Synthetic Cannabinoids: Reclassification — [Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 6th November 2018.

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Photo of Ben Bradley Ben Bradley Conservative, Mansfield 9:30 am, 6th November 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the reclassification of synthetic cannabinoids.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Howarth. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue in a debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing me to do so.

I am continuing my campaign for reclassification of synthetic cannabinoids, known as synthetic cannabis, Mamba or Spice. These drugs are becoming a serious national problem. I want to raise the profile of this issue to make people aware of the devastating impact of the drugs in my constituency of Mansfield and across the entire UK. It is time to take proper action on the drugs and get Mamba and Spice off our streets.

Contrary to the assumption of some in Parliament, I do not believe that reclassification is a silver bullet or a quick-fix answer. In my recent correspondence with the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend Steve Brine, who is responsible for public health and primary care, he stated that

“synthetic cannabinoid use is often part of a complex set of health and social issues;
there is no single solution, and short-term approaches can just displace the problem”.

I share that sentiment. We clearly need an holistic approach to deal with these drugs. However, reclassification, although not the only solution, is a step in the right direction to give our police and local services the powers that they need to deal effectively with users and dealers. The current class B classification is limiting the action that local services and the police can take, which is further damaging some of our most deprived areas, where resources are already stretched.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure)

On the point about giving the police more powers, reclassifying what are termed SCRAs—synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists—as class A drugs would not grant any additional enforcement powers to the police.

Photo of Ben Bradley Ben Bradley Conservative, Mansfield

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I disagree. My local police are adamant that on the street, in the town centre, they have more powers to deal with things such as heroin use than they do to deal with these drugs, and obviously the sentencing powers available through the judicial system are different. At the moment, when the police deal with things such as Mamba and Spice in Mansfield town centre, they do not work on the basis of drugs offences, but use antisocial behaviour and criminal behaviour orders, because they do not have the opportunity, through drugs legislation, to record what we are discussing today as offences.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Labour, Chesterfield

I would like to reinforce the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Does not the fact that so many police and crime commissioners are writing to us, calling on us to make the very changes that he suggests, reinforce the point that the police will attach a greater priority to these drugs if they are reclassified as class A drugs?

Photo of Ben Bradley Ben Bradley Conservative, Mansfield

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention: he is absolutely right. In the wake of an Adjournment debate that I held in July, 20 police and crime commissioners wrote to this Minister about the issue, stressing exactly what I am saying this morning: unless these drugs are taken seriously and prioritised by police forces in the way class A drugs are, the police will continue to struggle to deal with them at local level.

The point of reclassification is not to criminalise vulnerable users, but to prevent those users from being exploited by drug dealers and to get them the help that they need. The health Green Paper, announced only yesterday in an initial policy paper entitled “Prevention is better than cure”, is a welcome development. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said, focusing on the responsibilities of patients is not about penalising people, but about helping them to make better choices.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

Before my hon. Friend gets too much into the issue of patients, may I bring him back to the issue of policing? My local police have been doing a phenomenal bit of work cracking down on drug activity, and they made a number of arrests last week. They are concerned that there is not strong enough sentencing for the drug barons at the top, who too often are let off, basically scot-free. Does my hon. Friend agree that reclassification should be coupled with stronger sentencing for those peddling these drugs?

Photo of Ben Bradley Ben Bradley Conservative, Mansfield

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention: she is right. The challenge in many cases is that there do not seem to be significant repercussions for dealing in and manufacturing these products. Later I will touch on local examples of people who have gone round and round the judicial system, with a weak sentence for this and eight weeks for that. Not only are the drugs often more available in prison than they are on the streets, but there is no long-term repercussion for continuing to flout the laws, and people just go round and round the system.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

I visited my local prison last Friday. It, too, is doing great work dealing with the drugs there, but the prison governor asked for stronger sentences for the people who commit crimes, especially violent crimes, in prison and said that those should be additional, not concurrent, sentences. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Photo of Ben Bradley Ben Bradley Conservative, Mansfield

I think that that is a fair point, so I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I for one would like to see drug dealers and manufacturers removed from our streets for as long as possible, so I absolutely concur.

As part of my constituency work, I have focused heavily in the last year or so on homelessness in Mansfield and Warsop. To return to the health funding aspect, I think that we can use this week’s announcement by the Health Secretary and the funding that will be available for our NHS in the coming years to explore ways in which we can put in place community and primary care services for homeless and other vulnerable people and, for these drugs, preventive services. The preventive aspect is exactly what is needed from that funding and what could make a big impact on this issue. As I said at the outset, reclassification is not a silver bullet—it is not the only answer—it comes with a need for preventive services in our communities. They are two sides of the same coin when it comes to delivering for my constituents on this issue.

Mansfield District Council and the local police have done everything they can under the current framework to help users, and I commend them for their hard work and dedication on this issue. Alongside a local charity called Framework, the council and the police have launched a joint operation to tackle antisocial behaviour relating to the use of Mamba. In the town centre alone, one sergeant, six constables and six police community support officers are working closely with the council’s neighbourhood wardens and antisocial behaviour officers to deal with the problem; that is in addition to CCTV. That demonstrates the enormity of the issue. There are more police officers working in the town centre than perhaps ever before, but the police are still being stretched by this problem. Some kind of drug-related episode, whether it is someone passing out or causing another kind of issue for residents, is still a daily occurrence.

We should not automatically assume that all homeless people are taking these drugs. Of course they are not, but because of the incredibly low cost, there is a high correlation. To some extent, this has become the drug of choice. A dedicated taskforce is focusing on the root causes of homelessness by giving individuals the support that they need to end the cycle of dependency on drugs and alcohol and helping them to turn their lives around. Three outreach workers, who specialise in homelessness, mental health and substance misuse, are supporting the community in Mansfield and trying to build relationships with users, even when their help is rejected, as it often is.

Mansfield is learning from projects in other areas in order to work on its own best practice when dealing with this issue. More than 50 people shared their experience at a recent Mamba seminar, which will provide further guidance for the local authority. I have met people from the Nottingham Mamba clinic to explore new approaches, hear their experience and try to share their work in my constituency. Interestingly, even the drugs workers on the ground in the Nottingham Mamba clinic agree that reclassification would be an important aspect of managing the problem locally. A police inspector in my constituency, Nick Butler, says that the College of Policing has acknowledged that Mansfield is leading the way in dealing with Mamba users and tackling antisocial behaviour and rough sleeping. That is commendable.

We must accept that, in some cases, it gets to the point where enough is enough. Although we can offer individuals help until we are blue in the face, the fact is that people can refuse help or, sometimes for a variety of complex reasons, are not able to accept help. Instead, they end up in an endless cycle of reoffending. We have reached the point where existing powers to deal with repeat offenders no longer have an impact, and local police are calling for further support, as we saw in the example of the police and crime commissioners writing to Government.

Following my debate in July about the societal impact of these drugs, I asked the Government for two things. First, I asked for a national strategy to share best practice, seek medical intervention and support local areas in combating the issue and, secondly, I asked the Government to consider reclassifying these drugs from class B, comparable to cannabis, to class A, in line with heroin.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the debate. I hope that we all agree that the point about best practice should be endorsed, but does he agree that we need wider community buy-in, particularly across our urban communities as well as rural communities. Those communities have to buy in to the best practice process. They have to see evidence of outcomes, whether that involves the courts and police action or wider community resistance to this sort of activity.

Photo of Ben Bradley Ben Bradley Conservative, Mansfield

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention: I agree. Ultimately, we all want to see tangible outcomes on the ground in our communities. We can make legislation here and change the classification, but that has to be bought into; it has to be delivered by local service providers and the police on the ground. My priority, the most important thing for me, is that my constituents in Mansfield town centre feel safer as a result. That is exactly what we are after. In the aftermath of that debate in July, 20 police and crime commissioners wrote to the Government in support of reclassification, which has received cross-party support and is backed by my local police leaders. Nottinghamshire County Council and other county councils have written to the Government on this issue.

Spice was originally sold as a legal high, and synthetic cannabinoids were developed as an alternative to cannabis, which leads to a common misconception that these drugs are not hard drugs. It is understandable that they would initially have been made class B drugs. However, the comparison of synthetic cannabinoids to cannabis is entirely inaccurate and their impacts are very different.

I cannot emphasise enough that reclassifying these drugs has no connection with cannabis or medical marijuana. In my view, there is a great deal of sense in the medicinal use of cannabis in some cases. I do not argue with that; indeed, in this debate I do not seek to suggest anything at all about cannabis, frankly. In fact, I want to make the point that the two—cannabis and synthetic cannabinoids—are not comparable and that these psychoactive drugs are not the same thing at all. We need to stop treating cannabis and synthetic cannabis as if they are the same thing, and we need to reclassify synthetic cannabis.

It does not make sense that, in accordance with the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, synthetic cannabinoids are put in the same class as cannabis regarding relative harmfulness. The physical and psychological impacts of synthetic cannabis are more comparable to those of class A drugs, such as ketamine or heroin, yet that seriousness is not reflected in law. Seizures, heart attacks and chest pains are common physical problems, and synthetic cannabis users can experience frightening visions or hallucinations.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again and yet again he is making a really important point. I heard a tragic story when I visited my local prison recently. Three prisoners died after taking drugs. All three were also taking epilepsy drugs and there may be an issue there. With these synthetic drugs, we simply do not know what they do or how they interact with common medicines. Is that not another reason for treating this matter more seriously?

Photo of Ben Bradley Ben Bradley Conservative, Mansfield

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and I absolutely agree. We have seen the impact of these drugs and not only on users; there have been cases of prison officers having to go home sick, having inhaled fumes exhaled by people taking these drugs. The impact is not only on users themselves but on the broader community, which—absolutely—is another reason why this matter needs to be taken more seriously.

It is not yet necessarily recognised in the literature on this subject, but there can be problems for users as bad as bleeding from the eyes and bleeding from orifices. Similarly, teeth falling out has been described by long-term users as a side effect of these drugs, and such things are not comparable with the outcomes and side effects of other class B drugs. It is ridiculous that these symptoms do not warrant a higher classification for these drugs.

Unlike natural cannabis, synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists, or SCRAs, do not contain cannabidiol, or CBD, a chemical that is sometimes sold in our high-street shops, and which appears to possess antipsychotic properties. The psychotic symptoms that occur relatively frequently following SCRA consumption might be linked to the high potency of the drugs and the absence of CBD. In many cases, however, we do not know what is actually in these drugs. That is partly why it is so difficult to have a clear national treatment plan for users; the drugs are manufactured locally and ingredients vary across different regions. Sometimes, the main ingredient is nail varnish remover, but at other times it is not, and the impact on health and symptoms can vary greatly.

Cases have been reported where users choose to take heroin instead of Mamba, as there is more treatment available for heroin. There is no substitute for Mamba in the way that methadone can be used to help heroin addicts to come off heroin. I have been told by service providers off the record that they would prefer to treat people who take heroin, as their understanding is greater and the pathways to support and help are clearer. The fact that drugs workers say, “Actually, I would rather you take this class A drug than a class B drug”, suggests that we have not got classification right.

I have been told anecdotally that these drugs are far more addictive than heroin or cocaine. An article in The Economist emphasised the difficulty faced by outreach workers as they try to help users. Although heroin addicts often have four or five hours of lucidity a day, Mamba is often chain-smoked continuously by users throughout the day. As Members can imagine, that makes having a coherent conversation with a Mamba user a nearly impossible task.

Last weekend, The Sunday Times contained a very interesting article by Rosamund Irwin, which included an account from a user about how much worse the outcomes of taking Spice are compared with those of taking any other drug. In the article, Karen from Blackpool said:

“I’ve been on heroin for over 30 years, I’ve tried every drug, and Spice is by far the most horrible. You can function on heroin, but on Spice I thought I was coming off the world.”

In the same article, Karina, who is from the Salvation Army, says that these drugs

“rob people of their personality, it’s very different to heroin in that you can still have a conversation with a heroin user, but when people are on Spice their body is there, but they are not.”

The impact of these drugs is immense and affects towns across the whole of the UK. Not only is the impact on individuals worse than that of many class A drugs, but the impact on others and on public safety is arguably the worst aspect of all.

I want to see heavier penalties for manufacturers and dealers; I want to see work being done to shut down supply chains for the ingredients used in these drugs; and I want to see that increased risk and difficulty make life harder for manufacturers. In the meantime, I want the police to act, in order to keep people safe on our streets.

I have spoken to the staff of many local services in Mansfield and Nottinghamshire who have seen at first hand the impact of these drugs on our town centres. It is clear that the low price of Mamba and Spice is a key problem. At the cost of as little as £5 for four or five hits, synthetic cannabis is one of the cheapest drugs on the market, but it is also one of the strongest. The effects of these drugs can leave users resembling zombies, slumped in a state of semi-consciousness, sometimes foaming at the mouth and sometimes passed out in the street.

It is uncomfortable enough seeing such things as an adult; it is devastating having to explain to your four-year-old child why there are people passed out on the ground in the market square in Mansfield town centre. That situation has clearly had a negative impact on town centres and local economies. It causes anxiety among shoppers and business owners, reduces footfall and discourages families from spending the day in the town centre.

These drugs have put an extra strain on ambulance services around the country. Figures from South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust showed that between August 2016 and July 2017 there were 157 calls related to synthetic cannabis. That jumped up to 960 calls in the following year. Most of the time, the users hop back up after 20 minutes or so; they are absolutely fine and do not need an ambulance, but that time and money has been wasted. This issue not only affects my constituents in Mansfield and Warsop; it impacts on constituencies around the UK and it is getting worse. The Government need to act now to stop things from worsening further.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on securing the debate. Having made those points about ambulance services, he might be interested to know that last year in Torquay some users of these drugs were getting two or even three ambulance visits a day because of the very situation that he is describing, namely that most users recover quickly after an incident. Again, that reinforces the fact that these are not class B drugs. They look like class A drugs, they work like class A drugs, and they should be class A drugs.

Photo of Ben Bradley Ben Bradley Conservative, Mansfield

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I totally agree with him. I have seen examples of that kind myself. One of the prime spots for using these drugs in Mansfield town centre is next to a statue that is right outside my office. Indeed, one of my members of staff has been outside resuscitating people on a regular basis. The challenge is that not only is an ambulance sent, even though it may not actually be needed, but if that drug user is put into an ambulance and taken to accident and emergency, they often require more resource in A&E than the average punter. So the resource drain from the NHS as a result of this issue is absolutely huge; I agree with my hon. Friend in that regard.

I echo the sentiment of Nottinghamshire County Council that the illegal use of these drugs is a threat to public health and a matter of public concern. As 20 PCCs have outlined, these drugs are causing one of the most severe public health issues we have faced in decades. Quite frankly, enough is enough for me. I want my constituents in Mansfield and Warsop to feel safe, and I want the police and local council to have the powers to ensure that users are dealt with effectively. The localised manufacturing methods of these drugs vary, due to the range of different ingredients that dealers use. This variability means that the drugs vary in strength and quality, and the effects of consuming one hit of Mamba can vary hugely from week to week, from dealer to dealer, and from town to town.

Symptoms are unpredictable, and as a result medical intervention can be challenging. I have contacted NHS England and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, and it is clear that no organisation has yet taken responsibility for providing best practice in dealing with this issue. I do not believe that each clinical commissioning group should individually have to come up with its own guidance. The Government need to be proactive, and they must work on a national strategy to tackle a growing national problem.

These drugs are not only cheap, they are also accessible. I have literally seen bags of Mamba lying in the street outside my office. It is not expensive to replace, and the current laws and penalties for selling Mamba and Spice mean that there is not a real deterrent for dealers. If I can walk down the high street and pick up a bag of it—literally pick it up for free in the street—then it is clear that people do not fear the repercussions of being caught with these drugs.

The raw ingredients to make these drugs can be found freely available online and ordered, and then concocted as Mamba and Spice here in the UK. A recent investigation by The Sunday Times proved how easy it is for UK drugs gangs to import dangerous chemicals from China to cook up these drugs in their local areas. An undercover reporter was able to import industrial-grade chemicals, including hydrochloric acid and sulphuric acid, to make Mamba in just 14 days. This method means that gangs are making much bigger profits; £50 of ingredients can make 2 lb of spice, which is worth nearly £10,000.

There need to be stronger judicial consequences, particularly for manufacturing and dealing in these drugs; currently, the profit outweighs the risk. It is only by putting the fear of God into manufacturers and cutting off supply lines that we can hope to make a tangible impact on the ground. Tougher penalties for dealers and manufacturers would lead to increased prices for users, and more powers for the police to protect local residents.

A recent conversation I had with a local police inspector highlighted the enormity of the task of dealing with Mamba users while the police have very restricted powers. Since April this year, one particular Mamba user in Mansfield has been arrested 12 times and sent to prison twice. While in prison, this repeat offender did not receive any education or rehabilitation, which was a huge missed opportunity in itself and led to an immediate breach of his criminal behaviour order when he entered Mansfield town centre on his release. I was informed only last week that he had been arrested within 24 hours of being released, after serving a 16-week sentence, and has consequently received another eight weeks. There are countless such examples around the country of people going round and round the system with very lenient consequences for their actions, and of their not getting the support they need and not fearing the repercussions—rearrest and reconviction.

Following the advice of my right hon. Friend the Minister, I wrote a cross-party letter to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. I am pleased that the council will consider the classification of psychoactive drugs in a review that is due to begin shortly. More imminently, the Home Office is due to review the operation of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 this month in accordance with section 58 of the Act, which commits it to doing so within 30 months of implementation. I look forward to the Government’s response.

This severe problem does not only affect my constituents in Mansfield and Warsop; it has far-reaching consequences for all areas of society around the country. I praise our local services. They do their best with the available resources to deal with the growing epidemic, but it gets to a point at which there must be national recognition of the problem and a plan to reduce the burden on them. I am calling on the Government to reclassify synthetic cannabinoids, so that local authorities have more power to take action that will get users the help they need and keep them out of the judicial system, and that will mean heavier penalties for dealers and increased risk for manufacturers. Most importantly, from the perspective of the bulk of the public, it will keep people safe, so that they do not feel scared or intimidated when going about their business in our towns and cities. We need to meet a severe problem with severe consequences.

Reclassification would also show a clear distinction between synthetic cannabinoids and cannabis. As I have demonstrated numerous times during my speech, the physical and physiological impact of these drugs requires a class A classification.

I understand absolutely that users need support and that preventing addiction is the desirable course of action, and I welcome the news that the Health Secretary is looking into NHS funding for preventive services. I raise that side of the coin regularly too, particularly with the Department of Health and Social Care; I have written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on numerous occasions. Reclassification is not the silver bullet. It is far too simplistic to believe that all users will want to accept help and wrong to think that we should not act when users make life hell for innocent people and town centre businesses. My first instinct is to protect my constituents.

I want Mansfield town centre to be a lively, upbeat place again, somewhere people look forward to visiting and to which they will return time and again. Mansfield is full of fantastic local shops and businesses that already face difficulties of their own. I am keen to help regenerate the town centre, and I know that the Government are working to support that—we can see it in many of the Budget measures from last week—but small retail businesses receiving a cut to their business rates will not attract people to town centres if people feel they are a hostile environment into which they do not want to bring their children. It is not right to let a small minority of people have such a huge impact on entire towns and the lives of thousands by turning our town centres into places where people fear to go. We cannot continue to let our children see this behaviour and think it is normal.

The issue peaked locally, in Mansfield and Warsop, back in July, at which time I was receiving multiple messages every day from constituents complaining about their experience with users in the town centre. The problem has worsened over a short time, and I do not think we have the ability to wait any longer. If dealers and manufacturers do not face harsh repercussions, what state will our town be in this time next year, or in five years’ time?

The issue cannot be ignored until it goes away. I urge the Government to consider it closely, to work with the advisory council and to reclassify these drugs so that we can regain control of our town centres.

Photo of Ruth Smeeth Ruth Smeeth Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North 9:53 am, 6th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

I congratulate Ben Bradley on securing this vital debate on an urgent issue for my constituents. I am immensely grateful to those I work with locally who are on the frontline, supporting users and the communities in which they live. Organisations such as Saltbox, Brighter Futures, Voices and Number 11 work tirelessly to deal with the consequences of the new substances. They are on the frontline with our brave public servants—the police, paramedics and A&E professionals—who deal with the consequences day in, day out. The huge spike in the use of synthetic cannabinoids such as Spice and Black Mamba and synthetic psychoactive substances such as Monkey Dust is causing immeasurable harm to my communities and drawing new battle lines in the war on drugs.

I am very proud to represent the people of Stoke-on-Trent. My city truly is a wonderful place to live, and I have a duty to protect it and to fight for my constituents. For too long our city has been at the epicentre of this growing crisis. Synthetic drugs such as Monkey Dust and Black Mamba are too easily available on our streets and can be found for as little as £2 or £3 a hit. The drugs are cheap, powerful and dangerous, and are wreaking havoc on our communities.

On 4 September, it was reported that Staffordshire police had responded to no fewer than 950 Monkey Dust-related incidents in the previous three months alone—an average of 10 calls a day—and the situation is only getting worse. We are in the grip of an epidemic that has devastating consequences, not just for users but for the wider public. Every week I am confronted by a new horror story from one of my constituents, of threatening and intimidating behaviour, of drug users passed out in alleyways and parks, and of growing violence between rival dealers and gangs. My constituents too often have to tell me about the obstacle course of rubbish and drug paraphernalia they have to traverse on their way to work, and about the fear that prevents them from letting their children leave the house alone. One person wrote to me last week describing their street as something out of a zombie film, and another stopped me while I was out canvassing to tell me that drug users were walking up and down their street at night trying peoples’ door handles in an attempt to get into their homes.

The most harrowing story I have heard concerns a young woman who had a drug user jump into her car outside her house and refuse to get out. My constituent’s four-year old daughter who was in the car was forced to leap out in terror and she is now terrified. The same individual later forced entry into someone else’s house on that street and assaulted them. That is what we are dealing with. That is what my constituents—decent, hard-working people—are forced to endure, and it cannot be allowed to continue.

Our police do incredible work in tackling the problem, but they are stretched to their limit, and with Staffordshire police set to lose a further £6.6 million of funding, our local thin blue line is set to get even thinner. However, this is not just an enforcement issue. The people whose lives are being ruined by the drugs need support, whether treatment for alcohol and substance abuse, mental health support or, as in many cases, support to tackle the homelessness and rough sleeping that all too often leads to people turning to drugs and alcohol as a comfort and an escape—they are clearly self-medicating. All too often, that assistance simply is not there. Deep cuts to drug treatment and recovery support have made it much harder for people to seek help, and have left the police and social services with nowhere to refer users to for treatment.

Worse still, the low classification of these synthetic drugs means that they are frequently designated a low priority. What little support remains is instead directed towards those struggling with opiates and other hard drugs. In Stoke-on-Trent, local support charities have told me that they are supporting people who have started using heroin so that they will be eligible for the rehab support they have been denied when trying to get off Monkey Dust. Such is the desperation of those seeking to get clean that they are resorting to even more dangerous and destructive substances to access the help they need.

Even the provision we have in my great city is under threat. This year, Stoke-on-Trent City Council decided to cut drug and alcohol services by £751,000. My hon. Friend Gareth Snell and I recently wrote to Ann James, the leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, urging her to reconsider the cuts and to recognise the need to focus our energies on the new synthetic substances. Our pleas fell on deaf ears, and she should be ashamed.

More than anything, we need the Government to recognise the scale of the problem and to provide the resources we need before the potential of a generation disappears in a puff of smoke. I hope the Minister comes away from the debate with a clearer understanding of the urgency of the situation in towns and cities across the UK.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South 9:59 am, 6th November 2018

It is a pleasure to follow my colleague, Ruth Smeeth.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Ben Bradley on securing the debate, and I welcome the opportunity to further my own efforts to counter the blight of drugs in Stoke-on-Trent South. Indeed, I recently met the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability, to discuss the scourge of gangs, particularly those who are pushing and are profiteering from the misery caused by Spice. I also discussed the significant escalation of another synthetic drug in Stoke-on-Trent, Monkey Dust, to which Ruth Smeeth referred. I am grateful to Home Office Ministers for their work to address the growing challenges we face.

Stoke-on-Trent has been hit with an unenviable reputation as a centre for Monkey Dust abuse. The human cost of this awful drug and the gangs pushing it is a problem for the city. Shockingly, it is reported that it is possible to purchase Monkey Dust for as little as £2 in Stoke-on-Trent, which is even cheaper than the drugs to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield referred. Even more worryingly, it has a highly hallucinogenic reaction, with cases of people jumping off buildings. In grotesque fashion, these miserable substances are also known as “super spice”, “herbal smoking” and “designer drugs”.

We must tackle the legacy of synthetic drugs, especially cannabinoids. The reactions to these drugs are often unknown, as has been discussed. People have died straight away from taking them. The consequences of the illicit drugs trade hit residents, who live in fear of gang violence, and add to the terrible challenges faced by those already struggling with the vulnerability of homelessness. The communities of Meir and Fenton in my constituency are now witnessing some of the highest levels of antisocial behaviour in the whole of Staffordshire. That is totally unacceptable, and my constituents should not have to put up with being terrorised by those committing offences.

Unfortunately, these dreadful drugs are often a corruption of research into alternatives to more traditional drugs such as cannabis. That research began in response to the legal ban on using cannabis for medicinal purposes. That ban on natural cannabinoids prescribed for medical purposes is rightly being lifted by the Home Secretary. I agree entirely with our police and crime commissioner, Matthew Ellis, that Monkey Dust—or plain Dust, as it is known in Stoke-on-Trent—and other synthetic cannabinoids used for what is laughably called leisure use must be reclassified as class A at the earliest opportunity.

Of course, reclassifying Dust will not in itself solve the problems of gangs—pushers will still promote gang activities and push drugs in our communities—but those who push Dust, which is a brutally dehumanising drug, should be held to greater account for their actions and face greater deterrent sentencing. That is especially important considering the drug’s exceptionally low street value, which fuels increased availability to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.

That reclassification needs to be part of a wider push that includes much more action on preventive work to reduce the root causes of drug abuse and addiction. That should involve the police, local authorities, health services, schools and third-sector organisations working together to address the wider issues in our communities. In addition, there needs to be a wider conversation about how we divert young people from gang culture in the first place and protect the vulnerable, who are targeted by drugs pushers, from being criminally exploited.

We need to bring greater purpose to people’s lives and help them to take advantage of the opportunities opening up from our growing economy and record low unemployment. I am continuing to work on that with local partners in Stoke-on-Trent. I was out with Staffordshire police, housing officers from the local council and Stop Loan Sharks only last Friday in the East Fenton area. I was pleased to meet a number of local partners at Ormiston Meridian Academy in Meir recently to see what more can be done to improve things and provide facilities in the community as a distraction to antisocial behaviour, gangs and drugs.

We need to look closely at why people in employment, and even those in fulfilling employment, are attracted to drug abuse—it is not only those in the most disadvantaged communities. Sadly, class A drugs are part of designer lifestyles and have been for many years. Unfortunately, synthetic cannabinoids are just a new manifestation of an old evil. I will finish by mentioning that, should the Minister ever have time in his diary to visit Stoke-on-Trent, Commissioner Matthew Ellis and I would welcome the opportunity to show him some of the issues on the ground.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Labour, Chesterfield 10:04 am, 6th November 2018

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate Ben Bradley on securing this important debate, and I rise to speak in support of the case he made. His constituency is not that far from mine and not that different from mine. Many people see Mansfield as a slightly less good Chesterfield, but suffice it to say they share many similarities. In Chesterfield, we have experienced many of the issues he will have experienced in his town centre.

One reason why the issue is felt so passionately is the scope of its impact, not only on the users, but on people right across the community. These drugs have a huge impact on those who become users. Being able to get hold of them is the only purpose in their lives at times. These people are victims and vulnerable people, but their actions impact on a huge number of other people. Many people are frightened to go into the centre of our towns because of the impact of Mamba and Spice users and the alarming state that people get themselves into on these drugs.

At times over the past couple of years, we have seen the homeless community coming together in Chesterfield. The availability of such a cheap and powerful drug is a big part of the attraction. That has a big impact on not only the town centre, but our businesses and on retailers. Retailers trying to run their businesses in tough times have contacted me, saying they have people under the spell of these drugs in contorted positions in their shop doorways. It is impossible for them to conduct their business. The issue has a big effect on shoppers and tourists.

I pay tribute to the work of Hardyal Dhindsa, our excellent police and crime commissioner for Derbyshire. Along with the force, he has put a huge amount of effort into trying to clamp down on these drugs. He introduced Operation Chesnee, which led to 70 arrests and a spate of convictions. At least 40 people have now been charged, and convictions are ongoing. Derbyshire police have put significant resource into cracking down on Spice and Mamba, but while they are class B drugs, there is a limit to the resources they can put in and the returns they can get. There is also the impact on the ambulance service. We have seen a sixfold increase in the past year in the number of ambulance call-outs to people who are on synthetic cannabinoids.

At the all-party parliamentary group meeting that the hon. Member for Mansfield held, people were worried that a reclassification would end up criminalising users. My sense is that we have widespread agreement that we want to try to reduce the incentive for dealers. It is not about going after those who are victims or vulnerable. Because of the availability of these drugs in prison, prison is no disincentive. I am very much of the view that it is not about criminalising users; it is all about reducing the incentive for dealers.

If we increase the classification and sentences rise, police tell me that they will no longer be getting people low down the supply chain. Currently, they are willing to take the rap because sentences are relatively short and they and their families will be looked after while they are in prison. Instead, those sentences will go higher up the drug chain to the people at the top, where they really belong. It is up to us as legislators to ensure that our directions for the courts achieve that aim. People may say that changing the classification will criminalise the victims, but it is up to us, when we get into the legislative process following the instruction this debate will give to the Home Secretary, to ensure that the directions to the courts are sufficiently robust for them to understand what we are talking about.

The hon. Member for Mansfield referred to antisocial behaviour, but that phrase understates the scale of the issue and its impact. “Antisocial behaviour” makes me think of children riding around on bikes in their local communities being noisy and knocking on people’s doors. The terror that is caused in our communities by behaviour that does not actually hurt people, but certainly frightens them, is much stronger than the phrase “antisocial behaviour” implies.

Vicky Ford talked about the impact on prisons. I recently visited Nottingham prison, which is one of 10 that gets specific direction from the Government on improving standards and reducing suicides. The impact that Spice and Mamba synthetic cannabinoids have on the running of the prison is incredible. People get themselves sent into prison deliberately to bring drugs in. Huge and complicated initiatives are put in place to get drugs into the prison. The prison governor is entirely realistic about the impact that that has and the inability of our Prison Service to address it. When drugs are so rife in prisons, it is absolutely impossible to do any kind of rehabilitation work. The prison governor told me about a video of one of his inmates who was on Spice. He talked to him and showed him what he was like and the guy simply said, “When I’m away on Spice I just don’t care about anything else in the world.” The drug has a substantial impact on our prisons.

The hon. Member for Mansfield was at pains to point out that reclassification is only one part of the solution. None of us has claimed that it will solve the issue. It is a social ill that afflicts us, but the chief cost of it and the comparatively low sentencing are important issues for us to tackle. Alongside that, where do we want to take the debate further? We need further resourcing for policing. If we are going to ask them to reclassify Spice and try to solve the problem, we will need to make sure there is additional resource for policing. We need a real attack—it has been inadequate so far—on homelessness. We need to recognise the link between welfare policy and many social ills. We need to ensure that drug prevention services are sufficiently robust and that we have proper support in our health system for people who want to come off drugs. We need to ensure we have targeted policing and sympathetic sentencing. We all recognise that reclassification is only one part of a much broader solution. Just because that does not solve everything does not mean that we should not try to do something. That is why I support the case made by the hon. Member for Mansfield today.

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Defence) 10:12 am, 6th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I, too, congratulate Ben Bradley on securing this morning’s debate.

In recent years, Spice has been a growing problem in my constituency, particularly around the town centres, which, as we have heard this morning, is common across the country. The health and wellbeing impact on those taking such substances is a major concern, and there is a wider concern for their families and those in the community who witness the effect on individuals and the social impact on our towns and villages, with many users being in a zombie-like state. Seeing individuals in that state is unnerving and sometimes frightening for members of the public, and some have told me that they feel uneasy walking through our town centres. Again, other Members have highlighted similar experiences this morning. Clearly, the situation has to be tackled.

Residents have raised the matter with me in both Merthyr Tydfil and in Rhymney. I have discussed its impact with both South Wales and Gwent police, who each cover a part of my constituency. It is clear that Spice, like most drugs, destroys lives and has a major and negative impact on our communities. As we know, “Spice” is the common name for what we are discussing this morning: synthetically produced substances, commonly known as synthetic cannabinoids as they were originally thought to mimic the effects of cannabis. However, recent studies on how those substances react with the brain show that they bind to a combination of receptors, making their effects much more unpredictable and dangerous.

I am concerned about how easy it appears to be for individuals to obtain such substances and about the fact that they are seen as a stepping stone to other, harder substances. Although Spice is a class B drug, users describe it as “green crack”. Merthyr Tydfil has seen an increase in acquisitive crime, particularly shoplifting, to fund Spice habits. In my constituency, both police forces are doing their best to tackle this growing problem. Over the summer, South Wales police worked proactively in and around Merthyr Tydfil town centre with a range of partner agencies, which had positive results with a marked reduction in cases. I will share some thoughts on what has been done locally.

A multi-agency approach to dealing with Spice has been developed, predominantly for Merthyr Tydfil town centre. The approach attempts to break the cycle of possession and offending, with education, health, housing and drug and alcohol referral agencies participating in the pilot. The strategy has been twofold: first, support for users and prevention; secondly, disruption and detection of suppliers. The work has involved partner agencies such as Drugaid, Dyfodol, housing associations and various departments in the local authority basing themselves in the centre of Merthyr Tydfil. Users found in possession were taken to the services available to them to meet their acute needs as an alternative to prosecution. It proved extremely effective in identifying a number of individuals who were experiencing differing levels of vulnerability. It was coupled with robust action taken when dealers were identified.

I want to thank and congratulate both South Wales and Gwent police and the other agencies on their work on the pilot scheme. However, clearly, as we all know, police resources are tight. With police numbers much lower than they were just a few years ago, the police’s ability to continually mount such operations is limited. In addition, there are financial pressures on local authorities and other public agencies, meaning that they are less able to react and deal with the issues effectively. More therefore needs to be done to support the police and communities in my constituency and across the country to tackle the problem.

A review of the drugs policy would be a good start to finding a way forward to tackle the growing impact of drugs. I hope that today’s debate will allow the Government to consider what more can be done. I ask the Minister specifically to consider what action he can take to assist the police, other agencies and the wider community to help tackle this growing problem. We need the Government to be on top of their game in dealing with a problem that blights my community and many others across the country.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 10:17 am, 6th November 2018

I congratulate Ben Bradley on securing this debate on a subject very close to our hearts. Many others who would love to be here also support the aims of the hon. Gentleman and other speakers. I will talk about a specific case that the Minister is aware of. It is a success story in that Government policy has helped very much.

Members will know that I am a most sincere advocate for my young constituent, Sophia Gibson, who was prescribed medicinal cannabis. I watched the struggle of my constituents as they fought with every breath to legally get the help that their child needed, and today young Sophia is a different child. I want to put on the record my thanks to the Minister for his endeavours to make sure that that happened. He had the opportunity to meet Sophia Gibson, my parliamentary aide and me to talk about this matter. I know that he industriously, personally and sincerely pushed the matter for Sophia and I thank him for that. I also thank the Government for their help to make that happen. Without that help and intervention, we would not have the Sophia we have today. Like me and everyone who helped, the Minister has a photograph of that young girl who has now come on greatly.

Sophia needed medicinal cannabis to have any semblance of a life. Her courageous mummy and daddy refused to stop pushing, and refused to give in and accept drugs that had horrific side effects and did not address the severe medical issues that their daughter had. I cannot speak highly enough of Danielle and Darren, the mum and dad who put it all out there to get their daughter the help that she so desperately needed. They did it in the right way. They followed the legal procedure and paved the way for others who need an opportunity to get that help. The path is still not smooth, and the Government are honing the procedure, but because of Alfie Dingley’s mother Hannah and because of the Gibsons, it is now a possibility.

I recently saw a picture of Sophia dressed as Princess Anna for her school Hallowe’en party. That might not be noteworthy for everyone, but it was noteworthy for Sophia’s family because it was the first party that she had been able to attend at school. That says it all about what medicinal cannabis has done for that young girl and for her mum and dad.

A post on the social media page Help for Sophia’s Seizures, which updates people on Sophia’s progress, encapsulates why I stood with Danielle and Darren in their battle for help for their child, as the Minister and many in the community did. It reads:

“Nearly 14 weeks on from when Sophia was prescribed medicinal cannabis with THC on the NHS and she has NOT been hospitalised from 10th July, seizure length and frequency are reducing and Sophia is so much brighter, has a lot more energy and her ‘wee rascal’ personality is shining through. Sophia recently had a cold that lasted 5 weeks and any other year day 2 of a cold and she was hospitalised with back to back seizures but this year it has been so much different and at last for the better. Our little princess is getting bigger, stronger and better each day and we hope this continues looking into the future. This was never to cure Sophia as her syndrome is genetic but about Sophia having a better quality of childhood and that is what she is doing.”

I am undoubtedly in the corner of those in the medical profession who know that nothing else is working, but I must say clearly that that is where I draw the line. I believe that honing the process means educating doctors to know the situations that call for the prescription of whole plant cannabis, which has no additional substances added to it. I am not a doctor—far from it—and I am not medically trained, but the fact that whole plant cannabis has been proven to make such a substantial difference to young Sophia’s quality of life tells me that more research is needed into whole plant medicine. That will enable medical professionals to have the information that they so need to prescribe whole plant cannabis to others in Sophia’s situation, in which the currently available drugs are not working and are even damaging her in the long term.

We must remember the impact that every seizure has, physically and mentally, on a child’s capacity. There are people whose lives would massively benefit from whole plant cannabis. Information must be available for medical professionals to understand the medication so that they can prescribe it.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech with great interest. As always, he is a doughty advocate for his constituents. Does he agree that there is no contradiction in believing that Spice, as a synthetic cannabinoid for recreation use, should be made a class A drug, but that cannabis-based medicine should be allowed for specific purposes? The medicinal use of a drug is a different concept from its abuse for recreational purposes.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I wholeheartedly agree. I want to make sure that we understand the side effects, but the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention brings me back to a point that I have made clear throughout the debate: reclassifying cannabis to allow recreational use is something that I cannot support. Just as we use morphine under very select circumstances and in a controlled manner, but have rightly outlawed the use of heroin, it is right that we have classified cannabis products for medicinal use in select circumstances and in a controlled manner. That is the way I believe it must be.

I do not believe that we should allow recreational use of Spice or Mamba, or that we should advocate such use of any cannabis-derived product. Nor do I believe that legislating for medicinal cannabis means logically that we should legislate to allow recreational use, or to allow for those who believe that they can self-medicate.

We need to ensure that doctors understand the limitations of the change in legislation and can prescribe to someone whose case they know well and who is not responding to other conventional drugs. We need to ensure that people understand that the change in legislation does not give them carte blanche to grow their own plants. Finally, we need to ensure that children like Sophia Gibson who had no quality of life before medicinal cannabis was available can access medication that will enhance their life, as it has clearly done for Sophia, so that they can have a birthday party without ending up in hospital, attend school without having to drop out because they are not well, and have a semblance of normality. That is what I support and will continue to support, and there is a very clear difference between the two.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure) 10:24 am, 6th November 2018

I thank Ben Bradley for bringing this topic back to this place. As he correctly points out, we have to raise the profile of the issue because it exists throughout the United Kingdom and beyond. Pushing it away instead of discussing it will never do anybody any good.

It is clear from hon. Members’ speeches today that we agree more than we disagree, but it is turning into groundhog day. We have had this conversation before. We agree that there is no silver bullet, that these drugs cause enormous damage, and that there is enormous strain on our local services. Where we disagree is on the effect that reclassifying these drugs will have. I repeat what I said at the start of the debate: reclassifying SCRAs as a class A drug will not grant the police any additional enforcement powers. It may make it easier for a police force to reprioritise, but it will not give it any extra powers.

Reclassification is all about longer sentences. The proposed solution would send problematic users, some with serious mental health issues, to overcrowded and understaffed prisons that are full of synthetic drugs, as has been pointed out. I do not see how that could possibly end well.

We are told that making synthetic cannabinoids class A drugs is not about trying to prosecute the end user, but about prosecuting higher up the chain. Are we going to leave the end users on the streets? We have heard how unpleasant our society finds that and how intolerant we are to people with mental health issues. If we are not going to arrest those people, why are we doing this? Is it so we can chase people further up the chain? If longer sentences for class A drugs worked, we would have no heroin or cocaine problem. We have tried that for years and it has not worked, yet we are going down the same path again.

I thank Transform, Release and Volteface for the information that they gave me in advance of the debate. Let me quote from a Volteface report:

“Dr Rob Ralphs, a senior lecturer in criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University, has researched Spice in prisons and within the homeless community in the city. He believes that making Spice Class A will make no real difference to its use, but may make the situation worse. While the market for Spice is, at present, relatively stable with four or five different strains of the drug in circulation, he said its potential reclassification could drive innovation, leading to new strains being developed to circumvent it”, as has happened in the past. The report further quotes Dr Ralphs:

“Every time there’s been a change in the law, the next generation…has been even stronger… The big thing is why the homeless and prison populations are using it in the first place. It’s about putting money into engaging people into treatment services and trying to reduce the market. If you can reduce the market, the demand for it, then you will reduce it.”

The report continues:

“Professor Harry Sumnall, who specialises in substance use at Liverpool John Moores University’s Public Health Institute, also believes reclassification could make the problem of Spice worse.

‘When you take a police-oriented approach to a complex health and social issue you can never address the fundamental root causes of why some cities in the UK are experiencing harms with these substances…I don’t think the emergence of Spice and the concentration of harms in some users of Spice is down to the fact that the police aren’t arresting enough dealers. I don’t accept the fact that the police can’t arrest people or are unlikely or unwilling to prioritise the pursuit of dealers because it’s a Class B. There’s nothing to stop police prioritising dealers or users of Spice.’

He said the harms associated with heroin and crack cocaine ‘haven’t been resolved by the fact that they’re Class A drugs’ and that focusing on targeting dealers with harsher penalties would not lead to users being safer or healthier.”

The point about safety is important. When we try to chase these things up the chain, as it has been said that we are planning to do, drug dealers protect their marketplace with incredible violence. If they feel threatened or their users are put under more pressure, that violence will escalate.

Criminologists argue that that makes the market more harmful because of the risk increase—an increase in the price of drugs makes the market more profitable, and the more profit involved, the more the violence is used to protect it. The types of organised crime groups that might then enter the market, because the profits are higher, mean that violence and secondary harm increase.

Professor Sumnall believes calls to make Spice class A are a “symbolic response” to the issue, which

“doesn’t actually translate into any meaningful public health action unless there’s a real commitment to ensure good coverage of high quality services for these individuals” who use it.

Going back to this letter signed by 20 police and crime commissioners, a line states:

“We would urge that synthetic cannabinoid products are reclassified from class B to class A.”

The letter also states its concern, five times—

“an urgent public health issue…most severe public health issue…As public health and substance misuse services are not currently taking the lead in meeting this growing challenge it is falling to the police…public health, mental health and addiction services…a public health challenge”— that this is, categorically, a public health issue and that those who should be addressing it are not doing so.

According to Professor Sumnall, it is not being addressed because:

“The broader context of the failings in the criminal justice system, the fact that mental health service provision is in crisis, that local areas are experiencing around about a 30% cut in treatment budgets—those are the fundamental issues that need to be addressed rather than a totemic, symbolic response by making it a Class A”.

The blame lies here, in Parliament. The Select Committee on Science and Technology concluded in its report, “Drug classification: making a hash of it”, that the classification system was “not fit for purpose”. Harms of different drugs often bear little resemblance to their status in the ABC system, which has been distorted by political considerations and doomed attempts to send a message. That report was written in 2006, and we are none the wiser.

What can we do about that? Plenty of options are open to us, with plenty of examples around the world. Last week, I spoke to Nuno Capaz from Portugal. I asked him a straightforward question: is there a synthetic cannabis problem in Portugal? His answer was short, sharp and to the point: no. How can Portugal get this right, but we get it so wrong?

Canada’s example is to legalise and regulate real cannabis. In the Netherlands, because cannabis is legally available, the market for Spice is almost non-existent. People prefer the real thing, so demand never developed, as in Canada, Uruguay and many US states. The subtext to that is what Prime Minister Trudeau said last week about legalising cannabis—they are not doing it because it is good for people’s health, but because we know it is bad for our children’s health. That is a mindset that we have to adopt.

In conclusion, to improve life opportunities for people who use SCRAs, it is imperative that we properly fund schemes around employment, education and housing. People who use SCRAs should be diverted away from the criminal justice system. The diversion scheme in Durham, called Checkpoint, diverts people after arrest on the condition that they undertake a four-month programme to address their offending behaviour. As long as they comply, they will not get a criminal record. Initial findings from the pilot found that those who were diverted to Checkpoint had lower reoffending rates than those who were subject to out-of-court disposals such as cautions. Participants in Checkpoint also reported improved outcomes with substance misuse, alcohol misuse, accommodation, relationships, finances and mental health. Is that not what we are trying to achieve? We cannot ostracise a subsection of our citizens, driving them into more damage by pushing them into the criminal justice system, when we all agree that we are trying to provide better social services—a wraparound service—and the only way in which that will ever happen is if we buy into that concept and it is properly funded by this Government.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities) 10:34 am, 6th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I, too, congratulate Ben Bradley on securing this debate.

Cannabis substitutes, or synthetic cannabinoids, have developed at a staggering rate over recent years, with more than 100 chemical variants, largely imported from the far east. The biggest concern is that many are far more potent and toxic than cannabis itself. Some variants were identified and banned under the Misuse of Drugs Act, but that just led to alternatives being developed. In response, the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 was introduced, completely banning the production, distribution and sale of such substances, and gave police the power to search persons, vehicles and premises and to seize and destroy any products found.

The 2016 Act provided fast and encouraging results, with high street sales almost entirely ceasing within a short space of time. Criminals selling more potent versions, however, took to the market instead, resulting in all synthetic cannabinoids banned as class B drugs and possession being a criminal offence. Those measures heavily diminished the supply of the substances, but we would be naive to think that we are anywhere near solving the problem. The production and distribution of new variants will continue to evolve illegally, meaning many vulnerable people are still at risk.

Those synthetic alternatives to cannabis are cheap, which means that use of and dependency on the drugs among the homeless and those in prison continue to grow. In addition, the drugs are also often seen as a relatively easily accessible self-medication for those suffering from depression as a result of some form of trauma. Worryingly, the potency of the synthetic substances can vary, and the effects that they might have on people vary greatly. Many become dependent quickly and, although some experience few or no side-effects, paranoia and seizures are common. Far too many deaths have been attributed to the use of cannabis substitutes.

Appallingly, there is a prevalence of videos on social media ridiculing those under the influence of those obscene substances. Filming of those desperate souls is neither funny nor respectful, but we have all seen the dreadful condition that people get into after taking those evil drugs. Clearly, the interventions and legal changes made to date have failed completely to deal with the issue of synthetic cannabinoids and the rise in the use of them. If we are seriously to clear our streets, our prisons and our communities from those vile drugs, we need to overhaul our drugs policy completely to make it fit for the 21st century.

Those inflicted with that dreadful obsession should not be subjected to ridicule. They are not amusements for us to view on social media—they are real people who need us to address their addiction, look at treatment, support them, and not just lock them up to move the problem from the streets. The Government need to give us more guarantees that they are reviewing legislation, monitoring crime statistics and protecting our vulnerable communities from the dangers of those addictive, evil drugs.

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd The Minister of State, Home Department 10:38 am, 6th November 2018

It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. This is not a debate about medicinal cannabis, but with your leave, I thank Jim Shannon for his update on Sophia and the Gibson family. Home Office Ministers are not regularly fed a diet of good news, but I was absolutely delighted to hear that. Perhaps, through him, I might pass my good wishes to the family.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

After I had finished my speech, the family contacted me to thank the Minister personally—they watched the comments we made just now.

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd The Minister of State, Home Department

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, and I send my best to the family, who showed enormous patience and dignity throughout a very difficult situation.

This has been a good debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Ben Bradley on bringing the issue back before the House with persistence and tenacity. He is entirely right to do so. He described this as a serious national problem, and I do not think he is wrong about that. Statistics can be misleading. One might be lulled into thinking that synthetic cannabinoids are not a significant national problem by the statistic that less than 0.5% of 16 to 59-year-olds in England and Wales reported using a new psychoactive substance in the past year, which is broadly the same as the year before; it might seem a small number. However, as Carolyn Harris pointed out, there is another number. There were 24 deaths related to synthetics in England and Wales in 2017. That is a terrible number to put alongside the evidence that has come, loud and clear, from Stoke, Chesterfield, Mansfield, Torbay and Wales, that the issue we are discussing causes real anxiety across the country. It confronts people with the terrible reality of its impact on some of the most vulnerable individuals in our communities, for whom, as my hon. Friend Jack Brereton and Ruth Smeeth pointed out, £2 buys oblivion and a dehumanised state. We do not yet have that problem in Ruislip, Northwood or Pinner, but I have seen it with my own eyes on the streets of Newcastle, and it is a shocking and unsettling sight, which we do not want in our town centres, for all the reasons that Members of Parliament have powerfully articulated here today. As Members have said, the evolution of generations of such drugs is fast-moving and a major challenge.

I would like to assure the House that we are prioritising the issue, and I will set out some evidence for that. However, I remind the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North in particular that I get the urgency of the issue, and I will close with some remarks taking us forward a bit. We are prioritising the problem—the groundbreaking Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 was a substantial piece of legislation. I confirm, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield, that we shall publish our review of it before the end of November. However, as I have said in previous debates, there is evidence that the Act has had a powerful effect in removing new psychoactive substances from open sale and ending the game of cat and mouse between Government and backstreet chemists. Significantly, 300 retailers across the UK have closed down and are no longer selling the substances. Suppliers have been arrested, there has been action by the National Crime Agency to remove psychoactive substances and, in 2016, there were 28 convictions in England and Wales, with seven people jailed under the new powers. That rose to 152 convictions in 2017, with 62 people immediately sent to custody. In parallel with that legislation, three separate sets of controls on the progressive generations of synthetic cannabinoids have been introduced, in 2009, 2012 and 2016.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

The Minister referred to the 2016 Act. I can reassure him that there used to be two head shops in Torquay town centre, but both have closed following that legislation.

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd The Minister of State, Home Department

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful contribution. I think that we can be clear, subject to what is in the review at the end of the month, that that groundbreaking legislation has had an effect. I can also point out targeted action by the Government, concentrated on areas where we know usage is especially high.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

Is the Minister aware that potentially up to 90% of cases involving Monkey Dust are in Stoke-on-Trent?

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd The Minister of State, Home Department

The fact that two Stoke-on-Trent MPs are taking part in the debate tells its own story, about the sense of urgency and concern in that city. That will be noticed by me and by the House.

Prisons featured in several contributions, and I know that Toby Perkins visited Nottingham Prison recently and was shocked by what he saw. There is clearly a significant drug problem in prisons, exacerbated by the emergence of synthetics and psychoactive substances. I can, again, point out a stream of action being taken. A new drugs force is working with law enforcement to restrict supply, reduce demand and build recovery, and is working with 10 of the most challenging prisons; £6 million is being invested to tackle drug supply in those establishments. There is a new national partnership agreement for prison healthcare and a new £9 million joint Ministry of Justice and NHS drug recovery prison pilot at Holme House Prison. I could go on, but I see evidence of a proactive Government approach to drugs in prisons.

A number of colleagues mentioned rough sleeping, and made the relevant links with these drugs. Again, that is an unacceptable feature of too many town centres, high streets and shop entrances. I hope that there is cross-party support for the new rough sleeping strategy. The £100 million package is a step towards achieving the vision of a country where no one needs to sleep rough, by 2027. I could go into the details of that but I think that the House is aware of it.

There was, rightly, substantial comment about the need for effective treatment and prevention. I could not be more supportive of the emphasis that my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield placed on that. If we have learned anything in this place from many years of evidence on many issues, it is that it is always smarter to invest in the fence at the top of the cliff than in the ambulance at the bottom. That is nowhere more true than in the matter of drugs. I can see from the statistics that people are seeking and receiving treatment from drugs services. Data from the national drug treatment monitoring system show that 1,223 adults presented to treatment for new psychoactive substances in 2017-18 in England, and 703 of those cases were for synthetic cannabinoids. Presentations for synthetic cannabinoids represented 0.6% of all adults who presented to drug and alcohol treatment in 2017-18.

To support those services, there is guidance on treatment for synthetic cannabinoids, including the recently updated drug treatment clinical guidelines, NEPTUNE’s “Guidance on the Clinical Management of Acute and Chronic Harms of Club Drugs and Novel Psychoactive Substances”, and Public Health England’s new psychoactive substance toolkits for the community and prisons. However, as my hon. Friend pointed out, there is also more investment going into the NHS. The Health Secretary has made it clear that prevention is a core pillar of his approach to the brief. He is right about that, and we must see the dividend from more effective prevention work in years to come.

I join others in offering congratulations on some excellent examples of partnership and multi-agency working and police work in Derbyshire, south Wales, Gwent, Staffordshire and Mansfield. There is clearly good leadership on the issue around the country, which is fundamental. The importance of local multi-agency working is clear in our drug strategy and modern crime prevention strategy. This is not just a police issue. We are not going to arrest or sentence our way out of it. The key is such local leadership and such multi-agency partnerships. Having been reading up in preparation for this and previous debates, and having got to understand a bit better the work going on in Mansfield, I join my hon. Friend in commending the work of Mansfield police and their partners. It seems extremely commendable —arguably “best in class” across the system. Part of my responsibility and engagement with the National Police Chiefs Council is to challenge the system, and learn from the rest of the system, about what works and what partnership working is really effective.

I want in my closing remarks to move things on a bit, as I think my hon. Friend is already aware of the things I have talked about so far; we have had such exchanges before. I am persuaded by his previous debates, this debate and correspondence from police and crime commissioners of different political persuasions that we need to go further. I hope he welcomes the major review of drugs that the Home Secretary announced on 2 October, including a focus on the workings of the drugs market and synthetic cannabinoids, which will be in the scope of the review. That is a major piece of work.

I have also asked the National Crime Agency to undertake a threat assessment of synthetic cannabinoids, which will be reported to the Department in spring. It will provide a richer picture of the threat faced by law enforcement. I hope my hon. Friend welcomes that too.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Labour, Chesterfield

I think I welcome what the Minister is saying, but I want to clarify something. By saying that he is persuaded that we need to go further, is he saying that he will institute a review or that it will become Government policy that synthetic cannabinoids will be reclassified?

Photo of Nick Hurd Nick Hurd The Minister of State, Home Department

The hon. Gentleman has jumped ahead of my remarks. I am sure he understands the context, because he is a sensible man. In this complex situation, when dealing with something fast-moving, the Government have to take decisions based on good evidence and a good understanding of the risks, the threats, the drivers of the market, the changes in the market and the likely consequences and implications of decisions, including about classification. I am setting out a series of urgent pieces of work that will look at the drugs market in a broader sense, which is a big step in itself, and a specific commissioning of the National Crime Agency to look at the threat assessment of synthetic cannabinoids—for the first time, as I understand it—with a commitment to report back to us in spring.

I am also asking the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, whose advice we rely on for decisions on classification, to advise on refreshing its assessment. We have not done that in the last few months because the honest truth is that it has not been that long since the council last took a view in 2014. In this fast-changing environment, however, and given the representations of real concern made by Members of Parliament and by police and crime commissioners, it is the right moment to ask the council to refresh that assessment of synthetic cannabinoids’ harms.

Hon. Members, and not least my hon. Friend for Mansfield, have been clear that reclassification is not a silver bullet—to use that cliché—and that we need to get several other things right. We should also be clear that reclassification would arguably not significantly increase the police’s powers to deal with the possession, supply and production of these substances. Instead, it would primarily increase the penalties for possession from a maximum of five years in prison to seven years, and for supply and production from a maximum of 14 years in prison to life. The House will have its own view on whether that change would have a material impact as a deterrent.

The Government rely on advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, whose last assessment was in 2014. Even though that does not seem that long ago, based on representations made to me, it is the right to time to ask it to refresh its assessment. I give that undertaking to hon. Members. I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend for Mansfield for his tireless passion in pursuing this cause, and other hon. Members for making it clear to the Government that there is no room for complacency.

Photo of Ben Bradley Ben Bradley Conservative, Mansfield 10:54 am, 6th November 2018

I am grateful to you, Mr Howarth, and other hon. Members for being present. I thank everyone for their contribution. This has been a good opportunity to continue to raise the issue of synthetic cannabinoids and to keep it on the agenda as the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the Department considers it. I thank the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) and for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) for supporting my application for the debate, which was much appreciated.

I thank Jim Shannon for his long-term support and his contributions to various debates on the subject. I also thank Ronnie Cowan. As much as we disagree on some of the implications of this, we agree that it is a public health issue—I hope I made that clear in what I said—and that the system currently gets it wrong.

From what the Minister has said, it is clear that the Government are looking at their drugs policy more broadly and how they might take it forward. There is definitely a discussion to be had. This campaign has a long way to go, but I am confident that we will continue to make progress. I welcome the Minister’s remarks, and I thank him for laying out what the Government are going to do, with reviews by the Department and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the work that is happening in prisons and the potential work in the health service. All that is welcome, and I take from it that the Government are taking the issue seriously.

I welcome with open arms the letter I received from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs last week about its review of reclassification and what that should look like, but I press the Minister on the speed of that review. The council suggests that it will take nine months to deliver its decision, which seems like a long time.

I welcome the Minister’s comments about the Government dealing with the issue and taking it seriously. I will continue to prioritise it and raise it during the reviews. I will keep having this conversation with the Minister, and I thank him for his patience on that. I will also keep prioritising the safety of my constituents.

I hope that in the coming months, and through the reviews, we will come to a conclusion about positive action that the Government can take to support local services and to benefit our communities by helping users and by keeping people in our town centres safe—that is the public safety aspect of the issue. In future, there needs to be proactive action and change from the Government to make that happen.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the reclassification of synthetic cannabinoids.