Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Government



  1.1  The Drug Strategy is a cross-government programme of policies and interventions designed to address the breadth of drug issues in the UK. There are four main elements of the strategy—young people, reducing supply, treatment and reducing drug-related crime. The Home Office leads on the delivery of the Strategy in collaboration with a number of other Government Departments, NGO's and a wide network of stakeholders.

  1.2  The Updated Drug Strategy 2002 sets out a range of interventions that concentrate on the most dangerous drugs, the most damaged communities and individuals whose addiction and chaotic lifestyles are most harmful. It focuses on aims which complement action to restrict supply of illegal drugs with the action to diminish demand for drugs.

  1.3  Illegal drugs are controlled substances defined by drugs legislation (primarily the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971); the Strategy does not cover alcohol misuse which is the responsibility of the Department of Health.

  1.4  A key factor of the strategy is the classification of substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. With the focus of the strategy being Class A drugs, the legal position of a substance clearly directly relates to the harms it poses, and the level of enforcement activity that it attracts.

  1.5  Advice on classification issues is primarily presented to the Government by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD).


  1.6  The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA) divides controlled drugs into three Classes; A, B and C. These Classes are linked to maximum penalties for related offences, in a descending order of severity, from A being the highest, to C, the lowest. The three-tier classification was designed to make it possible to control particular drugs according to their comparative harmfulness either to individuals or to society at large when they were misused.

Class A Class BClass C
ExamplesCocaine, Crack, Ecstasy, Heroin, Magic Mushrooms Amphetamines, Barbiturates, Methylamphetamine Cannabis, Anabolic Steroids, Benzodiazepines, Buprenorphine, GHB, Ketamine


  1.7  The main offences under the 1971 Act are:- unlawful production and supply; and unlawful possession; and possession with intent to supply unlawfully.

  1.8  The current maximum penalty for trafficking/supplying in Class A drugs is life imprisonment; and in Class B or C drugs is 14 years imprisonment. Possession of a Class A drug attracts a maximum penalty of seven years; for Class B a penalty of five years and for Class C, two years imprisonment.

  1.9  Maximum penalties are not the standard or average penalty to which offenders are liable in all cases: rather they allow the courts discretion when dealing with individual cases. However, in the case of trafficking offences involving Class A drugs, there is, under the Crime Sentences Act 1997, a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years custody for the third such offence.

  1.10  Section 7 of the MDA 1971 allows for regulations—currently the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001—to be made which authorise activities otherwise made illegal under the act. The Regulations identify those who may legitimately handle particular drugs, describe the circumstances in which drugs may be handled and control the purposes for which a particular drug may be applied. They also regulate where a drug may be produced or supplied.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD): Terms of Reference, Background and Membership

  1.11  The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is a statutory and non-executive non-departmental public body, established by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

  1.12  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins is the Chair of the ACMD—he is a Professor of Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Newcastle and chair of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE).

  1.13  The terms of reference of the ACMD are provided for by Section 1 of the MDA 1971. In summary, the ACMD has a statutory duty to keep under review the situation in the United Kingdom with respect to the misuse of drugs and to advise Ministers of the measures which they consider should be taken to deal with social problems which arise from drug misuse. In addition, the ACMD has a duty to consider any matter relating to drug dependence or misuse that may be referred to them by Ministers. The Home Secretary is obliged by law to consult the ACMD before laying Orders or making regulations. This includes decisions relating to the classification of drugs. The full terms of reference as laid out in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 are attached in the Annex.

  1.14  The scope of the statutory remit of the organisation is necessarily reflected in the wide range of its membership which includes police, judiciary, academics, GPs and other health care professionals, drug treatment service providers and the voluntary sector. Members of the ACMD, of whom there should be not less than 20, are appointed by the Secretary of State for a term of three years and in accordance with the guidance issued by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Nominations come from a wide range of sources including relevant professional bodies, Public Appointments Unit of the Cabinet Office and self-nomination. Under the terms of the MDA 1971 the ACMD is required to include representatives of the practices of medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine and pharmacy, the pharmaceutical industry, and chemistry (other than pharmaceutical chemistry); and members who have a wide and relevant experience of social problems connected with the misuse of drugs.

  1.15  Membership currently stands at 38, including the Chair. The current term of office for members began on 1 January 2005. It will expire on 31 December 2007. All members are unpaid, although expenses are reimbursed.

  1.16  The scope of the ACMD work runs across Government and officials from Department of Health, DfES and the devolved administrations are represented at Council meetings and those of the sub-committees. Representatives from other agencies are invited to meetings where appropriate. The position of these officials and representatives is that of "observer/adviser" rather than as a full member. Mainly they contribute by responding to questions of members or by asking questions for clarification of the discussion. They are there to support the ACMD in its functions.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD): Secretariat

  1.17  The full Council currently meets routinely twice a year although it has powers to meet more frequently if required or requested. It has no staff or budget of its own, but administrative support and funding is provided by the Secretariat comprising of staff from the Drugs Legislation and Enforcement Unit (DLEU) of the Home Office's Drug Strategy Directorate. The team currently consists of four full time members of staff of various grades. The Secretariat forms the conduit between the ACMD and Ministers.

  1.18  The functions of the Secretariat are important. Not only do they co-ordinate and arrange the day to day business of the ACMD, including organising meetings, dissemination of papers and development of work streams, but, as indicated above, they act as the key communication link between the Home Office and the ACMD.

  1.19  This role manifests itself in a number of ways, from the purely administrative (eg arranging and co-ordinating schedules and timetables for work that are satisfactory to both organisations) to the more complex. ACMD work programmes, and its reports and recommendations to Government, are invariably supported by explanatory (and/or progress) notes from the Secretariat describing the nature, remit and background of the work being carried out by the Council. The Secretariat provides a direct link between the Government and the Council, and enables effective communications to take place.

Commissioning and Receipt of Scientific Advice from the ACMD

  1.20  There are two key ways in which the ACMD's agenda is determined. Firstly, the ACMD is statutorily obliged to consider any relevant issue referred to them by the Government. This can relate specifically to the classification of a certain substance or substances, or to any other issue relating to drug misuse in the UK. Secondly, the ACMD is at liberty to set its own agenda (in addition to any tasks requested of it by Government) in response to the concerns or issues it is made aware of, either through the professional experience of its members or any other means.

  1.21  When the Government requires advice on the classification of drugs from the ACMD, the usual process is for the work to be commissioned by way of a letter from the Home Secretary, the relevant Minister, or senior departmental official to Professor Sir Michael Rawlins, the chair of the ACMD, setting out what issues advice is required upon, and giving an idea as to the desired timescale for the work.

  1.22  Through the secretariat, and in discussion with Ministers'/Senior Officials' private offices, timescales for the work are agreed, and the ACMD accept the commission, together with a target date for completion. This date is usually made public, either by way of routine correspondence or parliamentary questions, or during a debate in Parliament. This process ensures visibility and accountability, both to Parliament and the public, including on the setting of reasonable and realistic timescales.

  1.23  On completion of their work, the ACMD will usually submit their advice on classification in the form of a report, with or without an executive summary (dependent upon its length and the complexity of the issues concerned), and with a covering, introductory letter from the Chair. Recommendations on classification issues are usually submitted directly to the Home Secretary, with Home Office and other Government Ministerial colleagues copied in where appropriate.

  1.24  Other advice and recommendations from the ACMD on issues other than classification may be presented in the same way as outlined above, or simply by way of a letter from the Chair to the appropriate Minister, or from the Secretariat to Ministers and Senior Officials on behalf of ACMD.

Additional sources of evidence

  1.25  It is important to remember that, although the key advice on classification of drugs comes from the ACMD, there are a number of other sources of information and advice which may come to Ministers. This may include other published research, consultations with key stakeholders, and the advice and experiences of practitioners within the drugs field upon whom the issue of classification has a direct impact (eg police enforcement colleagues and NGOs).

Government Consideration of Scientific Advice on the misuse of drugs

  1.26  On receipt of a report from the ACMD regarding the classification of drugs the Home Secretary will usually require a period of time to consider the detail of the report and to analyse the Council's recommendations. In the majority of cases, and on the presumption that the period will not be too protracted, the ACMD will usually agree to defer the publication of their completed report and recommendations until the Government is ready to make its announcement on its chosen course of action (ie whether or not to accept the ACMD's recommendations, and any other actions Government sees fit). Their report can then be published on the same day as the Government announcement, making the recommendations and decisions public simultaneously.

  1.27  Key stakeholders, and the ACMD would usually be informed of the decision shortly before an announcement is made, except where protocol requires that Parliament be told first. Work plans and implementation strategies for recommendations are developed and set in motion.

Criteria for consideration

  1.28  ACMD advice usually takes a number of factors into account. These include: the physical harm to the individual of taking the drug on a single occasion and after prolonged use; the degree of pleasure; and the drug's potential for physical and psychological withdrawal; the effects on intoxication as well as harm to families and communities. The membership of the ACMD is sufficiently broad to ensure all of these issues are addressed in some detail in formulating advice for Government, but it is also able to take evidence from experts in the field.

Case Studies of Particular Interest to the Select Committee

  1.29  It is our understanding the Select Committee has commissioned some independent research into drug classification to help focus their thinking on this matter, and that, at the request of the clerk, some specific reference in our written evidence to the case studies below, would be helpful:


  1.30  The Government have not asked the ACMD to carry out any recent assessments into the classification of cocaine, nor has the Council presented any recommendations on this substance to the Government of its own volition.


  1.31  The issue of cannabis classification has, without doubt, been the most high profile classification debate in recent years. Following a referral by the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, the ACMD recommended in 2002, following a detailed review of the scientific evidence, that cannabis should be reclassified from Class B to Class C. This was on the basis that, whilst cannabis could exacerbate existing mental health conditions, the harms it posed were not of the same order as those posed by other Class B drugs (for example: amphetamines).

  1.32  The then Home Secretary accepted the recommendation, and in January 2004 Cannabis was reclassified as a Class C drug.

  1.33  Following the reported emergence of new evidence strengthening the possibility of a causal link between cannabis use and onset of mental health problems, and the reported increase in incidence of high THC content "skunk" varieties of cannabis, the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, asked the ACMD, in March 2005, to again provide advice on the issue of cannabis. He requested specific advice on the points mentioned above, but also requested an assessment of the classification issue. The process outlined in the section above was followed and the ACMD presented their comprehensive report and recommendations to the Home Secretary in December 2005. At the time of writing this submission (early January 2006) the Home Secretary was considering the detailed evidence presented to him in advance of announcing a decision.

Magic Mushrooms

  1.34  The recent legislative change to the position of magic mushrooms came about as a result of a slightly different process to that outlined above. Case law had developed such that courts were of the opinion that unless the mushrooms were "prepared" (ie dried, prepared, packaged or cooked in anyway) that they were not, in fact controlled drugs. As a result, markets selling magic mushrooms were appearing across the country.

  1.35  Magic Mushrooms are a powerful hallucinogen and can cause real harm, especially to vulnerable people and those with mental health problems. The substantial increase in the commercial sale of magic mushrooms in the UK raised concerns regarding public health.

  1.36  Section 21 of the Drugs Act 2005, which came into force on the 18 July 2005, makes it an offence to import, export, produce, supply and possess with intent to supply magic mushrooms, whatever form they are in, whether prepared or fresh.

  1.37  Because this was primarily a matter of legal clarification the Government was not obliged to seek scientific advice in the usual format from the ACMD. However, they did write to the ACMD, and ask for its views on their proposals before the Drugs Bill was introduced. The ACMD agreed that a clarification of the legal position was necessary.

Ecstasy and Amphetamines

  1.38  In spring 2004, the Home Office asked the ACMD to consider Methylamphetamine, specifically whether its current classification as a class B drug was appropriate. The Technical committee of the ACMD established a Methylamphetamine working group which presented its preliminary findings to the ACMD's full meeting in November 2004. The committee advised that the current classification of methylamphetamine was appropriate, but was asked by the ACMD to consider issues relating to early warning systems and research further. It held further meetings and reported back to the ACMD. The ACMD presented their recommendations to the Home Secretary in November 2005. He accepted their recommendations in full, but given the nature of the drug, and the risk of the prevalence in the UK increasing, he asked the ACMD to keep a watching brief on the issue, and provide further advice in 12 months.

  1.39  The Government have not asked the ACMD to carry out any recent assessments into the classification of either ecstasy or amphetamine (sulphate), nor has the Council presented any recommendations on these substances to the Government of its own volition.

January 2006




  "It shall be the duty of the Advisory Council to keep under review the situation in the United Kingdom with respect to drugs which are being or appear to them likely to be misused and of which the misuse is having or appears to them capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem, and to give to any one or more of the Ministers, where either Council consider it expedient to do so or they are consulted by the Minister or Ministers in question, advice on measures (whether or not involving alteration of the law) which in the opinion of the Council ought to be taken for preventing the misuse of such drugs or dealing with social problems connected with their misuse, and in particular on measures which in the opinion of the Council, ought to be taken:

  For restricting the availability of such drugs or supervising the arrangements for their supply;

  For enabling persons affected by the misuse of such drugs to obtain proper advice, and for securing the provision of proper facilities and services for the treatment, rehabilitation and after-care of such persons;

  For promoting co-operation between the various professional and community services which in the opinion of the Council have a part to play in dealing with social problems connected with the misuse of drugs;

  For educating the public (and in particular the young) in the dangers of misusing such drugs and for giving publicity to those dangers; and

  For promoting research into, or otherwise obtaining information about, any matter which in the opinion of the Council is of relevance for the purpose of preventing the misuse of such drugs or dealing with any social problem connected with their misuse".

  A further duty is placed on the Council by the Act to consider any matter relating to drug dependence or the misuse of drugs which may be referred to them by any one of the Ministers concerned, and in particular to consider and advise the Home Secretary on any communication which he refers to the Council which relates to the control of a dangerous or otherwise harmful drug and which is made to Her Majesty's Government by any organisation or authority established by treaty, convention or other agreement or arrangement to which Her Majesty's Government is a party.

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