Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report

Conclusions and recommendations


International comparisons

1.  We conclude that the UN drug control treaties do not pose a major barrier to reform of the UK system of drug classification. (Paragraph 16)

Sources of advice

Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs

2.  The Government's total reliance on the ACMD for provision of scientific advice on drugs policy gives the Council a critical role to play in ensuring that policy in this area is evidence based. It is, therefore, vital that the Council is fit for purpose and functioning effectively. (Paragraph 20)

3.  The apparent confusion in the drug policy community over the remit of the ACMD suggests that the Council needs to give more attention to communicating with its external stakeholders. (Paragraph 22)

4.  The fact that the Chairman of the ACMD and the Home Secretary have publicly expressed contradictory views about the remit of the Council is perturbing. (Paragraph 24)

5.  The ACMD must look at social harm in its considerations—it is impossible to assess accurately the harm associated with a drug without taking into account the social dimensions of harm arising from its misuse. (Paragraph 24)

6.  We acknowledge that some provision has been made to enable departments other than the Home Office to benefit from the ACMD's expertise but the current levels of coordination appear to be entirely inadequate. (Paragraph 27)

7.   The ACMD must be much more proactive in ensuring that it provides and promotes scientific advice to underpin drugs policy in the Department for Education and Skills and Department for Health. (Paragraph 27)

8.  We are not in a position to judge whether the current membership is appropriately balanced but emphasise the importance of having a diversity of views represented amongst the experts appointed to reflect the range of views typically held by experts in the wider community. (Paragraph 30)

9.  The ACMD's current policy of co-opting experts onto working groups and sub-committees in order to expand access to specific areas of expertise seems eminently sensible. (Paragraph 30)

10.  We recommend that the term of office for the Chairman of the ACMD be limited to a maximum of five years. (Paragraph 32)

11.  The Home Office Chief Scientific Adviser should be tasked with overseeing the appointment of members to the Council. (Paragraph 34)

12.  We also recommend that the Chairman always be accompanied by another member of the Council—preferably the Chair of the Technical Committee or the relevant working group—in meetings with Ministers. (Paragraph 34)

13.  There is no point ACPO having a seat on the ACMD if its representatives do not bring their expertise to bear on the problems under discussion. The ACPO representatives have as much relevant experience as do other practitioners and academics on the ACMD and they must play a full and active role in developing the ACMD's position. It is highly disconcerting that the Chair of the ACPO Drugs Committee appears to be labouring under a misapprehension about his role on the ACMD more than four years into his term of office. (Paragraph 37)

14.  It is difficult to understand how the Government can be so confident in the composition and workings of the Council without having sought any expert or independent assessment, and disappointing that it takes such a dismissive view of the need to do so. (Paragraph 39)

15.  We recommend that the Home Office commission independent reviews to examine the operation of the ACMD not less than every five years. The first such review should be commissioned as soon as possible to enable the outcome to feed into the current re-examination of the classification system. This review should also address the relationship between the Home Office and ACMD and whether the current secretariat arrangements are working in a satisfactory manner. (Paragraph 40)

Incorporation of advice into policy


16.  Changes in drug policy, especially classification decisions, must be accompanied by a comprehensive information campaign. We recognise that the Government did undertake a campaign when the reclassification of cannabis came into effect but in view of the subsequent confusion, which was publicly acknowledged by the Home Secretary, we can only conclude that these efforts were insufficient. (Paragraph 46)

17.  We recognise that the Home Secretary followed due process in asking the ACMD to review the classification of cannabis in response to concerns about the link between cannabis use and mental illness and perceptions that cannabis was becoming more potent. However, the timing of the second review against a backdrop of intense media hype and so soon after the change in cannabis classification had come into effect gave the impression that a media outcry was sufficient to trigger a review. (Paragraph 47)

18.  Having already caused confusion by failing to adequately communicate the implications of the reclassification of cannabis to the public, the Government must be careful that any additional changes to policy relating to cannabis do not further cloud the picture. (Paragraph 50)

19.  We have found no conclusive evidence to support the gateway theory. (Paragraph 53)

Magic mushrooms

20.  The Government's use of a clarification of the law to put fresh magic mushrooms in Class A contravened the spirit of the Misuse of Drugs Act and meant that the ACMD was not given the chance to consider the evidence properly before responding. (Paragraph 55)

21.  The Chairman of the ACMD's attitude towards the decision to place magic mushrooms in Class A indicates a degree of complacency that can only serve to damage the reputation of the Council. (Paragraph 57)

22.  The ACMD should have spoken out against the Government's proposal to place magic mushrooms in Class A. Its failure to do so has undermined its credibility and made it look as though it fully endorsed the Home Office's decision, despite the striking lack of evidence to suggest that the Class A status of magic mushrooms was merited on the basis of the harm associated with their misuse. (Paragraph 57)

Ecstacy and amphetamines

23.  We see the logic behind the differential classification of amphetamines depending on the method of administration but regret the fact that the same rationale has not been applied, where appropriate, to other drugs. We recommend that a consistent policy be developed as part of the forthcoming review of the classification system. (Paragraph 59)

24.  In view of the high-profile nature of the drug and its apparent widespread usage amongst certain groups, it is surprising and disappointing that the ACMD has never chosen to review the evidence for ecstasy's Class A status. This, in turn, highlights the lack of clarity regarding the way the ACMD determines its work programme. We recommend that the ACMD carries out an urgent review of the classification of ecstasy. (Paragraph 62)

25.  The recommendation by the ACMD that methylamphetamine should stay in Class B because of the signal that reclassification might send to potential users has given us serious cause for concern. We recognise that the Council often has to make recommendations on the basis of weak or limited evidence, but invoking this non-scientific judgement call as the primary justification for its position has muddied the water with respect to its role. (Paragraph 66)

26.   It is highly regrettable that the ACMD took it upon itself to make what should have been a political judgement. (Paragraph 66)

27.   The ACMD's decision to revise its position and recommend that methylamphetamine become a Class A substance will be welcomed by many. However, the fact that the ACMD changed its mind so quickly makes it look like the Council either realised that it had made a mistake, or had succumbed to outside pressure. (Paragraph 68)



28.  We do not accept that the majority of the Council's work requires the level of confidentiality currently being exercised. The ACMD should, in keeping with the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees, routinely publish the agendas and minutes for its meetings, removing as necessary any particularly sensitive information. (Paragraph 71)

29.  Holding open meetings where the public could witness the processes used by the ACMD in developing its recommendations could have enormous benefits in terms of strengthening public confidence in the scientific advisory process. We do not believe that the need for confidentiality in discussion of certain topics is an insurmountable obstacle to holding occasional, if not routine, meetings of this nature. (Paragraph 72)

30.  It is extremely disappointing that the Council has not taken any steps to increase the transparency of its operations and, moreover, that the Chairman displayed so little interest in improving the Council's approach. (Paragraph 73)

Home Office

31.  We acknowledge that in this sensitive policy area scientific advice is just one input to decision making, The Home Office should be more transparent about the various factors influencing its decisions. (Paragraph 75)

The need for a systematic approach

32.  If the Government wishes to take into account public opinion in making its decisions about classification it should adopt a more empirical approach to assessing it. The Government's current approach is opaque and leaves itself open to the interpretation that reviews are being launched as knee-jerk responses to media storms. (Paragraph 76)

33.  More generally, we have identified a pressing need for both the Home Office and ACMD to institute a more systematic approach to reviewing the classification of individual drugs. We recommend that the Home Office and ACMD draw up a list of criteria to be taken into account in determining whether a review of a particular drug is required. (Paragraph 77)

Evidence base for classification

Evidence for deterrent effect

34.  We have found no solid evidence to support the existence of a deterrent effect, despite the fact that it appears to underpin the Government's policy on classification. In view of the importance of drugs policy and the amount spent on enforcing the penalties associated with the classification system, it is highly unsatisfactory that there is so little knowledge about the system's effectiveness. (Paragraph 80)

35.  The Government's desire to use the Class of a particular drug to send out a signal to potential users or dealers does not sit comfortably with the claim that the primary objective of the classification system is to categorise drugs according to the comparative harm associated with their misuse. It is also incompatible with the Government's stated commitment to evidence based policy making since it has never undertaken research to establish the relationship between the Class of a drug and the signal sent out and there is, therefore, no evidence base on which to draw in making these policy decisions. (Paragraph 82)

Evidence base for classification decisions

36.  If, as the ACMD Chairman indicated to us, the Council's work has been seriously hindered by the lack of evidence, the ACMD should have been far more vocal in pressing Ministers to ensure that more research was commissioned to fill the key gaps in the evidence base. (Paragraph 85)

UK investment in research

37.  UK investment in addiction research is woefully inadequate. The Government's failure to ensure that sufficient resources are devoted to building the evidence base to underpin drugs policy is at odds with its commitment to adopt an evidence based approach. (Paragraph 87)

38.  The Government has been remiss in failing to conduct a proper evaluation of the impact of its policy decisions in this area and has, as a result, missed out on opportunities to gather valuable data to improve policy making in the future. (Paragraph 88)

39.  It is essential that the ACMD and Home Office develop better relationships with the Research Councils, particularly the Medical Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, and further improve relations with the Department of Health. The fact that the Council has not devoted much effort to this in the past has been a contributing factor to the weakness of the UK evidence base on drugs policy and addiction. (Paragraph 90)

40.  We do not underestimate the challenges involved in undertaking scientific studies concerning the misuse of illegal drugs, but the Government must not use this as an excuse for not fulfilling its obligations to undertake proper evaluations of the impacts of its policies and to fund research for the public good. (Paragraph 91)

A scientifically based scale of harm?

Assessment of harm

41.  We welcome the initiative taken by the ACMD Technical Committee to develop a standard framework for the assessment of harm but we also note that determining harm scores using the matrix is almost as much an art as a science. (Paragraph 93)

Current classifications

42.  We understand that the ACMD operates within the framework set by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 but, bearing in mind that the Council is the sole scientific advisory body on drugs policy, we consider the Council's failure to alert the Home Secretary to the serious doubts about the basis and effectiveness of the classification system at an earlier stage a dereliction of its duty. (Paragraph 97)

Review of classification system

43.  We urge the new Home Secretary to honour his predecessor's promise to conduct the review—our findings suggest that it is much needed. Although we are, of course, pleased that the Home Office is placing such store by our recommendations, the long delay in publishing the consultation paper on the review of the classification system has been unfortunate and should be rectified immediately. (Paragraph 100)

Relationship between classification and penalties

44.  The dismissive tone adopted by the Chair of the ACPO Drugs Committee in giving evidence to this inquiry was disappointing, but his lack of concern over the classification system was also revealing. (Paragraph 102)

45.  The fact that the classification system is of such minor importance to the police suggests that it is not fit for purpose. (Paragraph 102)

46.  We recommend that the Government make this de facto relationship more explicit and decouple the ranking of drugs on the basis of harm from the penalties for possession and trafficking. (Paragraph 102)

47.  Decoupling penalties and the harm ranking would permit a more sophisticated and scientific approach to assessing harm, and the development of a scale which could be highly responsive to changes in the evidence base. (Paragraph 103)

Benefits of a more scientifically based scale of harm

48.  A more scientifically based scale of harm than the current system would undoubtedly be a valuable tool to inform policy making and education. (Paragraph 104)

49.  It is vital that the Government's approach to drugs education is evidence based. A more scientifically based scale of harm would have greater credibility than the current system where the placing of drugs in particular categories is ultimately a political decision. (Paragraph 105)

50.  In our view, it would be unfeasible to expect a penalty-linked classification system to include tobacco and alcohol but there would be merit in including them in a more scientific scale, decoupled from penalties, to give the public a better sense of the relative harms involved. (Paragraph 106)

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