HL Deb 04 April 2003 vol 646 cc1613-7

1.14 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 12th March be approved [15th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of the order is to bring under the control of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 eight previously uncontrolled substances. As is required by provisions set out in Section 1 of the Act, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has been consulted and agrees with these proposals.

The order is needed to enable the United Kingdom to comply with a decision by the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs to bring four of the substances under the control of the 1971 United Nations convention on psychotropic substances. The remaining four are anabolic steroids and are banned by the International Olympic Committee.

The order proposes that dihydroetorphine and remifentanil be added to the list of controlled drugs specified as Class A drugs in Schedule 2 to the 1971 Act: and that 4-hydroxy-n-butyric acid and Zolpidem be added to the list of substances specified as Class C drugs. 4-hydroxy-n-butyric acid is commonly known as GHB and is a widely recognised drug as a result of media reports about its possible use as a rape drug.

Four other substances are to be controlled, all of which are anabolic steroids: 4-androstene-3,17-dione, 19-nor-4-adrostene-3,17-dione, 5-androstene-3,17- diol and 19-nor-5-androstene-3,17. These are to be controlled as Class C drugs. All four have recently been added to the International Olympic Committee's list of prohibited substances.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has considered the misuse potential of all eight substances and has recommended that they should be brought under the controls of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and its associated regulations. If the order is approved, we shall lay before the House an amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 which will bring all eight drugs within their scope. The amendment regulations will impose a regime of controls for the legitimate medical and research use of the drugs.

In accordance with usual practice, we have consulted the organisations which represent the medical professions and the pharmaceutical industry about the changes. No objections were raised to the proposals.

If the order is approved, we aim to bring it into effect, together with the relevant amendment regulations, on 1st July. The order, together with the amended regulations, will make it an offence to supply or possess these eight substances, except for legitimate medical or research purposes. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 12th March be approved [15th Report from the Joint Committee]. —(Lord Davies of Oldham.)

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the purposes of the order. Of course it is right that we should add to the list of banned substances in both Classes A and C those new chemicals that come on to the market so that we may prevent their misuse. As the Minister made clear, there would be no problem if the drugs were being used only for medical or research purposes.

The Minister mentioned GHB—I am glad that. I do not have to emulate his expert pronunciation of the full names of the chemicals—which has become a serious matter because it has been used as a date rape drug. In the past we have agreed to other substances such as Rohypnol being added to the list of prohibited drugs.

It is important for the Government to keep such legislation up to date and we fully support the order.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, noble Lords on these Benches believe this order to be entirely proper, but before it is approved, I have one or two questions to put to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham. First, however, it is clear that the noble Lord has been practising his pronunciation of pharmaceutical terms. I have no intention of trying to compete with him on that.

It is clear that these are dangerous substances and we would not want to do anything other than vigorously to discourage their use. Furthermore, it is right that whenever the relevant advisory body makes a recommendation for legislative change, it ought to be considered seriously. As the old saying goes, do not have a dog and bark yourself.

Given the current state of our obligations under UN conventions, we would not argue against the order. However, I want to ask about the consultation process. I see that it went to 100 trade organisations as well as to professional medical bodies, the police, government departments and agencies. I wonder why it was not also sent to athletics and body building organisations in the case of the anabolic steroids, and drug advisory groups and those who run night clubs in the case of the drugs that are sometimes used for leisure purposes. Such consultation could have gathered information about the extent of the problem of the misuse of these drugs. Perhaps the Minister could tell us whether such bodies were approached.

I was interested to read Annex B of the consultation letter. Section 3 concerns options. It states: Only one feasible option has been identified—the introduction of misuse of drugs controls on the substances". It continues: The UK is a party to the two Conventions and is obliged to control the substances under UK drugs law … Failure to implement the controls would result in the UK breaching its UN treaty obligations". Section 4 identifies the benefits. It states: The eight substances are currently subject to the provisions of the medicines legislation but are not currently subject to specific controls to combat their misuse. The misuse of drugs legislation will provide additional controls on the production, supply, possession, import and export of the eight substances in view of their potential for misuse. The measures should help to reduce the availability of these drugs on the illicit drugs market in the United Kingdom. This should in turn reduce the scope for their misuse. The consequent benefits are a reduction in the risks for individual misusers' health and also for public health". I am tempted to say, "Oh really? A reduction in the same way as we have a reduction in the availability of heroin and cocaine on the streets, perhaps?" Everyone knows that simple prohibition is not working.

I am not suggesting for one moment that we break international law. However, we could go to the negotiations in Vienna, which are to be held later this month on the UN drugs conventions, with an open mind and a willingness to look at more than one option and to persuade others that the need for effective harm minimisation requires a change in the conventions.

Holland and Portugal have been forced to bend the rules almost to breaking point in their efforts to be much more creative and effective in reducing the use of illegal drugs. That is not the British way. But we are renowned for our diplomatic and negotiating skills. Why will the Government not learn from other countries that have opened their minds to alternatives to prohibition and work with them to amend the UN treaties so that they give countries more flexibility and options for working within their own communities to reduce the misuse of drugs?

If we are to succeed in cutting down drugs use we need to do much more than simply approve orders to add more to the banned list. For example, what education and information is to be made available to body-builders' organisations and club goers about the two groups of substances to which the order refers? Do the Government have any research information about how widely they are used?

The Government have said in another place that it is necessary to have a custodial sentence of 14 years available for possession of Class C drugs—not for individual users, but to catch the traffickers. What evidence is there that these eight drugs are trafficked?

I do not oppose the order but I do hope that the Minister will be able to answer some of the questions I have asked.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am grateful for the support for the order given by both noble Baronesses. I stayed up all night to learn these technical terms and I am slightly critical of the fact that the noble Baronesses have not followed me in doing such important homework. I recognise, of course, that there are other demands upon their time. I am grateful that I do not have to refer to any drugs other than GHB in my response to the points that have been raised.

As to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, about consultation, the document was put on the Home Office website. We are talking about drugs which have been banned by the International Olympic Committee, and no respectable sports organisation of the kind to which the noble Baroness referred will be unaware of the implications of using the additional restricted drugs. Any work such organisations undertook in preparing, training and helping their athletes would be null and void—and indeed, shameful—if drug tests were failed. We expect such organisations to act responsibly and to be aware of the prohibited list.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I accept what the Minister has said. But it would have been a useful exercise to gather information about the extent of the problem and for appropriate educational information to be passed down through such organisations once these substances are put on the banned list.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I shall deal with that point when I discuss the more general issues raised by the noble Baroness.

The point in regard to the International Olympic Committee is obvious; we do not need to carry out research on the uses to which substances are being put. If the International Olympic Committee is firmly of the view that these are performance-enhancing drugs which would give a competitor an unfair advantage and, perhaps even more important, threaten the long-term health of the competitor, that is good enough for us and we shall take steps to ensure that the drugs are probibited.

The noble Baroness raised a more general point of how we address the issue of drug use. This is a modest order on which to engage in such a debate—I am probably one of the least qualified members of the Government to participate in such a debate—but I recognise the point she makes.

Prohibition is not the only answer, but, when they have clear evidence in regard to these eight substances, the Government would be remiss if they did not take steps to make clear that they are to be prohibited and will be subject to the full force of the law.

I have considerable sympathy with the noble Baroness's point that we need to pay a great deal more attention to the need for education and information to make people aware of the consequences of using recreational and performance-enhancing drugs. That goes without saying. The noble Baroness indicated that one or two other countries—she referred directly to the Netherlands—have followed a different range of drug strategies in recent years. We have watched the situation in such countries very carefully indeed. We are eager to learn from the developments in regard to the control of drug abuse in a number of countries. However, the messages from the Netherlands about the effectiveness of its strategies are not ones of unalloyed joy. But there are points to be noted. I agree with the noble Baroness that where international forums—such as those in the Netherlands and Portugal—put forward different perspectives, we should keep an open mind and support strategies where we see fit.

In a month's time or so we shall have an opportunity to discuss the Criminal Justice Bill when the significance of a reduction in the classification of cannabis can be debated within its framework. There will be many opportunities to discuss the issues raised by the noble Baroness, and a recognition by the Government of the validity of some of the points she has made. But mere prohibition and the imposition of the harsh nature and full rigour of the law does not always produce the desired effects in society.

As the noble Baroness said, these eight drugs, particularly GHB, have often been associated with highly illegal activity. However, the media often emphasise and dramatise small incidents associated with the use of a particular drug. I do not say that the issue revolves around a particular use of GHB but, nevertheless, these are substances which, both at international level and in terms of our judgement, need to come within the restrictions proposed in the order. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.