HL Deb 09 December 1986 vol 482 cc1100-2

4.45 p.m.

Lord Beaverbrook rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 13th November be approved. [2nd Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Lord said: My Lords, your Lordships will know that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is the means by which the production and supply of dangerous drugs is prohibited except to those properly authorised. From time to time it is necessary to have an order such as the one we are considering today, in order to modify—usually by adding to—the list of "controlled drugs" as they are called in the Act. This need may arise either in order to prevent particular drugs from being misused in this country or to enable the United Kingdom to meet certain international obligations. The present order proposes that several new drugs or groups of drugs should become controlled drugs. The order has been laid with the full agreement of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and following consultations with the relevant trade and professional organisations. Some of the new drugs would be controlled for domestic reasons while others would be controlled in order to fulfil international obligations.

On the domestic side, many of your Lordships will be aware that one of the risks to this country arises from a relatively new and especially dangerous group of drugs which has been identified in the United States. I refer to the so-called "designer drugs", a term associated with uncontrolled chemical derivatives of the controlled drugs fentanyl and pethidine. Unscrupulous chemists in the United States of America found they could easily and cheaply manufacture drugs which fell outside the definition of any controlled drug in United States legislation but were every bit as liable to abuse as heroin, the drug they were designed as substitutes for. In some cases these designer drugs may be anything up to 2,000 or even 3,000 times as potent as heroin. Some addicts are reported to have died from unintentional overdoses of these drugs, thinking they were taking a form of heroin, and others have developed the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease owing to the presence of toxic by-products in the manufacturing process.

I am pleased to be able to say that so far these drugs are not a problem in this country. But they could all too easily become one. If that were to happen, the consequences for drug misusers and society as a whole could be disastrous. Although the parent drugs, fentanyl and pethidine, are themselves controlled drugs here, many of their dangerous derivatives are not, and the advisory council has, quite sensibly, recommended their control as a precautionary measure.

There are too many of these derivatives to name individually, so we have been advised instead to include broad chemical definitions of them in the Act. However, two particular fentanyl derivatives, carfentanil and lofentanil, are individally named in the order, so that we can allow for their legitimate therapeutic use in related statutory instruments which would be laid later on. In view of the extremely dangerous nature of the designer drugs, we propose to include them in Class A in the Act which is the strictest of three available classifications. As a result, persons convicted of serious offences would face sentences up to and including life imprisonment.

The proposal to control the other nine drugs contained in the order arises from the United Kingdom's obligations as a party to the United Nations 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. To fulfil our international obligations and to promote international co-operation, which is so vital in the fight against drugs, we need to provide controls which correspond to those which the convention applied to these drugs earlier this year. Although these drugs are abused elsewhere, they are not a problem in the UK and, since they are far less dangerous than the designer drugs, the advisory council has recommended their inclusion in the Act as Class C drugs.

I shall say just a few words about each of them. Cathinone and cathine are stimulant drugs found in the leaves and stems of the khat plant which grows in some East African and Middle Eastern countries and is widely chewed to produce a euphoric sensation. Fenethylline and fencamfamin are also stimulants, which are available for therapeutic use.

Fenproporex, mefenorex and propylhexedrine are all anti-obesity drugs and, in addition, the inhalant form of propylhexedrine is used as a nasal decongestant. Pyrovalerone has a number of medical applications including the treatment of asthma. Finally, I am pleased to say, there is N-ethylamphetamine, another stimulant, about whose therapeutic uses we know little.

Subject to the completion of certain statutory procedures, the measures I have outlined today would come into operation on 1st April 1987. We shall ensure that those concerned with controlled drug manufacture, sale, prescribing and dispensing are fully advised as to the implications of the new controls well before the operative date. I commend the changes proposed in the draft order to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 13th November be approved. [2nd Report from the Joint Committee.]—(Lord Beaverbrook.)

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his learned exposition of this order. I thought he showed an expertise which many of us greeted with some surprise. It was a very deep expertise on a very difficult matter. As I said, we are grateful to him.

I suppose that the introduction of this order, with the explanation we have had, is a little frightening. It is a reminder that drugs which have been a blessing in so many cases can also be the reverse of that and have some very frightening by-products. It is a factor which not only doctors and chemists have to bear in mind but, equally, the lay patient when he receives, too easily perhaps on some occasions, the advice that it would be rather useful if he or she took a drug.

I repeat, the benefits of medicine are manifold and we are grateful to those who dispense it, but one should bear in mind some of the things we have heard this afternoon with a view to ensuring that we do not believe that drugs are necessarily a total blessing. They should be looked at with some amount of caution.

There is not the slightest doubt, having heard the explanation given by the Minister, that these drugs are dangerous and ought to be put into the categories to which he referred. I am sure it is right to say that this order should receive the sanction of this House.

Lord Beaverbrook

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord. We are continuing to give the highest priority to measures to tackle drug misuse. As I said, our strategy involves action on a number of fronts aimed at reducing both the supply of and the demand for all drugs. This order extends the number of drugs that are covered by legislation.

On Question, Motion agreed to.