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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:24 am on 6th November 2018.

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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.