New Psychoactive Substances: EUC Report — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:36 pm on 11th November 2013.

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Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Chair, EU Sub Committee F - Home Affairs, Health and Education 7:36 pm, 11th November 2013

My Lords, in moving the Motion in my name, I invite the House to endorse the proposal of the European Union Select Committee that a reasoned opinion should be issued concerning the European Union Commission’s proposals to regulate new psychoactive substances.

Those proposals were considered in depth by the EU Sub-Committee on Home Affairs, Health and Education, which I have the honour to chair, during October this year. We took evidence from the Minister of State at the Home Office, Mr Norman Baker, on 16 October. We have concluded that the proposals do not comply with the principle of subsidiarity.

New psychoactive substances are natural or synthetic substances that act on the central nervous system and modifying mental functions in similar ways to illicit drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines. They are often referred to as “legal highs”. As many Members noted in the debate in this House on 17 October in the name of my noble friend Lady Meacher, when we debated wider issues of drugs policy, new psychoactive substances have the potential to pose serious risks to public health and safety. Despite often being marketed as legal alternatives to illegal substances, users can have no certainty as to the health risks that can arise from using them, nor the legal status of those substances.

Our report does not comment on the merits of policies to ban, regulate or permit the new psychoactive substances. We have not dealt with that wider issue. Debates about that are going on in many countries around the world and around Europe, and will continue to do so as the ingenuity of scientists leads to the production of new substances. In this debate, and in this Motion, we are concerned with who should have the power to ban those substances and why. On 20 September, the European Commission published proposals for a directive and a regulation with the stated aim of improving the functioning of the internal market regarding the legal use of new psychoactive substances. It argues that many new psychoactive substances that are used recreationally have, or could have, various uses in industry which are hindered by market restrictions. The Commission considers that member states alone cannot reduce the problems caused to the internal market, given their divergent responses to new psychoactive substances. It also argues that EU-level action is necessary to ensure that potentially harmful new psychoactive substances can be identified, assessed and, if necessary, withdrawn quickly from the market across all member states.

The committee shares the Commission’s concerns about the risks of harm posed by these substances to the health and safety of EU citizens. In our 2012 report, The EU Drugs Strategy, we concluded that the EU has an important role to play in strengthening and adding value to the actions of member states in tackling the negative effects of these substances. However, we concluded then, as we do now, that action to deal with them is best taken in the first instance by member states. We part company from the Commission when it proposes to take that responsibility for taking such decisions away from member states, and transfer it to the Commission itself. In our view, the two proposals include some provisions which are best left to member state action, and so are not consistent with the principle of subsidiarity.

The proliferation of new psychoactive substances is influenced by regional, national and international forces. These manifest themselves quite differently in different member states, depending on the speed at which the substances become available and the severity of their impact on public health. In any case, member states have different systems for dealing with harmful drugs in general, and for addressing new psychoactive substances. They require flexibility to respond rapidly to local situations. Therefore, member states are best placed to decide how to respond to the proliferation of these substances in the manner that best fits the circumstances in their jurisdictions.

This would not—and I underline this point—preclude EU-wide action being taken by the Council with respect to a particular substance or group of substances, if the Council felt that such general measures were needed across the European Union. We support those parts of the proposals that would strengthen the roles of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction and of Europol in the process of analysing and dealing with the risks from new psychoactive substances.

I should add that we received evidence from the Government that leads us to conclude that the legal trade in psychoactive substances—which is the reason given by the Commission for basing these proposals on single market provisions—is not in fact large enough to justify the Commission’s view that its proposals are needed to protect the single market. We therefore concluded that, in addition to our concerns about subsidiarity, the measure was in any case disproportionate, although there is no formal reference to that point in the reasoned opinion, which is of course about subsidiarity alone. The House of Lords EU Committee therefore does not agree that these matters justify transferring member states’ decision-making power in respect of new psychoactive substances to the Commission. I beg to move.