Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report


This Report is the second of three case studies under the Committee's over-arching inquiry into the Government's handling of scientific advice, risk and evidence in policy making. It addresses the relationship between scientific advice and evidence and the classification of illegal drugs.

In the course of this case study, we have looked in detail at the role played by, and workings of, the Government's scientific advisory committee on drug classification and policy, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). We have identified a number of serious flaws in the way the Council conducts its business. Although the Council has produced useful reports explaining the rationale behind its recommendations on drug classification decisions, we found a lack of transparency in other areas of its work and a disconcerting degree of confusion over its remit. We also note that the ACMD has failed to adhere to key elements of the Government's Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees. In response to these and other concerns about the Council's operations, we have called for the Home Office to ensure that there is, in future, independent oversight of the Council's workings. We have also highlighted the need for the ACMD to play a far more a proactive role in supporting the work of the Department of Health and Department for Education and Skills: the Government's approach to drug education and treatment must be informed by scientific advice and stronger cross-departmental coordination will be vital if the Public Service Agreement targets on drugs policy are to be met.

With respect to the ABC classification system, we have identified significant anomalies in the classification of individual drugs and a regrettable lack of consistency in the rationale used to make classification decisions. In addition, we have expressed concern at the Government's proclivity for using the classification system as a means of 'sending out signals' to potential users and society at large—it is at odds with the stated objective of classifying drugs on the basis of harm and the Government has not made any attempt to develop an evidence base on which to draw in determining the 'signal' being sent out.

We have found no convincing evidence for the deterrent effect, which is widely seen as underpinning the Government's classification policy, and have criticised the Government for failing to meet its commitments to evidence based policy making in this area. More generally, the weakness of the evidence base on addiction and drug abuse is a severe hindrance to effective policy making and we have therefore urged the Government to increase significantly its investment in research.

Finally, we have concluded that the current classification system is not fit for purpose and should be replaced with a more scientifically based scale of harm, decoupled from penalties for possession and trafficking. In light of the serious failings of the ABC classification system that we have identified, we urge the Home Secretary to honour his predecessor's commitment to review the current system, and to do so without further delay.

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Prepared 31 July 2006