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

Part of the debate – 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 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.