HL Deb 02 March 1967 vol 280 cc1172-6

3.13 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether legislation is proposed, and if so, on what lines, for the more effective control of dangerous drugs.]


My Lords, may I first be allowed to thank the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, the Leader of the Opposition, for his extraordinarily kind personal references to myself? And may I also thank noble Lords in all parts of the House who during the last three months have sent me most kind and encouraging messages, which have been all the more gratifying because they have been almost wholly undeserved.

To answer the Question of the noble Baroness, dangerous drugs are already closely controlled under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1965, which reflects the requirements of the international Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961, to which the United Kingdom is a party. Further legislation is being prepared to implement the recommendations of the Interdepartmental Committee on Drug Addiction, whose Chairman was the late Lord Brain. This will provide for the compulsory notification of addicts by doctors; for limiting the general authority of doctors to prescribe or supply heroin or cocaine to cases in which these drugs are required for the relief of pain due to organic disease or following injury or operation; and for authorising doctors at treatment centres to prescribe or supply these drugs to addicts.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. May I ask him two questions: first, whether this legislation is to apply to only the drugs he has mentioned, cocaine and heroin, or whether it will also be applied to certain non-narcotic drugs; and, secondly, whether high priority will be given to this Bill in the legislative programme?


My Lords, with regard to my noble friend's first question, it is the intention to draft the legislation so that the restrictions on prescribing for addicts can be applied, if necessary, to dangerous drugs other than heroin and cocaine. With regard to the timing of the legislation, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary hopes to be in a position shortly to make an announcement about when the new legislation will be introduced. He has already expressed his intention to introduce a Bill during the present Session.


My Lords, would not my noble friend agree that while an innocuous drug, taken in a prescribed dose, can do no harm, the same drug, taken in an excessive amount, can become dangerous? Would he not agree, therefore, that our policy should be wider than the one he suggests and should not be applied only to these drugs—in fact, it should limit excessive prescribing?


My Lords, I would agree with my noble friend that so-called innocuous drugs taken in excess can be dangerous, just as alcohol can be dangerous if taken in excess. The legislation we have in mind refers to "dangerous drugs", and in the main they are drugs of addiction. If we find later that there is a need to extend the field and restrictions further, of course we will consider it. For the time being the legislation will be concerned with dangerous drugs, meaning drugs of addiction.


My Lords, may we take it that when the legislation is introduced it will contain a list of dangerous drugs, which the Minister will have power to add to, by order, so that if a new dangerous drug is produced he can put it straight on to the list?


My Lords, as the noble Lord from his own experience will doubtless be aware, when this legislation is framed it will of necessity have to apply to named drugs, as indeed the present legislation does. But the point he has made about leaving the door open for additions I will certainly refer to my right honourable friend.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the mounting revul- sion and anger that is expressed by the majority of the population against the pushers and peddlers of drugs? Most normal people of this country feel that such a crime is akin to murder? Will a reassessment of the penalties be made accordingly?


My Lords, I am sure your Lordships all share the revulsion and horror to which my noble friend has referred. But, with regard to penalties, I would remind your Lordships that, under the 1965 Act, for a conviction on indictment the maximum penalty is £1,000 or ten years' imprisonment, or both, which is a substantial penalty. On summary conviction the penalty is a fine not exceeding £250 or imprisonment for a term of twelve months, or both. It seems to me that the main problem here, apart from the attitude of the public, is the hounding, finding and conviction of these persons; and it may well be that when we have caught them, and they have been convicted, the penalties are adequate for the purpose.


My Lords, following upon the noble Lady's question, I would ask, in view of the recent events: is there not a strong case for limiting the amount of drugs that can be prescribed at any one time? Could not the noble Lord say that consideration will be given to including in this Bill a provision limiting the amount that may be prescribed on any one prescription?


If the noble and learned Viscount is referring to dangerous drugs, this is precisely one of the considerations which will be taken into account regarding the new legislation.


My Lords, does my noble friend feel that the excessive, and in some cases hysterical, publicity that is being given to drug-taking in the Press and on television is probably doing more harm than good? Does he not think this is probably arousing a feeling of curiosity in the minds of young people, and leading them into drug-taking, when otherwise they would not embark in that direction? Is not the real remedy first of all the speeding up of the necessary legislation, and the direction of more police activity to the scene?


My Lords, I know the view is expressed, which may well be a valid one, that the publicity which my noble friend has alleged borders in some cases on hysteria may excite curiosity and persuade young people to try these drugs. But it is beyond the present powers—I think quite rightly—of Her Majesty's Government to interfere with the Press and other organs of publicity in this matter, which are quite rightly concerned about what is obviously a growing menace.

With regard to his suggested remedies, I would submit, with respect, that the evidence is that we are already actively taking steps in both these fields. Lastly, I think it is well to remember that the more we regulate by law, as we must, the greater the attractions of the black market and the more the prices are forced up. So there are two arms to this: first, the legislation; and, secondly, the active steps which are being increasingly pursued in order to bring these ill-doers to book.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord if all this means that, in the near future, I shall be unable to get a prescription for tincture of heroin for my laryngitis?


My Lords, I think the noble Lord, provided the premises of his claims are, as they must be, correct, need have no fear. There is no present intention, as has been advocated in some medical quarters, to prohibit altogether the prescription of these drugs. Therefore, I do not think he has any reason to fear.


My Lords, is there not a danger that by continuing this discussion we are providing exactly the publicity which we do not wish to provide?


My Lords, at the risk of displeasing my noble friend, may I ask my other noble friend the Minister whether it is not a fact that there is a considerable connection between drug distribution and gambling; and is not this another field in which Government activity would be welcome?


My Lords, I am quite sure that my noble friend is right. There is a connection, just as there is between drink and gambling. As, no doubt, my noble friend will be aware, it is the firm intention of my right honourable friend to introduce legislation with regard to gambling so soon as Parliamentary time permits.


My Lords, if a separate Question is put down, will the noble Lord be willing to tell the House what new measures have been devised to make it less easy for young people to get access to the milder drugs, the consumption of which sometimes leads in due course to the consumption of the more dangerous drugs?


My Lords, I should be most happy to answer such a Question from the noble Viscount. But I should point out that such drugs as amphetamines and LSD, which are not addictive, are not included as "dangerous drugs", and therefore they will not be dealt with specially in the projected legislation. But I would assure the noble Viscount that, although there are no immediate plans for the revision of the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act, by which they are covered, we have the matter very much under review.