Dangerous Drugs Bill.

Orders of the Day — Schedule. – in the House of Commons on 10th June 1920.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Mr John Baird Mr John Baird , Rugby

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This Bill gives effect to the International Opium Convention signed at The Hague on the 23rd January, 1912. The purpose of the Convention was to bring under control throughout the world the traffic in opium and cocaine, and the preparations derived from them, and to restrict their use to medical and other legitimate purposes. The Convention was signed on behalf of all the Powers represented, with the exception of Turkey and Serbia. Some of the countries, including Germany, failed to ratify the Convention before the outbreak of War, and it was never brought into operation. During the War, Great Britain found it necessary to take action on her own account, owing, firstly, to the spread of the cocaine habit, and, secondly, to the extensive smuggling of opium carried on in the East, which caused trouble and delay to our merchant shipping in connection with China. Therefore a Regulation, No. 40B, was made under the Defence of the Realm Act, which enabled us to control the manufacture, sale and distribution of cocaine; and a proclamation was issued under the Customs Consolidation Act to prohibit the import of cocaine or opium except under the licence of the Secretary of State. Those measures did not prove altogether successful, as hon. Members will recollect from the various cases which occurred during the War. That was largely owing to the difficulty of controlling smuggling in the case of an article which can be brought in in such small quantities and so easily sold as opium. We believe that the only effective control can come from international co-operation. The Allied Powers attached so much importance to this question that the ratification of the International Convention to which I have referred is made one of the conditions of Peace, and is embodied in Article 295 of the Peace Treaty, which binds the contracting parties to bring the Convention into force, and for that purpose to enact the necessary legislation without delay, and in any case within 12 months of the coming into force of the Treaty. That is an obligation which we have entered into. It becomes doubly important that we should have the power which this Bill would confer, if it becomes an Act, because of the impending abrogation of Defence of the Realm Regulations. The Bill is limited to carrying out the Convention except in one respect, and that is in Clause 8, Sub-section (2), where we ask for powers to extend provisions not only to the derivatives of morphine and cocaine, but to any other alkaloid of opium and any other drug of any kind which is likely to produce the same injurious effects, and this was contemplated, as may be seen in Article 14 of the Convention. Another reason why we are anxious to have the powers which this Bill would confer upon us is that our representatives in China and Japan have repeatedly referred to the disastrous effect of the traffic which is being carried on with China in morphia and cocaine to a very large extent, and both China and Japan are signatories to the Convention.

Photo of Commander Hon. Joseph Kenworthy Commander Hon. Joseph Kenworthy , Kingston upon Hull Central

When it is passed will this Bill be able to stop the whole of this great trade in morphia?

Photo of Mr John Baird Mr John Baird , Rugby

Whether it will stop the whole of it is doubtful, but the Bill embodies the best means which commended themselves to those who represented these 42 powers at the International Convention, and it represents the results of their labours and their recommendations. It may not be perfect, but it is a great step in advance, and we hope that if we get these powers we shall be able largely to assist our Allies in Japan and our friends in China to deal with this very important and pernicious matter. Of course, a big measure of this kind naturally affects the interests of large bodies of our fellow-countrymen, and the Pharmaceutical Society has made representations. Both with regard to their representations and others which we have had from the wholesale dealers, we hope to be able to meet them. As regards the Pharmaceutical Society, we have already had an opportunity of considering the points which they advanced, and with one exception I hope in Committee it will be possible to accept Amendments which will meet their views. As regards the wholesale dealers, they expressed a desire to put their views before my right hon. Friend, but only so recently as yesterday or the day before, and therefore it has not been possible to meet them and discuss the question, but with regard to both these important bodies we are most ready to listen to any representations which will enable us to devise some Amendments which will alleviate any legitimate hardships without weakening the force of the Measure, to which we attach very great importance. The details of the Bill are of a very technical character, and I do not think much would be gained if I were to go through them at this stage. Everyone is imbued with the desire to restrict the misuse of this most valuable drug, and to collaborate with other countries in reducing its use to legitimate and proper preparations, and seeing that the Bill embodies the recommendations of this very competent body of men, representative of practically all the nations, who assembled at the Hague in 1912, I hope the House will be content with giving us the Second Reading without prolonged discussion, and that we shall be able to deal with the details on the only occasion when we really can deal with them satisfactorily, which is in Committee. There are certainly one or two points of detail which have already been brought to my right hon. Friend's attention, and there will no doubt be others, but I do not think we can usefully deal with those matters until we can thrash them out in Committee.

Photo of Dr Donald Murray Dr Donald Murray , Na h-Eileanan an Iar

This is a Bill that is more important than its size indicates, and with its general objects the House would unanimously be in hearty sympathy. It is divided into two aspects, the international and the domestic. We may congratulate the Home Secretary upon taking up the international aspect The history of this country in connection with the drug habit all over the world, and in connection with the opium traffic, has been one of the most disgraceful pages in our history and one which we can never look back upon without a sense of shame.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present. House counted, and 40 Members being found present


It is a hopeful augury, I trust, for the League of Nations to see the Government associating themselves with other nations of the world in connection with such a very humane Bill, and although on the surface the provisions made for the international aspect of the question do not appear to me to be very drastic, still I hope they will be more effective than they appear to be. There are one or two aspects of the domestic problem which perhaps may be worth noting before the Bill passes, as I have no doubt it will. The drug habit is a matter that is well worth the attention of the Government, and I am glad they are beginning to take notice of this great evil in the social structure of our country. It is not only a great but a growing evil, and it seems to be growing pari passu with certain types of civilisation. We have not much of it in our country districts. As a rule these habits are learned, developed, and practised rather in the towns, especially in the bigger towns, amongst certain sections of the population, although it is not confined to any one section. The Government has selected perhaps the principal drugs that are used—opium and its derivatives, morphine and cocaine. The manner in which the Government proposes to attack the drug habit is quite on the right lines, and with one or two slight modifications I do not see any reason why they should not have their Bill.

8.0 P.M.

I do not know what the references to medical men and dispensers exactly mean. Very often the excuse given by people who are victims of the drug habit is that the doctor prescribed it for them for certain ailments, and unfortunately, after the immediate need for it had passed, the patient, finding the effects of it pleasant, continues it until he becomes a victim and cannot get rid of it. I presume what is meant by one of the Clauses giving power to the Home Secretary for "regulating the issue by medical practitioners of prescriptions containing any such drug, and the dispensing of any such drugs," is that a chemist who dispenses a prescription containing any of these drugs will not be allowed to dispense it without a renewed prescription being given by the doctor. I do not know how many times a doctor may allow it to be dispensed without the renewed authority, but there certainly should be some limit to that practice, otherwise they might go on taking the drug for a long time. I have often heard people who are addicted even to drink say the doctor advised them to take some, as St. Paul says, for the stomach's sake, or for some other medical purpose. But that is unfair to the doctors, because they do not continue to take the unpleasant medicine after the desired effect has been produced. The doctors are sometimes blamed for that. There is one thing on which I should be inclined to blame some of my medical brethren in connection with the drug habit, and that is the habit of taking medicated wines among women. I wish the Home Secretary had taken power to abolish medicated wine. If a doctor wants to prescribe wine let him prescribe good honest port or something of that kind, without it being mixed up with drugs. There is nothing that produces more drinking among women than medicated wines, which are a camouflaged method of introducing drinking habits. This is a subject which I commend to the attention of the Home Office. With regard to the question of keeping books of all the drugs that are sent out, I hope that any regulation which is adopted in regard to dispensing or prescribing or in regard to the necessary book work in connection with drugs, will be framed in consultation with the representatives of the medical profession and of the pharmaceutical profession. Otherwise they may be drawn by someone who may do harm without producing the results desired. For an offence against this Act a fine of £200 can be imposed, and on this point I should like to draw attention to the question of alcoholic poisoning. We have, and I am not saying it in any narrow sense, deaths resulting from alcoholic poison; many thousands in a year. We have also deaths indirectly resulting from alcoholic poisoning, inasmuch as people are drowned whilst under the influence of alcohol. You do not punish those who sold the alcohol. There was a case some time ago in London where a person died as a result of having been supplied with cocaine, and there was a tremendous hullabaloo to get hold of the man who had distributed the cocaine. In that case he might have been quite innocently a cause, as a link in the chain, of the death of this particular victom of the drug habit. Under this Bill he may be imprisoned or fined £200, whereas the man who sells alcoholic poison which has been the means of killing somebody goes free, and his conduct is not inquired into. That is an unfair discrimination by the law against medical men, chemists, and other people as compared with those who sell something which is used by people in connection with the drug habit. This may not be a conventional view, but it is one which ought to be taken into account. The question of penalty ought to be very carefully considered before the penalties are finally adopted. The general lines of the Bill will have my cordial support.

Photo of Mr William Woolcock Mr William Woolcock , Hackney Central

I only intervene in this Debate because, with the exception of one of the hon. Members for Norfolk, I am the only person in this House who holds a pharmaceutical qualification, and because for some years it was my duty as secretary of the Pharmaceutical Society to administer the Pharmacy Acts of this country and the laws relating to poisons. I have, therefore, had special opportunity for forming an opinion, for what it is worth, on this Bill. From my experience I can very cordially welcome the principle of the Bill, and congratulate my hon. Friend on having introduced it. There are some points in the Bill, and not merely matters of detail, upon which the House would be glad if my hon. Friend would give some assurance. In regard to Part 1, which deals solely with raw opium, and Part 2, which deals with smoking opium, there is little to be said. It is when we come to Part 3 that we get into difficulty, and I am afraid we shall get into difficulty, because my hon. Friend has not had the advantage of receiving any advice or assistance from the people who are accustomed to draft regulations and to draft Acts of Parliament dealing with the poison laws. The framers of the International Opium Convention, to which this Bill is supposed to give effect, were rather wiser than my hon. Friend in that respect. They realised in that Convention that most civilised countries have pharmacy laws, and hence in that Convention, in Article 10 (c), we find an agreement To require that such persons shall enter in their books the quantities manufactured, imports, sales and all other distribution, and reports of morphine, cocaine and their respective salts. This rule shall not necessarily apply to medical prescriptions and to sales by duly authorised chemists. I make no complaint that the Home Office have gone much further than that. In endeavouring to get agreement among the large number of countries which are parties to the Convention, the highest standard cannot be taken, but one has to find a common denominator, and in the Convention the common denominator was found. The Home Office Bill goes rather further. I make no complaint, but I would refer particularly to Clause 7 of the Bill, paragraph (b), which prohibits "the manufacture, sale, or distribution of any such drug except by persons licensed or otherwise authorised under the Regulations"

The effect of that may be that this House having passed the Poisons and Pharmacy Act and laid down certain provisions under which a person is allowed to carry on the business of chemist and druggist and to keep open shop for the sale of poisons, and having laid down regulations prescribing the examination, in fact having done everything to safeguard the public interests, we are now proposing by regulations which may be drawn by a Government Department to supersede these important provisions of that Act. For example, unless the regulations are drafted in some particular way, we can have the curious instance of a person, being qualified under the Poisons and Pharmacy Act to carry on business, having his business taken away by reason of the fact that he has not been granted a licence to deal in these particular drugs. I hope the House will bear in mind that while we are speaking loosely at the moment of opium, morphine, cocaine, ecgonine, and heroin, we are dealing with an enormous number of articles. It is not merely three or four simple drugs for which you are legislating, but you are dealing with an enormous number of preparations which will be affected, and this not by the express sanction of the House, but by regulations to be made hereafter and which may be made, apart from the assurance which my hon. and gallant Friend has given, without consultation with any of the bodies who are interested. I suggest that the Government should give us an assurance in regard to two or three of these things when the proper time comes. I would like the hon. and gallant Gentleman to promise to provide that the restrictions imposed by this Act, or any regulations made under it, shall be in addition to and not in substitution for the provisions of the Pharmacy Act and the Poisons and Pharmacy Act. I think this is important if we are not to have chaos in a very technical and difficult subject to administer. I ask for a promise on the Committee stage that a pharmacist who carries on business as a chemist should have the right to dispense and retail sub- stances provided for under this Act. That is essential unless you are going to overrule the former Act.

Then there is the very important power given to the Home Office, which, I think, should only be used in very serious cases. I am prepared to go the whole way in dealing with those abominations which have been mentioned, and in preventing the illicit way in which they have been dealt with during the later stages of the War. No penalty is too severe in order to stop those practices. May I point out, however, that there is no appeal. We do not know what the regulations may be, and we have no promise that those whose livelihood may depend upon their administration may be consulted, and yet for a breach of those regulations, it may be serious or trifling, whatever the breach is there is absolutely no appeal, and we have to rely entirely upon the Government Department concerned, and accept their finding. I ask the hon. and gallant Gentleman to say, in the case of anyone who is guilty of a breach of the Act or the regulations, that they shall have the right of appeal to some court. I think this is a power which, perhaps, it is necessary to place in the hands of the Home Office, in view of the character of the traffic in certain drugs. I suggest that in legislation of this kind, and particularly in drafting legislation which means so much in regard to this subject, the hon. and gallant Gentleman should assure the House that he will take the opportunity of obtaining the advice and assistance of those experienced in administering the Poisons and Pharmacy Acts, which, I am sure, will be very readily given.

Photo of Mr Aneurin Williams Mr Aneurin Williams , Consett

The hon. Gentleman who has just sat down has called attention to the fact that this Bill confines this trade to certain persons who are licensed and also to certain places, and he has pointed out the hardships that might be inflicted upon those who have pharmaceutical qualifications. I want to call attention to this question from another point of view. I am clear in my own mind that they may be necessary from the point of view of the public interest and our obligations towards other nations. I believe, however, that they will probably create valuable monopolies in the hands of certain people, just as we have been obliged to licence persons and places for the sale of alcoholic liquors and their manufacture. Those restrictions have been in every way necessary, but the result has been to create valuable monopolies in the hands of certain individuals, and we have had a long fight over vested interests and licence duties and monopoly values, on account of the granting of new licences and so forth.

It seems to me the same thing may arise out of this Bill and perhaps a word of warning may save the State considerable sums and difficulties hereafter. If it is found in practice that these licenses create in the hands of individuals valuable monopolies, it seems appropriate the State should have a clear right to intervene and take by way of taxation any monopoly value that so arises. I do not suggest provisions to that effect now, but when we have got our experience I hope the State will claim a clear and undoubted right to take any monopoly value which arises. Besides this it seems to me that we are going to incur a considerable danger of the cornering of the market, and there again I think a word of warning beforehand may not be unwise. I believe that certain drugs already have been cornered, and the price has been put up to a very considerable extent. Clearly if you are going to institute regulations for controlling the production, sale and distribution of raw opium, cocaine, morphine and other drugs, and confine that trade to certain persons to be licensed for the purpose, there is a great danger that those persons, being few in number and free from outside competition, may put their heads together to corner the market and to exact from the public a very undue profit. These dangers, it seems to me, we must face because the general scheme of the Act is so necessary from every point of view. I hope that if they arise, and if it is necessary for the State to take drastic steps to secure any monopoly value which arises and to control any cornering or profiteering which may arise, I hope nobody will be found to deny the right of the State to do whatever may be thought necessary when those circumstances arise.

Photo of Mr Walter Elliot Mr Walter Elliot , Lanark

We are very grateful to the Home Office for Clause 11 of this Bill, which provides that the Regula- tions under it shall be laid before Parliament, which will have the power of considering them and annulling them if necessary. That will help to avoid any fear that some committee of officials will draw up impracticable Regulations. With regard to the general purpose of the Bill, it is interesting to think that the Bill is being brought in primarily for an evil, spreading, I think, more from the United States than from any other country. It is also very interesting to remember that that is the great temperance country at the moment. It is a strange and noteworthy thing that alcoholism is in many ways simply the expression of a nervous weakness in the patient. Nervous weakness leads to the alcoholism, not alcoholism to the nervous weakness. If you try to stamp out alcoholism by pure prohibition measures you drive the weak man from one form of drug to another form of drug. It is an example of the danger of merely negative attack on any social evil, and the fact that a Bill such as this is necessary is a very striking commentary on the trend of some of our legislation. Other countries that have managed to get rid of alcoholism have found that some other vice has taken its place. In medieval times the literature of China was full of bacchanalian drinking songs, and poetry in praise of wine. They managed to stamp that out, and the vice of opium smoking immediately arose. It tends to show that we ought to think twice and thrice before interfering with the long-established habits of the human race, especially of the Western races, which have been accustomed to use alcohol in moderation. I admit that the barbarians of the West—I mean the inhabitants of America—

Photo of Mr Walter Elliot Mr Walter Elliot , Lanark

I do not think that is too strong a phrase to use of people who have such an extraordinary savage idea of stamping out all people who happen to disagree with their particular views. I think the hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) will agree that in their treatment of people who disagree with their social theories, there are none more violent or more ill-judged than the people of the United States. Their recent treatment of the Socialists in that country is not a thing that would be allowed in this country, and we must remember that their extraordinary anti-alcohol legislation is an expression of extreme views which I do not think are suited to the social life of this country. At any rate, you have this effect, that they have gone in for prohibition and that they have developed the drug habit to an extent altogether unknown in this country. It may be simply a coincidence, but the death rate from delirium tremens has gone up some 300 per cent. I do not think the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Dr. Murray) will deny that in many cases the nervous diathesis shows itself in a trend either towards alcohol or some other drug, and if alcohol is prohibited, then the other drug, which is much more fatal, is resorted to in its place. That, perhaps, is rather a large question to enter upon on this particular Bill. I think all medical men in this House and in the country would like to draw the attention of the Government to the necessity for dealing with patent medicines. Before the War, a powerful Committee of this House investigated thoroughly the question of patent medicines, and drew up a well-thought-out and moderate Report, which, by an unlucky mischance, was presented to the House on the day of the outbreak of the War. Now the War is over, I beg the Home Office to confer with the Ministry of Health and to disinter this valuable Report from the dusty pigeon-holes in which it is lying, and to introduce legislation along the lines recommended, because in patent medicines very powerful drugs, which may be dangerous if used to excess, are lavishly used by people who are altogether ignorant of the dangers they run. Various great evils have occurred from people using these drugs under conditions which no medical man or chemist would dare to prescribe. As to the Bill now before the House, we hope that it is only the beginning of international work for dealing with health problems as a whole. The microbe knows no frontier and disease is not limited to any kind of national flag. The efforts made in the War towards co-operation in destruction have shown us how much we can do by co-operation for production and for health, not only between individuals of the same nation, but between individuals of all nations. That is the only way in which we shall ever deal successfully with the great problems of disease with which the world is faced now.

Photo of Commander Hon. Joseph Kenworthy Commander Hon. Joseph Kenworthy , Kingston upon Hull Central

I do not intend in any way to follow the interesting and enlightened speech of the hon. and gallant Gentleman who has just spoken. I did not quite appreciate what he said about China. I want to deal in a few sentences with the aspects of this Bill as it affects China. I am not very well acquainted with the Chinese classics, but I am acquainted a little with the Chinese people. If the hon. and gallant Member thinks that the Chinese are teetotalers he is very much mistaken. The Chinese are a race of many fine qualities, and I hope they will be a very valuable ally to this Empire in the future. They manufacture a must excellent beer, and they brew a native drink, called samsui, which is not altogether to be despised, so I am told by connoisseurs, and they drink a moderate quantity of it. With the one exception of opium-smoking they are a most sober and temperate race. This Bill, like one or two other good Bills which this Government have brought in, does not go quite far enough. What is really the Government's intention with regard to the opium traffic from the Indian Empire? I think the House will agree that in the past that traffic has been a very black chapter. The Bill is designed, and I hope it will succeed in regulating the import and export to and from this country of opium and allied drugs and prevent their improper use.

The Secretary of State for India in a reply to an hon. Member gave statistics as to the export of opium from India in 1913. They included exports to Japan, where opium smoking is on the increase, according to my information. In 1913 the number of chests exported to Japan was 799, and they went steadily up until 1918–19 when they reached the figure of 1,936. There was a small export of opium in 1916–17 to Formosa and to Indo-China, which is largely inhabited by Chinese, the export of opium from India has been also steadily rising. In 1913–14 it totalled 875 chests and that had risen to 2,690 in the following year, and in 1918–19 it had reached the figure of 3,340 chests. To Java the exports show a small decrease and the number now of 2,400. The export to Siam is now 1,750, having increased from the figure of 1,130 in 1913–14. To British Borneo, where most of the shops are kept by Chinamen and a good deal of work is done by them, there is an increase in traffic in opium and 130 chests were sent in 1918–19. That is very disgraceful and should be stopped. It has not been stopped because of the power of those who make money out of this terrible traffic. I would like to know when this Bill is passed is it going to be extended to India and are we going to do our best to stop this traffic in opium. I am happy to say that opium traffic in China has very much decreased, thanks to the action of the Chinese Government, action which has been more successful since the Chinese Revolution. I think it is very scandalous that this traffic should be increasing in the places I have mentioned, and I would like an assurance that it is going to he checked. I do not believe the moral sense of the world will stand this sort of blood money being made out of the opium traffic, and I think it is high time it was entirely abolished. During the War the use of morphia increased very much and it was, I believe, extended to all sorts of operations. The blessings of morphia during the war to the wounded and the shattered were beyond calculation. The doctors really did wonders with it and we ought to be grateful to them. I am sure that morphia when properly used has been a real boon to suffering humanity. We have prevented morphia, opium and anæsthetics of any sort from going to Soviet Russia for the last 18 months and they have been fighting on six fronts.