HL Deb 27 October 1970 vol 312 cc43-7

4.25 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act 1964 Modification Order 1970, a draft of which was laid before the House on July 9, be approved. I am afraid this is a very technical Order, and its effects are difficult to assimilate at first glance. The basic issues, however, are relatively straightforward, and I hope to be able to make these clear to your Lordships by explaining their scope and implications as simply and as briefly as I can.

Essentially, the Order is intended to bring certain additional substances within the Schedule of 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 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 2 and 3. 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 2 is a statement of the complete Schedule to the Act with these additions and deletions, the additions being marked in bold type.

My Lords, I propose now to deal 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 itself is already 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 decide to list them in the international treaties. Such action has not happened, and seems improbable. 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, and 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 has been reintroduced in another place. It is likely that this measure will soon be introduced in your Lordships' House and, if agreed, will become law some time next year. But the making of regulations under the new legislation is bound to be a lengthy business, and it will be some time before its provisions will be in force. It therefore seems right to take action now in respect of THC under the existing law.

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 history has shown that they have become widely popular among young people who are intent on drug misuse. The usual method has been to take these tablets, in excess of the recommended dose, together with beer or cider, and this practice can be dangerous. It has resulted in young people being found comatose in the streets; there have been assertions that in some cases it has been responsible for subsequent criminal actions; and, indeed, in some instances it has been a factor in fatalities. Medical practitioners, social workers, the police and others have urged that the drug should be more strongly controlled. The manufacturers have made clear that they will welcome any measure to prevent drugs falling into irresponsible hands. We cannot claim that scheduling this drug under the 1964 Act offers any guarantee that misuse of the kind involved here will be prevented; but it is possible that such control will deter some from beginning and others from continuing to misuse the drug. It will signify more generally to the professional and other interested bodies that this is a drug to be distributed with care.

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 described as DET, DMT and STP respectively. Like THC 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. They are therefore also brought under control.

Items (f) to (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 in order to 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).

My Lords, I turn now to Schedule 2 which lists the substances which are removed from control under the 1964 Act. This is a somewhat more complicated exercise which can best be described as the jettisoning of a generic formula in such a way as to leave a list of specific named substances still under control. Item (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 the 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, people who misuse amphetamines have not significantly moved on 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 originally 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. 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 same formula; scores of them in fact; so many that a guaranteed exhaustive list cannot be prepared. So the best way to proceed seems to be 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 could possibly be interpreted as containing these elements 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 is now a specific list of 10 substances all of which are included in the Misuse of Drugs Bill which will be arriving in this House shortly. A similar approach is used with items (c) and (d); substances of academic interest only are descheduled and control is retained only over two substances which might be capable of being misused.

Finally, my Lords, as I have said, the Appendix to the draft Order sets out, for convenient reference, the Schedule to the Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act 1964 as it will be in future after these various amendments have been made. The rather esoteric formulæ of the existing Schedule have gone; the substances will be named individually as far as the necessarily technical matters will allow. The changes are proposed with the full support of the Poisons Board and I hope they will commend themselves to your Lordships' House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act 1964 Modification Order 1970, laid before the House on July 9, 1970, be approved.—(Lord Windlesham.)