John’s Speech on New Psychoactive Substances

Yesterday (29th September 2015) John spoke in the Scottish Government’s debate on New Psychoactive Substances. John spoke highlighting his role as the Co-Convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Drugs and as a member of the Scottish Government convened New Psychoactive Substances Cross Party Working Group, which includes the Scottish Government, Police, health experts, legal experts and politicians.

Prior to the debate John, on behalf of the Green/Independent Group, attempted to amend the Scottish Government’s debate motion. Unfortunately John’s amendment was not selected. However you can read John’s amendment and the Scottish Government’s motion below:

*S4M-14403 Paul Wheelhouse: Progress on Implementing Recommendations of the Expert Review Group in New Psychoactive Substances—That the Parliament welcomes the progress being made to respond to the New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) Expert Review Group report recommendations, published on 26 February 2015, including work to bring NPS under legal control; notes that the UK Government published the Psychoactive Substances Bill on 29 May 2015, which the Scottish Government supports, and further notes that this work includes engagement with the sector on information sharing and a common definition, including on the development of forensic capacity, and production of guidance that will be a vital tool for trading standards staff on the frontline, given the serious impact that these substances are having in communities, sometimes with fatal consequences, and the challenges faced by drug treatment and health services and enforcement agencies.

Supported by: Michael Matheson*

*S4M-14403.3 John Finnie: Progress on Implementing Recommendations of the Expert Review Group in New Psychoactive Substances—As an amendment to motion S4M-14403 in the name of Paul Wheelhouse (Progress on Implementing Recommendations of the Expert Review Group in New Psychoactive Substances), insert at end ―, and recognises that, while there can be a role for enforcement, harm reduction is best achieved by education, which allows for informed choices‖.


John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Ind):

I have very much enjoyed the debate and I thank the minister for bringing it to the chamber and for opening it. I wonder what the purpose of the debate is. Is it to highlight to the public a problem that they are aware of? Is it to talk up a problem? Is it to address concerns that are widely held? Is it to contribute to harm reduction?

The motion talks about progress, which of course we all welcome, as it is important. Like a number of colleagues, I am pleased to be part of the ministerial cross-party group that is looking at NPS. No harm ever comes from discussing things and I think that we have had a lot of informed discussion thus far.

The motion talks about: “engagement with the sector on information sharing”.

I am grateful to the minister for taking my intervention on education, which is key to this. I do not want to give the impression that my view that there is an overemphasis on enforcement is the result of anything other than my understanding of how we will best get over the message that people need to make informed decisions. For instance, the motion talks about the “serious impact” of the substances. Is it a serious impact? Serious compared with what? There are other comparators, and alcohol is the most obvious one. We have heard about tragic events in A and E, but those events were relatively rare, whereas we know that the use of alcohol and the mayhem that that creates in the streets of our towns and villages, in dwelling houses and in A and E have been an on-going problem.

Like others, I very much enjoyed Dr Richard Simpson’s speech, which was very informed. He talked about human nature and what it causes us to do. He talked about new approaches and about the role of social media. Importantly, he said that people will continue to use. That is the reality.

At the risk of offending my former colleague in another sphere, Mr Pearson, we could argue that drug enforcement has not led to a positive outcome in terms of cost benefit analysis. If the idea was that all that effort would reduce the availability of drugs, that has not been the case. Of course, this is outwith the realm—in some respects—of the enforcement that has taken place.

Graeme Pearson:

I cannot let that remark go unchallenged. My colleague should consider that, in other realms of drug abuse, the so-called tenner bag that is recognised across Scotland had at one time a purity level of more than 40 per cent and now is lucky if it can achieve 10 per cent purity levels, because the supply of drugs into the country has been choked.

It is not simply a matter of enforcement; it is the proper use of all the tactics that are available to us that gives the opportunity for communities to respond better than might otherwise be the case. I am grateful to my colleague for allowing me the time to say that.

John Finnie:

Mr Pearson makes an important point, which is that enforcement has a role as part of the whole. I would like the emphasis to be on education.

The Scottish Drugs Forum welcomed the Home Office review and said:

“One of the key issues limiting a Scottish response to NPS is the unknown prevalence of such substances, with much of the data coming from anecdotal information.”

That largely remains the case. As we heard from the expert from A and E, a considerable amount of guesswork goes on.

I will quote something else that the SDF said about the review. Its director, David Liddell, said:

“It is crucial that the review does not solely focus on supply, but also looks at why people are using these new substances and the impact they have on individuals.”

It is important that we do that.

We know that the review considered the internet and of course the internet is there. It can be beneficial, although many people talk it down, but it provides many of the challenges that we have.

The Queen’s speech talked about the new bill creating an offence in regard to

“any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect.”

We have had a lot of discussion about that, because that may sound definitive, but it is far from clear.

I commend one aspect of the bill, which is its inclusion of provisions for civil sanctions such as prohibition notices and premises notices, two breaches of which will be a criminal offence. Their aim is to enable the police and local authorities to adopt a graded response to supply. It is important that a proportionate response is taken.

In the minister’s letter of June this year, he said that NPS

“are therefore potentially every bit as dangerous as illicit drugs”—

no one would argue with that—

“and have been implicated in a small, but growing number of deaths.”

We heard from Mr Pearson about polydrug use. We should look at the statistics, because I do not want people to blow things completely out of proportion. Alcohol is present in the vast majority of drug-related deaths.

The minister talked about Crew 2000, which has been on the go since 1992 and was formed in response to the rapid expansion of recreational drug use.

Kevin Stewart talked about language, which is important. I understand the frustration at the use of the term “legal highs”. We have in the chamber discussed a similarly sensitive matter: female genital mutilation. The connection is that, to a lot of people, including the victims, the term “female genital mutilation” means nothing. It is right that we should not infer that “legal” means “safe”—I do not infer that anyway; it is legal to climb mountains, but it is not always safe to do so. However, it is important that we communicate with people at the level that they understand. The minister talked about peers, and I say with the greatest respect to my colleagues that people will listen not to us but to the Scottish Youth Parliament and the fine folk at the Scottish Drugs Forum and Crew 2000.

Crew 2000 says that it is underresourced and underfunded, as we have heard from Sarah Boyack and others. It also says:

“Better education is essential so citizens are well informed and can assess risk. The information provided by Government has been minimal, leaving those who take NPS to guess for themselves.”

I have seen that phrase elsewhere. If we are going to say, “Don’t do it,” maybe we need to say why people should not do it.

Crew 2000 says:

“The least harmful substances, such as nitrous oxide, should be exempt.”

I did not know what nitrous oxide was; apparently, it is laughing gas. Proportionality is needed. If the bill is passed, we need to look at what its aftereffects will be.

Crew 2000 recommends something that I have not seen recommended elsewhere, which is

“a UK wide NPS amnesty”.

That would reduce the possibility of redistribution.

The consequences of a ban are not as straightforward as we might imagine. People who return to opiates from non-opiate NPS will have a reduced tolerance and therefore an increased overdose risk. Mental health problems may be exacerbated when people choose to self-medicate. Again, we will drive people who wish to continue using drugs back to dealing with people who are, after all, criminals.

I commend Sarah Boyack’s comments on the use of local initiatives, which are important.

We must deal with facts. We must deal with the internet and we must work collaboratively to reduce harm and bring about informed decision making.”

You can read a full transcript of the debate here: