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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:04 am on 6th November 2018.

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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.