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.