Orders of the Day — Misuse of Drugs Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th March 1970.

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Photo of Mr William Deedes Mr William Deedes , Ashford 12:00 am, 25th March 1970

We do not know what the psychological long-term effects are. Until we know, we must make it clear to the young that we do not know and that we maintain prohibition.

Thirdly, there are the narcotics, to which the Home Secretary referred—now more accurately called the "needle cult". There is reference in Clause 9 to opium pipes. It would be more realistic to refer in the Bill to needles and syringes, though I am aware that probably they cannot be controlled.

The Home Secretary mentioned the decline in the number of narcotics addicts. I will not quarrel with the figures he may have or compare them with the figures which I have. My view is that we do not know how many people are using heroin. We do not know how many are illicitly using methadone, which is the substitute drug.

Our plans and methods were greatly disorganised by the methylamphetamine epidemic of 1967 and 1968 and now by the habit of injecting barbiturates. The figures for the injection of barbiturates are very worrying and they have to be added to the number of people who are on the needle cult. Much of it is not notifiable, and this worries me. I see nothing in the Bill which would make the use of the needle with drugs other than narcotics notifiable, and there should be something in it about it.

What troubles me is that our intelligence system is so deficient. We must get a better early warning system. We must know more of what is happening in schools and youth clubs. The trouble is that too many schools do not want to know. It is first said that there is no drugs problem. Then one day there is a charge and the next thing is that the school or the district knows that there is a drugs problem.

Those are the three main spheres. They are fundamentally different, and in a sense they call for different remedies. I turn to the Bill in the light of that analysis. The guts of it are the new penalties and powers for the doctor in Clause 10 and 17. It is a very unfortunate that the Bill can address itself only to amphetamines. I accept what the Home Secretary said about the need for expert advice. I am sorry that expert advice on barbiturates was not sought earlier. I know the reason for that, and it is no good crying over spilt milk. But the prescribing of amphetamines has been going down—doctors have seen the dangers of this—but, by contrast, the prescribing of barbiturates is going up alarmingly, despite the rapid increase in the use of non-barbiturate tranquilisers. However, the main feature is the Secretary of State's considerable powers over the medical profession's right to prescribe.

When the 1967 Act began that process with heroin, I foresaw that it was only the beginning, and I said so. I knew of the difficulties of the Ministry of Health in not being able to persuade the General Medical Council to accept responsibility. I predicted that doctors would live to regret the decision which was taken. That warning was followed by a deafening silence from the profession. The General Medical Council declares that over-prescribing cannot be dealt with under the infamous conduct provisions, although recently they have done just this in the case of one doctor. This is for the medical profession. Part of my creed is that professions, whenever possible, should discipline themselves.

I accept the need for this step, in the light of what the Home Secretary has said, and I also deplore it. The powers of surveillance over doctors and the sanctions which the Bill gives against them dismay me. Clauses 10 and 31 give the Secretary of State virtually carte blanche. But I decline to be plus royale que le roi. If this is what the doctors want, they must live with it. I hope that they may see the reason for persuading the G.M.C. to alter its procedures and take a rather bigger hand in these affairs. I accept that part of their difficulties and part of our difficulties is not only the one or two black sheep to whom the Home Secretary referred, but the existence of a number of grey sheep in this profession who, in this sphere, cause a good deal of difficulty.

As well as this, the Secretary of State assumes powers to monitor dispensing and prescribing in Clause 17. If we are to do that, we should pay very close attention to the Canadian system. It is on a smaller scale than ours, but it offers, with a very small staff, an early warning system over the whole field of dangerous drugs, and it is well worth examining in that light.

On the Bill's contribution to the second category, hallucenogens, there is a compromise on penalties between what the Wootton Committee proposed and what the Home Secretary has done. I make no comment on that. I stress the need for flexibility here, as he has done. The Americans had mandatory minimum sentences for those found guilty of possessing cannabis. They have now, under their new Act, given the courts complete discretion for a first offence, and I am sure that that is right. Our courts could make more use of discretion for a first offence if we had a wider range of facilities for those whom the court deems dependent on drugs. The lack of these facilities is one of the real weaknesses in law enforcement on dangerous drugs.

The Americans have another new provision, which I think attractive. For anyone over 18 caught pushing drugs to anyone under 18, and at least three years junior, the penalties are doubled. I do not say that we should go as far as that, but that approach, which carries with it the idea of protecting children, which, as the Home Secretary said, the addicts themselves stress, should be one of our main objectives.

This Bill is mainly about young children, or it should be, and the unnerving thing about this epidemic is the way, certainly in the United States, in which the age of infection creeps downwards. I do not want to see that happening here. At least we now have cannabis and L.S.D. in the right compartments. This lysergic acid, which is perilous stuff, shows how much in the dark we are. I have no idea how many people are using L.S.D. and I doubt whether the Secretary of State and his Department have much idea.

On narcotics, perhaps because of the 1967 Act, the Bill has nothing new to say. We must not mistake quiescence for progress. The figures are higher than the right hon. Gentleman believes. I know that we reduced the intake of pure heroin, which means nothing, unless we know how much of the substitute drug like methadone, is now being used.

The hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop), who shares responsibility with me on the committee, may say something later about the work of rehabilitation, which he knows more about than I do. Our social framework for rehabilitation leaves much to be desired. It is scanty to a degree. All the arrangements for those who appear before the courts having used narcotics urgently need revision. The chance is that these customers opt for 12 months' probation and then slither between an overworked probation service and an overworked treatment centre, This is not good enough. All my experience suggests that we must have one or two more hostels and halfway houses.

Money is a difficult subject, but perhaps we should consider very small selective aid to organisations and institutions which are also making a major contribution to this field. The Home Secretary will be attacked for his provisions for research. I know that this derisory figure of £10,000 is not the whole story. There are many other things going on, but if we take all the research which is in hand, it still, in my view, falls below the scale and the breadth we need.

We are hamstrung by ignorance and it is because of this ignorance that, in the eyes of the young—by no means all of them defiant young—we are losing credibility. This is a point to stress. This is the real urgency in getting more information. There is a crisis of confidence between us and the young people of this country. After all, we have the monopoly of the means for finding out. I do not think that we can go on unscientifically asking young people to take our word for it and, to some extent, letting the policemen take the can back. I am saying nothing about enforcement, for certain reasons, but they urgently need the reinforcements which more knowledge can bring.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, the Bill only touches a corner of what confronts us. I grant its flexibility, and it is useful, in that the Home Secretary has powers to do much as he pleases, but even this will not work unless he can find out soon what he needs to do and then apply action there quickly and perhaps more imaginatively.

He is served, as I have reason to know, by a band of devoted and able civil servants. What I now say is no disparagement to them, but it is questionable how far a Government Department is shaped to cope with a problem like this. I grow doubtful whether it can apply the positive action in many directions which we need.

I have an open mind about anything resembling a National Drugs Commission. That would be a body not simply to stop things happening but to start making things happen. I hope that the Home Secretary will also keep an open mind about this. I stress again the diversity of this problem. No one can doubt that medical props for sleepless adults or hard-pressed housewives represent quite a different problem from that embodied in this cult for mood-changing, self-manifesting drugs, the hallucinogens.

On balance, it is this hallucinogenic field which troubles me most deeply. This is where the young are most deeply involved. I thought that Peter Townsend, leader of the "Who" pop group, came very close to this the other day in a letter to the Press, when he wrote: The very fact that a young person is willing to take the chance of using drugs indicates a fairly desperate state of mind. Perhaps more desperate than even the young person realises or cares to admit. This cult is not all mischief. It would be much simpler if it were. It owes something to the tyranny of peer groups, to protest, to a sense of injustice aroused by the attitudes of ourselves here, to what they think is an intolerable attitude from those of us who smoke and drink. There are also deep forces at work here, on which I will not enlarge now.

Suffice it to say that I do not think that they can be disposed of by moral indignation or even by a new schedule of penalties. This drugs problem is about human beings, and, with a Bill like this, it is necessary to remind ourselves of that over and over again. We have two main instruments—research and education. We must stop fumbling over education and begin better equipping those who hold positions of responsibility for young people. That is where it must begin.

In many places all over the country, people are groping towards some kind of community effort, some sort of structure which can make a contribution, perhaps the main contribution. I am in touch with some of them and I think that Government Departments are.

I wish that they were in touch with rather more, because ultimately, if we are to defeat this problem and stop too many young people from damaging themselves, there must be a bigger social effort. I do not think that the Government can organise that with youth counselling and so on, but they can encourage it and they must foster it. Somehow, we must get more of the young on our side. We cannot win this battle unless we get more on our side.