Orders of the Day — Soft Drugs

– in the House of Commons at 9:41 pm on 15 January 1996.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McLoughlin.]

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans , Ribble Valley 10:29, 15 January 1996

The Minister will not be surprised to learn that I will concentrate on exposing the dangers of Ecstasy. I know that—[Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

Order. Will hon. Members leaving the Chamber do so quietly, please?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans , Ribble Valley

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I know that the Minister will concentrate on all the good work that the Government are doing to tackle the drugs problem, but I hope that he will also be able to take on board some of the suggestions that I will make.

I applied for the Adjournment several weeks ago—before the appalling tragedy that occurred at the weekend—because I felt that the problem of so-called "designer" drugs such as Ecstasy needed to be tackled urgently.

We are aware of the headline cases of Daniel Ashton, of Blackpool, which is not far from my constituency; Leah Betts and, just this weekend, the appalling wasted young life of Andreas Bouzis. How many more of our young people will be wasted or destroyed by Ecstasy before the message gets home?

Today, on radio, I was accused of being emotional about the issue, and I was told that I should simply look at the facts of taking Ecstasy. I make no apologies for being emotional over the needless death of our young people. I make no apologies for being emotional about the waste of lives and the damage to the quality of life of our young people who are ignorant of the life-destroying side-effects of taking Ecstasy.

I do not want to stop anyone enjoying himself, but at the same time I want to stop young people killing themselves or wasting their lives. A lot of misinformation is given about Ecstasy, but we are seeing what has been termed one of the biggest mass experiments in the history of mankind, with up to half a million tablets taken every weekend.

I should like to praise the efforts of Granada Television and its programme, "This Morning" for distributing more than 8,000 copies of the video "Sorted", which is the story of Leah Betts' life and death. That video is required viewing for anyone who feels that it simply will not happen to him or her. I pay tribute to Paul and Jan Betts, who I met recently, for their bravery in sharing their personal tragedy with the rest of nation, which, we hope, will deter other young people from taking Ecstasy.

I watched Mrs. Josephine Bouzis talk movingly on television about her son, and that has made me more determined than ever that stiffer and more urgent action is needed to clear the streets, night clubs, pubs and schools of the scum who trade in misery and death.

I have heard the arguments of those who say that we have lost control of drugs and that we should legalise them. I am delighted that the Home Secretary is resolutely against that disastrous course of action. I applaud the work of the police, customs officials and voluntary workers, who are fighting the battle. I believe that we all could and should do more.

Others argue that there would be no problem if all the tablets were tested. Let me remind the House that Leah Betts died after taking a pure Ecstasy tablet. Those tablets are toxic—they are poison. There are those who say that alcohol and tobacco have killed more people than drugs. That is no argument for relaxing the controls on drugs, but it is one for improving the education of our young people about the dangers of abusing those substances.

What is Ecstasy? We have heard a lot about it, but I suspect that many hon. Members knew nothing about it until 12 months ago. It was patented in 1914 in Germany as an appetite suppressant, MDMA. It is commonly known as Ecstasy, but it has several other names. It is a semi-synthetic chemical compound. In its pure form it is usually a pressed pill, a capsule or even loose powder. It costs between £10 and £20. How cheap the cost of a life these days.

The drug is taken orally, although it can be taken in other ways. The usual dose ranges from 80 mg to 160 mg when taken orally, although the amounts vary widely, depending on how unlucky the taker is. When MDMA is taken orally, the effects manifest themselves about half an hour later, gradually working up to the full effect in two hours. The after-effects can last for days. The psychological effects, however, can last for years.

Ecstasy's physical symptoms are wide ranging and can be very subtle. They include dryness of mouth, jaw-clenching, teeth-grinding, sweating or nausea. At higher doses, the effects include increased heart beat, sweating and dizziness. The drug works mainly on one group of neurones, a serotonin system. The centre of the cells, their nuclei, are clustered at the base of our brains. From there, long, wire-like tendrils spread throughout the brain. Users usually experience amphetamine-type stimulation, with appetite loss and the ability to stay awake for long periods.

Ecstasy also produces hyperactivity, but of a repetitive sort that makes one do the same thing over and again. Illicit laboratories are often set up with little concern for cleanliness. According to Joseph Bono, a supervisory chemist in the special testing department of the American Drug Enforcement Agency, there are many contaminants and by-products in samples that reach his laboratory for analysis. It would seem that not everyone has the same high standards as Glaxo-Wellcome. The Dutch Government should be doing much more to investigate the factories that churn out these tablets by the millions, which then find themselves on this country's streets.

Why do people take E in the first place? As reported in the "Equinox" programme "Rave New World", shown on Channel 4 last year, the major Ecstasy scene began in this country in 1988 with the advent of acid house music. That was the birth of the rave scene and the drug Ecstasy was a major factor in its subsequent success. People who took the drug reported that it made them feel amiable and friendly to strangers, and that they could dance all night. As one raver put it: There was just this massive rush of…happiness. Despite being a class-A drug, which means that dealing carries a maximum life sentence, tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of doses are taken every week. It is estimated that up to 2 million Britons have tried Ecstasy.

According to Dr. John Henry, a consultant physician for the national poisons unit at Guy's hospital: In the late 1980s, the drug was reformulated…in a cultural sense. The rave scene in England provided a new formula, a new package, a new culture. With that new culture, however, came the new dangers that have proved lethal to a host of young people, including the most recent tragic death of Andreas Bouzis in a south London club at the weekend.

There is no debate that one damages oneself when one takes Ecstasy, but as yet no one knows the extent of the long-term effects. If we do not do something to remedy that, the effects could be disastrous. In most of the serious cases reported, the users had collapsed unconscious or started to convulse while dancing. The most important things to remember about this drug are that previous experience is no guarantee of safety and that Ecstasy hides discomfort and pain. That means that, if people overheat or dehydrate from dancing for too long, instead of resting for a while and getting some cold air or a drink, they may just carry on dancing until they reach a fatal temperature. In the same way, it would normally be impossible to drink enough water to kill oneself. However, Leah Betts drank three litres of water.

As Ecstasy causes a rise in blood pressure, it can also be fatal to someone with a weak heart, and asthmatics have been known to die from attacks under the drug's influence. There is also the possibility of kidney failure. Lastly, some deaths are due to people simply being allergic to the drug or by Ecstasy reacting with other drugs that the person may be taking at that time. It is known to react badly with certain anti-depressants.

Dr. Henry put the immediate dangers most succinctly: Your blood clotting goes haywire, your brain begins to dysfunction and your heart can pack up. However, there is serious cause for concern at the long-term risks to the mental and physical health of people who take Ecstasy on a regular basis. Dr. Karl Jansen of Maudsley hospital had a patient who took about 100 Ecstasy tablets and who had depersonalisation/derealisation syndrome [where the person lacks emotion and feels unreal]. Its very unpleasant and has lasted over 2 years. He also warns that anxiety disorders can be caused by the use of this drug: you feel anxious all the time, or chronic in the form of panic attacks. Depression and mania definitely can be triggered by Ecstasy. The most worrying data for people who use Ecstasy regularly must be that produced by Dr. Ricaute, assistant professor of neurology at the John Hopkins School of Medicine. In his study, 17 monkeys were given doses equivalent to that of three average street tablets of Ecstasy and they were analysed for regional brain content of serotonin after two weeks. His findings showed a striking loss of certain nerve fibres in the cerebral cortex of the monkeys. Commenting on the findings, Dr. Ricaute said: The data we have so far is that MDMA is a highly neuro-toxic substance, that if taken…could result in brain injury…MDMA has the potential for producing neuro-toxic effects, at least in animals, after a single moderate dose.

Photo of Mr Tim Rathbone Mr Tim Rathbone , Lewes

My hon. Friend has kindly allowed me to say a few words here. First, I praise him for bringing up this horrible subject in an Adjournment debate. Secondly, I want to comment on the fact that the debate is described on the Order Paper as being about "soft drugs". The House has heard my hon. Friend's description of what Ecstasy can do. In no way can such a drug be described as a soft drug. There is no such thing as a soft drug. Drugs do terrible harm and my hon. Friend is absolutely correct to draw the House's attention to the harm that Ecstasy can do. I am glad that that is recognised in the Government's White Paper and in their activities to educate young people to keep away from all drugs. I am sure that my hon. Friend praises that.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans , Ribble Valley

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind comments. He is right to say that many people consider Ecstasy to be a soft drug. It is, of course, a class A drug, but the perception is that it is different from other hard drugs. It is not, for all the reasons that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) have given.

I shall now suggest one or two areas in which the Government will, I hope, seriously consider taking further action, along with the excellent programme they have to tackle drugs on the wider scale. I know that we have the drugs help line and the crimestoppers line. I congratulate the Daily Mirror which has given £10,000 to the crimestoppers line to encourage people to give information about those who are pushing drugs. That is commendable and I hope that other newspapers will follow that lead.

However, many people cannot remember the numbers of the drugs help line or the crimestoppers line. There is probably more chance of getting through to the cones hot line than of getting through to the other numbers. I suggest that just as we have a three-digit number for accidents and emergencies, we should have a drugs hotline number of three digits—perhaps 911—which everybody could remember. That would be extremely useful for people in clubs and pubs who could then use the number to give information about people pushing drugs.

There should be better rewards for those who give information that leads to the prosecution of those who push drugs in our pubs and clubs. In the vast majority of cases, people give the information freely because they know that it could help to save the lives of their friends. However, those who have, for example, information from the drugs underworld may be lured by the possibility of getting at least some money for giving information that will put the criminals behind bars and will lead to many more drugs being destroyed.

There is also the problem of drugs being distributed in pubs and clubs. I praise the work of the British Entertainment and Discotheque Association in producing a booklet which is aimed at club and pub owners so that they can spot some of the telltale signs of whether drugs are being pushed or used in their clubs. Unfortunately, not every pub owner and club owner is responsible. We should give support to the police and new guidelines to the courts. If it is obvious that the owners of the pubs and clubs are turning a blind eye to what is going on in their premises and if the people who are using them cannot be guaranteed to be safe, the pubs and clubs should be closed down.

There should be more research into the long-term ill-effects of taking Ecstasy and other so-called "designer" drugs. We must get across to young people the fact that it is not simply that people die—that is tragic enough, as one can see from the families and friends who are left behind—but that there are long-term effects on those who take the drugs. They are under a lot of pressure. I believe that in 10 or 15 years' time—perhaps a lot sooner than that-we shall see the side-effects of taking Ecstasy and how appalling the consequences can be to individuals and their families. When we have that information, we must get it into clubs, pubs, youth clubs, night clubs and schools so that it reaches the youth culture, which has put Ecstasy on such a pedestal that it is considered different from other drugs. Then we will be able to expose Ecstasy for what it is. We must however remember that the vast majority of young people go to night clubs and pubs and enjoy themselves without taking any Ecstasy whatever, and long may that continue.

I congratulate Radio 1 on the campaigns that it regularly runs. It has a mass youth audience and it is able to reach the people to whom we need to talk. I understand that it is starting another campaign in October. Given the problem of the number of people taking so-called designer drugs, I hope that it will consider either bringing forward that campaign or running another one directed specifically at so-called designer drugs.

We need to ram the message home. We need to redouble our efforts on all fronts. I am certain that we can win this war; more important, this is a war that we must win.

Photo of Mr John Bowis Mr John Bowis , Battersea 10:45, 15 January 1996

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on bringing this subject to the Floor of the House and on the way in which he has addressed it—packing his facts and ideas into a short space of time. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) for his pertinent intervention.

I suppose that, if one is looking for a text for this debate, one need look no further than the words spoken on behalf of the young girl Helen Cousins—they were not spoken by her, because she could not speak—who survived the horror of Ecstasy. Her words to us and other young people were: Ecstasy is not worth the dance with death. We should seek to promote that lesson, today and always.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley referred to the tragic death of Daniel Ashton in Blackpool, and to Leah Betts, whose death continues to weigh heavily on all our minds. As he also said, in my borough of Wandsworth last weekend, I was called out because another tragedy had struck. This time, the young Andreas Bouzis from the Greek Cypriot community died as a result of taking Ecstasy at a club.

Those individual tragedies are salutary reminders to us all of the misery and havoc that drugs can bring to the lives of ordinary, close-loving families. The blight of drugs is a worldwide phenomenon. It wrecks lives—all too often young lives—it undermines families, causing untold heartache and worry for parents, brothers and sisters of its victims when it strikes, and of course it shakes communities through crime and the fear of crime.

That is why the Prime Minister has made it clear that tackling the drugs problem is a priority for the Government. The White Paper "Tackling Drugs Together", which we published in May and was signed by five Ministers from Departments across the Government, set out a three-year strategy to bring all the weapons available to bear on the drugs problem.

For my Department, one of the key tasks in the strategy is to help stop young people experimenting with drugs in the first place—to persuade those who are dabbling at the edges of the drugs scene to stop and seek safer pleasures elsewhere, and to plant the seeds of doubt in those who are misusing drugs regularly.

One of the first tasks is to tackle the comforting distinction to which my hon. Friends have referred: the so-called distinction between soft and hard drugs. It gives the misleading and dangerously reassuring message to misusers that the so-called recreational drugs can be taken with impunity. The word "soft" does not carry the associations of the needle, the crack house, addiction, prostitution and disease, which are conjured up by heroin addicts or crack cocaine users. Among the great majority of young people, that hard drug scene is simply seen as sad and pathetic, and a world distant from their own experience.

It would be foolish to suggest that all drugs are of equal harm. That is not the Government's view. There is a spectrum of harm on various levels. Some drugs, such as heroin, are harmful because of their addictive qualities and the life style that often flows from addiction. Some are harmful because of the way in which they are administered—whether ingested, injected or inhaled. Inhaling butane can and does kill. Injecting drugs risks transmission of blood-borne diseases. Taking pills of dubious content is a lottery.

No serious commentator is suggesting that smoking cannabis equates with injecting heroin, but it is naive to say that soft drugs are risk-free. In fact, so-called soft drugs do carry risks, which is why they remain proscribed. Ecstasy, to which my hon. Friend referred in particular, is a case in point.

The law clearly regards Ecstasy as a hard drug. It has been classified under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and its illicit use is subject to the strictest penalties. As it is a class A drug, those in possession of Ecstasy can be imprisoned for up to seven years, and those trafficking in it can be imprisoned for life.

My hon. Friend suggested that sentences should be tougher. No doubt the courts will take note of the points he made, but he will be aware that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has announced radical new proposals on sentencing. They recognise that persistent drug dealers are a menace to society, deserving of long stretches in prison. My right hon. and learned Friend has proposed that there should be a stiff minimum sentence for persistent dealers. I, too, want to draw attention to the crimestoppers initiative and its "Say no and phone" campaign to encourage information about dealers.

As for clubs which turn a blind eye to people dealing or misusing drugs, licensing authorities have powers to revoke the entertainment licence of any establishment that does not meet the conditions of that licence. I would expect them to do so in such circumstances.

Although science, Government and misusers still know relatively little about Ecstasy and its effects, what we do know argues clearly against any description of the drug as "soft". It can cause psychological dependence. Misusers may experience irritability, depression, insomnia or hypothermia after the initial effects have worn off. Feelings of paranoia are not uncommon, and cases of paranoid psychosis have been reported. There is also evidence of an association between Ecstasy use and liver damage.

My Department has been working—as my hon. Friend asked us—on expanding our understanding of the drug. Dr. John Henry, of the national poisons unit at Guy's, a leading expert on the toxic effects of Ecstasy, has been particularly helpful. We are learning of syndromes associated with the drug, such as the repetitive behaviour to which my hon. Friend referred. I understand that one individual obsessively smoked hundreds of cigarettes in the space of hours, leading to death through traumatic damage to his respiratory system. Others may do the same when drinking water. What is clear is that, as knowledge expands, it is knowledge about risks, not benefits.

The content of these illicitly manufactured tablets is highly variable, with fly-by-night chemists in far-off places producing pills made up of a range of chemicals. The effects are correspondingly variable. People who take the drug do not know what they have taken until it has taken effect and it is too late.

Finally, we are all aware of the tragic deaths that have been linked to this drug. Again, we still have much to learn about the drug's toxicity, but symptoms attributed to Ecstasy-related deaths include convulsions, dilated pupils, very low blood pressure, accelerated heart rate, high temperature and coma. Death through heart failure is known to have occurred, but most deaths have been caused by respiratory collapse resulting from blood coagulating in the lungs. So much, then, for the "soft" drug label.

My hon. Friend has urged us to send a message, and the key aim for Government is to arm both young people and their parents with the facts about drugs—the health risks, the risks of addiction, the legal risks, the risk of damaging relationships with friends and families and the risk to future careers. We cannot simply state the risks and then walk away from the problem: we also need to give young people the skills they need to be able to make informed and responsible decisions to resist drugs misuse. Over the next three years, the Department of Health will be co-ordinating publicity campaigns and developing and improving access to materials aimed at motivating young people to resist drug misuse.

My hon. Friend has referred to the drugs helpline, and he may have seen or heard the advertisements promoting it. Calls to the service are free and confidential, and lines are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The helpline number—for my hon. Friend's benefit—is 0800 77 66 00.

The staff who run the helpline have a good knowledge of drug misuse issues and can refer those callers who need specialist help to agencies that can provide the right advice and support. I would urge anyone who wants to know more or who is worried about drugs misuse by a friend or a family member to contact the helpline.

My hon. Friend raised the possibility of a new three-figure drugs hotline number for emergencies. The helpline is an advice line, and callers who are faced with an emergency are advised to dial 999 immediately—a caller to another three-figure number would be given the same advice. The early signs are that the people are using the longer number—20,000 calls were answered in November alone. I will, however, bear in mind my hon. Friend's suggestion when we are considering the evaluation of the helpline in the spring. Meanwhile, the number is 0800 77 66 00.

Misusers and those at risk of misuse are, of course, a key focus of our campaigns, but we are also addressing the needs of parents. I am acutely aware of the powerlessness that parents can sometimes feel in the face of drug misuse or the suspicion of drugs misuse in their family. The fear and anguish that drugs misuse can cause to them is immeasurable.

I know that hon Members will wish to join me in paying tribute to the parents of Leah Betts. Their dignity in such tragic circumstances, and their determination to prevent other families from suffering as they have, has been remarkable. We have seen no less courage and dignity from the Cousins and Bouzis families.

The aim of our campaigns for parents has been to help parents tackle drugs issues with their children, to give practical advice on how to approach such a sensitive issue, to help them recognise the signs of drugs misuse or solvent abuse in their children, to tell parents where they can go for more help or information, and to inform them about the drugs their children might be misusing and the language that young people use to talk about them. The demand for this literature has been remarkable. There is clearly a thirst for knowledge about drugs among parents, and we will continue to work to meet that need.

There are no quick and easy solutions to the complex problem of drugs misuse. The Government's strategy represents a new impetus to galvanise all the key players in a determined and concerted effort on a range of fronts to tackle drugs together. In taking all this work forward, what must remain at the forefront of all our minds is the human element—the individual tragedies of ruined lives and distraught parents. It is those tragedies which lie at the heart of "Tackling Drugs Together", and that is why the Government will continue the fight against drugs misuse with vigour and determination.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Eleven o'clock