My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, as it is to serve under his chairmanship on your Lordships’ EU Sub-Committee F, which produced the report which forms the basis for this debate. New psychoactive substances, or so-called legal highs, continue to be a serious concern. Not only are many of these substances very dangerous, but more of them are invented and marketed throughout the world every year, which of course includes within the EU. The number of new psychoactive substances detected tripled between 2009 and 2012. The EU Commission reported in September that so far in 2013, more than one new substance has been reported every week.
This is a matter for urgent concern and urgent action, because many of these new substances may well turn out to be very dangerous. Every week, the UK news media report tragic stories involving the use of these substances. Three weeks ago, the Daily Mail reported the case of a 20 year-old boy from Gravesend who died within hours of taking a legal high. He was found next to a plastic bag from the legal high shop, UK Skunkworks. A teenager in Southampton died in August after taking alpha-methyltryptamine. There are many similar stories. These drugs are generally easy to get hold of, both on the net and on the high street. The
Sunday People reported last month that UK Skunkworks, a retailer of legal highs, now has 21 shops in the UK, including one in Maidstone which is situated next to a drug rehab charity.
The problem of legal highs is of particular concern here in the UK. Britain accounts for nearly a quarter of Europe’s entire legal high market, compared to France at 14% and Germany at 12%. There are drugs which are common here in the UK that are rare elsewhere in the EU, and vice versa. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, in general the market for these drugs is characterised across the EU by rapid innovation locally, and by differing levels of the presence of different drugs in different member states.
The EU already has in place a mechanism for dealing with and banning new psychoactive substances, but this mechanism is widely acknowledged to be cumbersome, slow and not especially effective. The new regulation proposed by the EU is intended to replace this with an improved version, but we already have an improved version in operation in the UK. Here, Ministers are able to issue temporary class drug orders, which ban a drug for 12 months to allow the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to report on whether a permanent ban should be put in place.
We already use this mechanism to react very quickly to the appearance of new, worrying legal highs. In the past 12 months we have used this power to ban substances called NBOMe and Benzo Fury. We also now control mephedrone, naphyrone, BZP, GBL and synthetic cannabinoids. These were all previously legal highs. All of this is driven by the Home Office forensic early-warning system, which has the job of identifying early new psychoactive substances which are potential threats. In fact, in the past year the forensic early-warning system identified 10 new psychoactive substances not previously seen in the UK and, importantly, not present elsewhere in Europe. Of course, here in Britain we also have an extensive education programme aimed at alerting people to the dangers of the drugs that are found here. The Government deserve particular praise for their 10 year-old “Frank” programme, which has a new advertising campaign beginning in January.
The question we are addressing this evening is whether we should give up control of our system of policing and controlling new psychoactive substances, which works well, and hand it over to the EU. There is no compelling evidence to suggest that this would be a good or even a sensible idea. The new EU regulation proposes a power to impose a temporary measure, restricting new psychoactive substance sales for a year, to be introduced within weeks of an alert. We already do this, and we can do it when the problem is not present elsewhere in the EU. The new EU regulation proposes permanent measures that can be introduced within 10 months to restrict the sale of new psychoactive substances to consumers. We can already do this, too. Again, we can do this for substances that may not yet be present in the rest of the EU.
The new regulation simplifies the existing EU procedure, but the new procedure will still be relatively slow and complex. According to the EU’s own description of the procedure, a substance must raise concerns across the Union before EMCDDA and Europol draft a report on the substance. On the basis of this joint report, the Commission then decides whether there are grounds to require a fully fledged risk assessment. This is too slow, too complex and too coarse-grained, and it is not necessary here. We already do better than this. This would certainly not help, and would in fact be a retrograde step. Giving competence to the EU, as in the proposed regulation, would add nothing at all. The proposal fails the test of subsidiarity, which is why I strongly support the Motion to issue a reasoned opinion to that effect.