Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report

1  Introduction

1. On 9 November 2005 the Committee launched a major inquiry into the Government's handling of scientific advice, risk and evidence in policy making.[1] We decided that, in addition to collecting evidence on the over-arching terms of reference, we would undertake three case studies to enable us to examine the Government's policy making processes in greater detail. The Report of the first of these case studies, addressing the UK's involvement with, and response to, the EU Physical Agents (Electromagnetic Fields) Directive, was published on 29 June 2006.[2] In this case study, we have looked at the relationship between scientific advice and evidence and UK policy on the classification of the illegal drugs. The Report of the remaining case study, which explores the technologies supporting the Government's policy on ID cards, will be published in August 2006.

2. There were a number of factors that influenced our decision to pursue this case study. The misuse of illegal drugs is a major public health, criminal and social problem. The UK's drug market is estimated to be worth around £6.6 billion, with drug-related economic costs to the UK estimated at approximately double this.[3] The classification system plays a key role in directing the resources devoted by Government to tackling illegal drugs, with around 75% of this expenditure spent on enforcing drug laws.[4] The classification of illegal drugs is also a matter of significant public concern and recent decisions regarding changes in classification, most notably the reclassification of cannabis from Class B to Class C, have been the subject of intense media debate. Perhaps the strongest indicator of discontent over the current ABC classification system came in January 2006, when the then Home Secretary, Rt. Hon. Charles Clarke, announced that he would be undertaking a root and branch review of the ABC system.[5]

3. We held three evidence sessions in conjunction with this case study, during which we heard from:

  • The Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) and Chairman of the ACMD Technical Committee;
  • The Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC), Chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers' (ACPO) Drugs Committee, Director of the National Addiction Centre and NGOs; and
  • The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for policing, security and community safety.

4. The transcripts of these sessions are published with this Report, together with the 14 written submissions received in response to our call for evidence and requests for supplementary information. In addition, we undertook a visit to the United States as part of our over-arching inquiry, where we met, amongst others, representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute on Drug Abuse, RAND Drug Policy Research Centre, White House Office of Drug Control Policy, UN Office of Drugs Policy and New York Police Department. We are grateful to all those who helped organise the visit and contributed evidence to this inquiry. We would also like to place on record our thanks to our specialist adviser, Professor Michael Gossop, Head of Research in the Addictions Directorate at the Maudsley Hospital in London.

1 Back

2   Science and Technology Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2005-06, Watching the Directives: Scientific Advice on the EU Physical Agents (Electromagnetic Fields) Directive, HC 1030 Back

3   Ruth Levitt, Edward Nason, Michael Hallsworth, The evidence base for the classification of drugs, Technical Report, RAND Europe, March 2006, para 31, combined figures, www Back

4   RAND Report, para 31 Back

5   HC Deb, 19 Jan 2006, col 983 Back

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Prepared 31 July 2006