HL Deb 20 June 1977 vol 384 cc431-5

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) Order 1977, a draft of which was laid before this House on 25th May, be approved. The order will add two groups of drugs to the drugs controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It is the third such order to come before the House since the 1971 Act was passed. As the technical nature of these orders presents difficulties to the layman —and I want to make it clear that I have no scientific knowledge at all, certainly none in the field of chemistry; and if I may say so with great respect, I do not find this order very simple to understand—we have again followed the practice adopted when the last order was before the House in 1975, of placing in the Libraries of both Houses copies of a memorandum explaining the order in reasonably simple terms—although that is a matter of opinion—but in rather more detail than is possible in the Explanatory Memorandum appended to the order itself. I hope that your Lordships will have found the memorandum helpful, and that it will serve to ease my task of presenting the order to the House and arguing, if necessary (and I hope it will not be so), the case for controlling the substances to which it relates.

The statutory background to the order is that, under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and its subordinate regulations, drugs which are judged to have physically and socially harmful effects when they are misused are made subject to controls which are designed to restrict their use to legitimate medical and research purposes. The drugs are listed in Schedule 2 to the Act where they are divided into three classes—A, B and C—broadly in accordance with the assessment of their harm if they are misused. Offences in respect of the drugs attract the various penalties set out in Schedule 4, depending on the class in which the drug concerned is placed. Regimes of control of the lawful use of drugs, which have regard to the harmfulness of the drug and whether or not it is used for medical purposes, are specified in the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 1973.

From time to time it becomes necessary to add or remove drugs from the controlled list, or to move them from one class to another. This can happen because of changes in the international control of narcotic drugs, or because the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which keeps under review the situation in the United Kingdom with respect to the misuse of drugs, recommends that the situation requires it. The relevant provisions of the Act permit such changes to be made by Order in Council.

The order which we are now considering has been prepared on the recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Its purpose, as I have already mentioned, is to add two groups of compounds to the controlled list of drugs in Part I (or Class A) to Schedule 2 to the Act. The groups are the derivatives of a chemical substance called tryptamine, and certain derivates of another substance called phenethylamine. Some 40 of these compounds are already known to exist, but I understand that it is possible for some hundreds to be synthesised.

To explain how the Advisory Council came to recommend these substances for control I should like to refer back to the last such order, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) Order 1975, which came into operation on 1st May 1975. That order added to the list of controlled drugs a substance which is commonly known as Bromo STP (Dimethoxy-bromoamphetamine). I have asked what "STP" means. There is more than one opinion, but I understand that it could be regarded as "serenity, tranquillity and peace".

This drug, which is, in fact, a derivative of phenethylamine, was discovered by the police during the spring and summer of 1974 to be circulating widely among drug misusers; and its origin was subsequently traced to a clandestine laboratory operating in the Midlands. American experiments had shown it to be a more potent hallucinating drug than either STP (Dimethoxy-methylamphetamine), another phenethylamine derivative, or LSD, both of which were already controlled under the 1971 Act as Class A drugs. Because it had no legitimate medical use, the Advisory Council recommended that it should be quickly brought under control. At the same time the Council took note of the fact that further substances of a like nature but which would not be caught by the entries in the Schedule to the Act could he synthesised with relative simplicity by making minor molecular changes to the basic structure of the chemical. The Council accordingly instructed its Technical Sub-Committee to explore the possibility of closing the door on the production of such substances for misuse purposes, but with the minimum interference with possible legitimate medical and research use, by controlling all possible variations in each series by means of a generic description, or formula. The result of the Technical Sub-Committee's work is embodied in the draft order.

My Lords, at this point I hope you will bear with me because I confess that I am not very familiar—if familiar at all—with some of the points I have to mention. The Technical Sub-Committee found that the particular compounds which produced undesirable hallucinogenic effects fell into two categories. First, compounds derived from tryptamine, or from ring-hydroxy tryptamines which have been substituted at the nitrogen atom of the side chain by an alkyl group or groups. Examples of this category which are already controlled under the Act are psilocin and psilocybin. The second category was that of compounds derived from phenethylamine by alkyl or other substitution in the aromatic ring. Examples of this category which are already controlled under the Act are mescaline, and STP and Bromo STP to which I have already referred. The Sub-Committee considered that generic control of these two groups of compounds was feasible; and that, in view of their known biological, and in particular hallucinogenic, activity, the grave physical toxicity of some of them, and the police evidence of an existing or potential abuse likely to cause social problems, control in generic terms was in practice preferable to ad hoc control of individual compounds applied retrospectively after damage had been done.

The medical, pharmaceutical and other relevant interests were consulted and the generic formulae now embodied in the draft order have been constructed in the light of their views. Care has been taken to devise the formulae in such a way as to exclude compounds, which could be described as tryptamine or phenethylamine derivates, but which have important medical uses, such as ephedrine and adrenaline. In one case, however, one of these two formulae unavoidably includes a substance which is used in medicine, and your Lordships will have noted that in paragraph 3(c) of the draft order, the substance methoxyphenamine, which is used in the treatment of bronchial asthma and bronchitis, is specifically excluded from control.

My Lords, it may be helpful if, in conclusion, I explain the type of control to be placed on the two groups of compounds. If this Order is approved by both Houses, when it is made, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary will lay before Parliament, regulations which will prescribe the circumstances and conditions in which the drugs may be used. As none has any medical or commercial use at the present time, all that are subsumed by the formulae will be available for research purposes only, on licence of the Home Secretary. It will be possible suitably to modify this regime of control, if in due course any of the compounds is found to have a beneficial use, so that legitimate medical or commercial use may he able to proceed with the least possible hindrance while control is maintained over unlawful use. I hope that what I have said has enabled the House to grasp the nature and purpose of this draft order. I think I can claim that I have grasped that much. Its provisions have been considered by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs as is required by the Act and it is on the Council's recommendation that the changes are proposed. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) Order 1977, laid before the House on 25th May, be approved—(Lord Wells-Pestell.)

4.45 p.m.

Viscount LONG

My Lords, I know all of us are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, for handling a very difficult and terrifying brief. That is all I can say about it. He said he is not an expert, a doctor, chemist or scientist. I too am not a doctor, scientist or chemist and would not pretend to understand what these drugs do, until I am either ill or ready to be buried.

We are grateful that the Government are watchful and keeping these drugs under observation at all times. Some sound absolutely terrifying. If they got into the wrong hands, for instance children's, many would probably die for, the want of knowing how to handle them, having taken them in one way or another. Just to look at paragraph 3 of the order is terrifying. The words used are very long and look like the worst type of English language nightmare. All I am going to say is that we agree with the noble Lord. Those are who interested and understand these matters will be able to read about them in the Library; but we will not argue on this matter with the noble Lord or the Government.


My Lords, it is customary for the layman to associate the doctor with some supernatural powers. I should like to assure noble Lords that there is not one doctor in thousands who understands the exact nature of these drugs. The noble Lord has made clear to us the reasons for this order and the kinds of substances which are included in it. I should like to support it.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Viscount and to the noble Lord, Lord Platt. As the noble Lord, Lord Platt, and your Lordships know, I have been very well briefed in this matter. I found that the more I tried to go into it, the less I understood. I reached a stage of spending a lot of time knowing less and less.

On Question, Motion agreed to.