RORY SPEAKS ON FENTANYL SENTENCING
Rory: It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), and my hon. Friends the Members for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), and for Clacton (Giles Watling), for their leadership on this issue.
Fentanyl is a very serious and pressing threat in three distinct ways. First, as the hon. Member for Dover pointed out, it has an unusual potency; it can be 50, 100 or, in some chemical forms, close to 10,000 times more powerful than heroin. A tiny fragment of this artificially produced drug can be far more powerful than heroin.
Secondly, there are the chemical effects of the drug. It is much more dangerous, gram for gram, than heroin because of its effects on the respiratory system. Artificial opioids bind themselves to receptors in the brain and have an effect on its ability to distinguish between its oxygen and carbon dioxide intakes. Confusing the receptors in the brain can lead to respiratory depressions, so that one effectively stops breathing.
The final reason why we need to be worried about the drug is that we can already see the scale of the problem it causes in the US, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet pointed out eloquently. In the UK, it represents a tragic element in a larger swathe of overdoses. It accounts for a few per cent. of the people dying from overdoses in the UK. In the US, fentanyl and other fentanyl-like substances account for nearly a third of such deaths, and the figure is climbing. As my hon. Friend pointed out, tens of thousands of deaths in the United States are taking place through fentanyl.
How do we deal with that? Here I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dover. His leadership and championing have led to two important changes in relation to the Crown Prosecution Service and the sentencing guidelines of the Sentencing Council—changes that I can honestly say would not have happened as rapidly had it not been for his work.
The first change made thanks to the hon. Gentleman’s championing is that the Crown Prosecution Service has specified that prosecutors dealing with cases involving Fentanyl need to take into account the potency of the drug. They are encouraged to bring expert witnesses into the courtroom to explain how the drug operates, and that a tiny quantity can have the potency of a larger quantity of heroin or cocaine. The second, perhaps more important, thing that happened is that the Sentencing Council yesterday published its new guidelines. You will understand, Mr Pritchard, that it was absolutely no coincidence that that happened the day before the hon. Gentleman’s debate. The guidelines state:
“Since publication of the Drug Offences guideline, there has been an increase in the number of cases before the courts involving newer drugs, such as synthetic opioids”—
in other words, fentanyl—
“which may have much higher potency and potential to cause harm than more common drugs. Where these newer drugs are covered by the guideline but not specifically listed in the section on assessment of harm, the approach to assessing harm in these cases should be as with all cases of controlled drugs not explicitly mentioned in the guidelines.”
This is the key point:
“Sentencers should expect to be provided with expert evidence to assist in determining the potency of the particular drug and in equating the quantity in the case with the quantities set out in the guidelines in terms of the harm caused.”
Then there is a box entitled “Example—supplying or offering to supply a controlled drug”, which says:
“If the quantity of the drug would cause as much harm as 5kg of heroin, the offence would be in the most serious category.”
Why is that important? Drug offences are listed by category, from 4 to 1. Category 4 would be 5 grams of heroin; the top category would be 5 kg. The guidelines will move expert witnesses to state that fentanyl is in the top category of class A drugs for prosecution. That will be vital in deterring people from supplying and importing the drug, but it is just the beginning of what will happen. The tragic death of Robert has led to a significant campaign, led by Roberts’ family and the hon. Gentleman, that has already changed the guidelines for the Crown Prosecution Service and the Sentencing Council.
That is just the beginning. The next stage needs to be a very serious public education campaign, so that we do more than ensure strict guidelines against people supplying or importing this drug. Anyone thinking of using fentanyl should be aware of not only the danger to themselves, but the catastrophic damage that tiny quantities of the drug can cause to anyone in their home. In the United States, toddlers are being killed by this drug, because the tiny quantities, even on a small patch on the arm, can immediately choke and kill somebody as young as two. That needs to be apparent to the public. This debate in the House of Commons underscores that. I hope that what we have said in this debate will push that change through society.
I want to end by paying particular tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his extraordinary campaigning on the issue, which, as I said, brought about a change yesterday, driven entirely by this debate.