HL Deb 05 April 1973 vol 341 cc441-7

4.34 p.m.

VISCOUNT COLVILLE OF CULROSS rose to move, That the Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) Order 1973, laid before the House on March 21, be approved. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I wish this Order were as simple as those agricultural matters we have just been considering. But if one looks at it and tries to understand from its face what it is about, I think noble Lords might be forgiven for saying it is rather difficult. So perhaps, because this is really quite an important matter, I may be forgiven if I explain in just a little detail what we are trying to do.

The House will probably remember, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton, who is so very familiar with this subject, certainly will, that before the passage of the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971, the law relating to the control of dangerous drugs and the prevention of their misuse had grown up without any very coherent pattern, largely in response to the increasing misuse of drugs in the last decade. The 1971 Act has drawn together the existing statutory provisions into a comprehensive code; it provides for the first time a really flexible piece of legislation that enables the Government to react quickly and constructively to the problems caused by drug dependence, and at the same time provides firmer defences against illicit traffic and misuse. In view of the damage to society that can be caused by drug dependence and misuse, it is an Act of considerable social significance and the Government attach great importance to its effective operation.

Since it was passed on to the Statute Book, the Government, in close consultation with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs set up under the Act—and I think that is the only bit of the Act that is in force at the moment—have been preparing as a matter of priority the subordinate legislation which is necessary to bring the whole of the Act into force. This has been a substantial operation, and it has needed a thorough review of the existing arrangements as well as the development of new provisions, all of which has had to be done in careful consultation with many interests that are involved. But I can now tell the House that the subordinate legislation is complete and ready to come into operation and so bring the whole Act into force.

In the time since the Act was passed—and it got the Royal Assent in May 1971, so it is nearly two years old—changes have occurred in the international control of narcotics, and our own assessments of the potential of misuse of certain drugs have been revised; so adjustments need to be made to the drugs controlled by the 1971 Act, and that is in fact the purpose of this rather obscure Order. In view of the difficulty and the importance, may I just explain what these changes are? If I fail in my pronunciation of some of the substances dealt with, I beg for pardon in advance. The substances controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act are listed in the Second Schedule, in a sort of mind-boggling collection of technical and chemical phrases, which are in fact categorised into three classes, A, B and C, according to the assessment of their danger if misused. Offences involving the substances in the different classes attract different penalties, which are set out in tabular form in the Fourth Schedule. By Order in Council it is possible for substances to be added to or removed from Schedule 2, or moved from one bit of it to another. That is done under Section 2, under which this Draft Order is made. It is, in fact, the first Order of this kind that has been introduced.

The Act requires that its provisions should be considered by the Advisory Council and the changes it makes are upon the Advisory Council's recommendations—and I am glad to see the noble Baroness in her place, and nodding to agree with me that this has been done. 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 control of narcotics. Second, there is an adjustment to remedy a defect in the Act by which some drugs are placed in two different classes at the same time. Third, four drugs are removed from control because they are no longer thought liable to be misused. I will explain those in turn.

The first group—that is, the international changes—are dealt with in Articles 2(a) and 2(c) of the Order and they arise from this country'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 under control two drugs, drotebanol—which is defined in a technical sense in Article 2(a)—and propiram. These are, in fact, synthetic pain-killing drugs. 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 our Act give effect to these changes: they add drotebanol to the list of Class A drugs and remove nicodicodine from that list; and they add nicodicodine and propiram to the list of Class B drugs.

Next is the change made by Article 2(b) of the Order, which remedies an anomaly created by an oversight when the 1971 Act was drafted. Paragraph 3 of Part I of Schedule 2 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, and 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 specifically named in Class B, the offence of being in illegal possession of them would attract a lesser penalty than for drugs in Class A. This overlap is obviously unsatisfactory and Article 2(b) remedies it, and makes sure that they go into only one class at a time. Finally, Article 2(d) of the Order removes from control entirely four substances that appear as Class C drugs in Part III of Schedule 2. These are fencamfamin, pemoline, phentermine and prolintane, all of which are minor central nervous system stimulants.

I should just explain how it was that they got into the Schedule in the first place. In 1964, it was necessary for the Government of the day to deal with the problem of the increasing misuse by young people of pep pills or, as they are precisely termed, certain central nervous system stimulants; in particular the amphetamines. The Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act 1964 brought these substances under control and, originally, most of the substances under control were not mentioned by name in the Schedule to the 1964 Act, but were controlled because their chemical structure fell within a generic formula which was set out in the Schedule to that Act. Unfortunately, not only did that formula catch the amphetamines which then, as indeed now, were the main drugs of misuse in this class, but it also caught 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 or intended. Fencamfamin, phentermine and prolintane are three drugs which became controlled in this way. Pemoline was named specifically in the Schedule to the 1964 Act because, though its chemical structure was not caught by the generic formula, it had a similar structure and a similar clinical effect 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, now the 1971 Act, was before 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 grounds that they were being misused, or were likely to be misused, or that if misuse occurred it would be harmful. The Government had decided in 1970 to abandon the generic formula (this was, in fact, done by an Order amending the 1964 Act) but they thought it best to retain in the 1971 Act the list of drugs that were controlled under the existing law, and to use the machinery provided by the Advisory Council set up under the Act to consider any changes in the list of drugs that ought to be subject to control. So one of the first tasks undertaken by the Council when it was established in January last year, was to consider the status of these drugs. The Department of Health and Social Security suggested that fencamfamin should also be considered at the same time. I understand that the Council came to the conclusion that none of them was being misused or appeared likely to be misused, nor, indeed, would have harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem if they were. So they took the view that, in accordance with the criteria for control laid down in Section 1(2) of the Act, there were no grounds for these drugs remaining under control and that is what they recommended. So that is why we are now lifting the control of them. That, I think, goes through the various parts of this Order. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton, agrees that what I said the Advisory Council have done, is indeed what they have done. I hope that the appalling technicalities of this matter are a little clearer after my speech. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) Order 1973, laid before the House on March 21, be approved.—(Viscount Colville of Culross.)


. My Lords, can the noble Viscount tell the House what is the nature of this drug, nicodicodine, which is being removed from the danger list?


No, my Lords. I do not know at all.

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, the House is extremely grateful to the noble Viscount for explaining with astonishing clarity a matter of fantastic complexity. I must admit that, when I first saw the Order of which I had to approve or disapprove, my heart failed me, but the noble Viscount has explained it with great clarity. It was particularly important to your Lordships' House, since this is the first Order of this kind to come before us, that we should understand all the implications, particularly as there was the slight difficulty that at one point it looked as if we were amending a Bill which had not actually been passed. But I gather that the Statutory Instrument authorities are now satisfied about this matter.

I think your Lordships' House understands completely that, as we are members of the United Nations, we have to amend our domestic legislation to take into account drugs which come under international control, and that part of the Order is relatively easy. The difficult part, which I really congratulate the noble Viscount on explaining, is changing from one category to another. If I may say so, I also congratulate him on his superb pronunciation of those appalling drugs. I noticed that he left out the formidable multi-syllable words, but we shall excuse him that. We now see that two drugs have been moved into the more dangerous category; that one—nicodicodine—has been moved into a less dangerous category; and that it has been recommended that four drugs ought not to be in the dangerous category.

Psychologically, I think the House will very much approve of this change, particularly in relation to young people. These four drugs come into the amphetamine class, generically, and it is of particular importance that the young should not think that we are calling dangerous drugs which are not dangerous. This calls into question the whole matter of drug control. Psychologically, this change is absolutely sound and we very much welcome the recognition of the fact that these drugs never have been liable to abuse, and are not so liable now.

We particularly note that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has approved this Order. We have tremendous confidence in that body. I have also myself taken expert advice and consulted medical opinion, and I think there can be no doubt that the Order is a rationalisation (if I may call it that) of an extremely complex situation. As such, we on this side of the House welcome it.


My Lords, I should like to add to the congratulations which have been offered to the noble Viscount. I suppose that as a member of the Advisory Council I have some responsibility for these recommendations, but I never understood them, in the proceedings of the Advisory Council, with anything like the clarity that I understand them after the noble Viscount's explanation.


My Lords, I have not succeeded in finding the entire properties—potency, composition and chemical structure—of nicodicodine in time to be able to explain to the noble Lord, Lord Nunburnholme, exactly what it is. All I can say is—and this might be some reassurance to him—that it does not appear to be as nasty as at first thought because it is being moved from one class to another. My Lords, I have now got the information. It is a pain-killing drug derived from codeine, as one might imagine from its name, and of comparable potency to codeine itself, with which I think we are all fairly familiar. This, I have no doubt, justifies its removal from the most potent category, Class A, to where it will now he under this Order when the Act comes into force, in Class B.

I am immensely grateful to both noble Baronesses who have spoken on this Order for their kindness, and indeed for the kindness of the House, in listening to what I have had to say. I am sorry it has to be done in this form. We are stuck with very remarkable technical difficulties in trying to describe these things accurately, and it does produce some very obscure Statutory Instruments. Nevertheless, if the House will put up with speeches such as the one I made, and if such speeches are helpful, then it seems that a simple explanation can be given, and I am very grateful indeed that the House has accepted this one.

On Question, Motion agreed to.