other large cities, and spreading throughout the country. To feed the demand for these drugs there has grown up an illicit traffic in them which is derived from various sources from which the drugs are obtained by theft, fraud, or through loopholes in the present legislation. The police have become much concerned by the development of this traffic, and my right honourable friend is determined to give them the powers they need to deal with it. This is the object of the Bill. The problem which faces us in dealing with these drugs is, as in the case of the control of dangerous drugs, to ensure that these substances, which have legitimate and beneficial use in medicine, shall be available for that purpose, but that their misuse shall be prevented.

The drugs in question are at present subject to the poisons legislation, and by virtue of this they can be sold retail only by an authorised seller of poisons on premises registered under the Pharmacy and Poisons Act, 1933, and against a prescription given by a duly qualified medical practitioner, a registered dentist, registered veterinary surgeon, or a registered veterinary practitioner. Under the poisons legislation, however, the only offence is that of a sale which does not comply with these requirements, and there is no restriction at all on importation. If, therefore, a person is found to be in possession of a quantity of these drugs, no matter how large, there is no offence with which he can be charged, unless the drugs can be shown to have been stolen. One obvious method of applying the necessary control would be to bring the amphetamine-type drugs within the scope of the Dangerous Drugs Act, 1951. But this would be going too far, since we are concerned here with drugs which do not have the addiction-producing characteristics of the true narcotics and which are not subject to control under international Conventions, as are narcotic drugs. The object has therefore been to formulate a suitable type of control which is stricter than that provided for under the poisons law, but not so severe as the control over dangerous drugs.

The two main provisions of this Bill make unauthorised possession of amphetamine-type drugs an offence, and prohibit importation of them without a licence. The offence of unauthorised possession has a parallel in the dangerous drugs legislation, and my right honourable friend has been informed by the police that if they had power to deal with persons found in unauthorised possession of amphetamine-type drugs, their task in dealing with the traffic in these drugs would be greatly simplified. It is always difficult to obtain information about the sources of drugs which are being traded in illicitly, for the obvious reason that neither the buyer nor the seller is usually prepared to disclose information which may affect his ability to obtain supplies in the future. For this reason it is difficult to prove unlawful sale or to trace the source of drugs.

The only offence which it would often be possible to prove is that of unauthorised possession. In making unauthorised possession of these amphetamine-type drugs an offence, as the Bill for the first time does, obviously it is essential to identify those categories of people who may legitimately be in possession of the drugs. Provision is made in the Bill for various categories to be safeguarded. First, there are those who are getting the drugs for medical purposes, either for their own use or for the use of some other person, or perhaps an animal in their care. Secondly, there are the manufacturers and wholesalers and importers of the drugs, who deal in them by way of trade. These latter classes are not clearly and indubitably identifiable, so the Bill requires manu- facturers and wholesalers to register with the Home Office, and requires importers to obtain a licence. This will enable lists to be kept of manufacturers, and wholesalers and importers, and will enable Customs officers to identify consignments of the drugs which are imported legitimately.

The third group of people are those who need to be in possession of drugs in the course of their profession, business or employment. This includes doctors, dentists, veterinarians, and chemists. Exemption is also given to police and Customs officers, who may need to take possession of drugs in the course of their duties.

There is also power in the Bill for the Secretary of State, by Regulations which could be prayed against, to make further provision for exempting any other persons or class of persons who may hereafter be shown to need to be in possession of the drugs for legitimate purposes.

Noble Lords will note that the penalty for the offence of unlawful possession, which is prescribed in Clause 1 (1), is of the hybrid type, with different penalties for summary conviction and for conviction on indictment. This provision represents a compromise which was arrived at during the consideration of the Bill in another place. The persons who may be prosecuted for the offence of unauthorised possession may cover a fairly wide spectrum. On the one hand, there may be the misguided teenager in possession of a few "purple hearts" for his own use. At the other extreme there may be the "pusher" or pedlar who is making large profits by selling considerable quantities of these drugs illicitly. There is difficulty in providing a penalty which is suitable for dealing with a person of the latter type, without at the same time being open to the objection that it is an unduly heavy penalty with which to threaten a person of the former type. While the provision now embodied in the Bill is not ideal for dealing with this dichotomy of interests, it is, I believe, a reasonable compromise which will prove satisfactory in practice having regard to the discretion which we can expect to be exercised both by the police and by the courts.

Clause 2 of the Bill gives a constable the power to arrest without a warrant a person who is found committing, or is reasonably suspected by the constable of having committed, an offence, if he has reasonable ground for believing that the person will abscond unless arrested, or if he does not have the person's name and address. The police have told my right honourable friend that the kind of person who is questioned in connection with suspected offences involving the misuse of drugs often, not unnaturally, gives the police a false name and address. If this happens, then when the police decide to take further proceedings they find that they cannot trace the offender and there is a great waste of their time. It is therefore reasonable that the police should have a power to arrest, which will enable them to ensure that a person has given a correct name and address before he is released. It is my right honourable friend's intention that, when this Bill becomes law, a circular shall be sent to the police, drawing their attention to the desirability of a suspected offender not being detained for longer than necessary, and of his being released, in normal circumstances, as soon as his name and address have been verified.

The police, if they are to check the misuse of these drugs, must be able to search clubs and cafés, where they are known to be obtainable, or places where traffickers in them are suspected of keeping their supplies. So the Bill gives power for a justice of the peace to issue a search warrant to enable the police to search any premises on which it is suspected that an offence of unauthorised possession is being committed.

One source of supply of these drugs is by importing them from overseas. At present, there is nothing to prevent anyone from bringing these drugs into this country or having them sent in, perhaps through the post. It is known that this is done. The Bill prohibits importation, except under a licence granted by the Secretary of State. The intention is to grant bona fide importers open licences for the import of the drugs in question. So there will be no interference with legitimate trade. But any drugs not brought in under a licence will be liable to be seized.

There is power in Clause 6 of the Bill for the Secretary of State, after consultation with the Poisons Board, to add a substance to, or remove a substance from, the Schedule to the Bill. As I have mentioned, the drugs at present included in the Schedule are all of the amphetamine type. It may be that in the future more drugs of this type will be put on the market, will be subject to misuse, and will need to be brought under control. It is also possible that at some future date drugs of other types may be found to be abused, so that it will be desirable to bring them also within the scope of the Bill.

In other countries, it has been found that drugs of the barbiturate type have been subject to the same kind of abuse as amphetamines. My right honourable friend is informed by the police that, at the present time, there is not sufficient evidence of the misuse of barbiturates, or of any other kind of drug to warrant including them in the Schedule. We cannot, however, be certain that this state of affairs will continue indefinitely, and it is necessary to have such powers as are provided in Clause 6 to deal with any such problem should it arise.

It may also occasionally be desirable to remove a drug from the Schedule. Your Lordships will have noticed that at the end of paragraph 3 of the Schedule a number of substances are excepted from control. These are substances which, though of the amphetamine type, do not at present appear to be subject to misuse. It may be that at some future time further drugs of this kind will be marketed and ought to be exempted from control. I have already mentioned that regulations made by the Secretary of State under the powers conferred on him by Clause 1(1) of the Bill will be subject to the Negative Resolution procedure. The same procedure will apply to Orders made under Clause 6 removing substances from the Schedule. In the case of an Order adding a substance to the Schedule, however, Clause 7(3) provides that the Order shall be laid before Parliament in draft and approved by Resolution of each House. This is a provision, which was inserted in the Bill when it was considered in another place, in order to meet the criticism that, because of the very wide terms in which Clause 6 is drafted, Parliament should have a more positive control over future proposals for adding new substances to the Schedule. The Bill will apply to Scotland and Northern Ireland, since it is necessary to impose the control throughout the United Kingdom. The provisions of the Bill have the approval of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and of the Northern Ireland Government. The power to register manufacturers and wholesalers in Northern Ireland and to licence imports into Northern Ireland is given to the Minister for Home Affairs for Northern Ireland. The power to register manufacturers and wholesalers and to licence importers will come into effect immediately the Bill becomes law. The other provisions of the Bill will come into effect after three months, which is the minimum period which is considered to be necessary for initial registration and licensing.

As regards the Schedule, which lists the substances to be controlled under this Bill, some may share my own difficulty in interpreting its technical language, but I am assured that all the substances referred to are of the amphetamine type, which are liable to have a stimulating effect. Noble Lords may be somewhat reassured to know that we have in preparation a list of the proprietary names of all the drugs on the market which will come within the scope of the Bill. Copies of this list will be made available to the police, the Customs and all others who will be concerned with the enforcement of the Bill's provisions.

Finally, I would say to your Lordships that I sympathise, though I do not agree, with those who feel that evils such as the misuse of drugs ought not to be dealt with by legislative action, which necessarily limits to some extent the freedom of all of us. Any measure which places restrictions on the liberty of the individual is to be regretted, but there comes a point at which it is no longer possible to allow the unscrupulous few to exploit the weaknesses of others, and when the general good is best served by some new control. I am confident that there will be general agreement among your Lordships that this point has been reached, so far as the misuse of pep pills is concerned, and that immediate action to curb this misuse is necessary. I ask your Lordships to give your approval to this measure, which gives the powers needed to deal with this question. I beg to move the Bill be now read a second time.

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