Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Parents Against Lethal Addictive Drugs (PALAD)


  Parents Against Lethal Addictive Drugs is a voluntary organisation concerned with drug education who campaign for an integrated, evidence-based implementation of the Misuse of Drugs Act. We support the statutory requirement to teach all young people that alcohol and tobacco are harmful drugs, in accordance with the United Nations' definition of "drugs" and the scientific evidence. We agree with the Government's view that "drug laws must accurately reflect the relative harms of different drugs if they are to persuade young people in particular of the dangers of misusing drugs". We believe the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has a statutory duty to advise Government about the relative harmfulness of the intoxicant drugs alcohol and cannabis. We have spent two years attempting to find out how the Home Office and ACMD use scientific evidence in drugs policy making.


  1.  The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA) drug classification was initially based upon UN drug Conventions. The intention was that the classification system would evolve with the scientific evidence base, with independent scientific advice provided by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). ACMD have a statutory duty to advise Government about harmful drug use "sufficient to constitute a social problem" and to provide Government with regulatory recommendations for "restricting the availability of such drugs". There is no indication that ACMD advice should exclude any harmful drugs on the basis of tradition or that their regulatory recommendations should be limited to prohibition.

  2.  The current classification is framed by two non-transparent assumptions that underlie UN drug Conventions:

    2.1  Drugs traditionally used in the west should be excluded irrespective of their harmfulness.

    2.2  Non-traditional drugs should be regulated with an extreme precautionary principle irrespective of their harmfulness.

  3.  Exclusion of traditional drugs:

    3.1  Contrary to Government claims, policy on harmful drug use is not based on scientific evidence. The Home Affairs Committee said harmful drug use "is a continuum perhaps artificially divided into legal and illegal activity". When the HAC Chairman asked the Home Office (HO) "Why are alcohol and tobacco not integrated into the drugs strategy?" the reply was that "any strategy has to take account of . . . societal attitude" and ". . . UN conventions"—non-scientific factors.

    3.2  ACMD's advice to Government does not include traditional drugs because their advice, intended to be independent, depends on Government policy, not just scientific evidence. When I asked why the ACMD do not provide advice on the harmful drugs alcohol and tobacco the ACMD Secretariat replied "Albeit independent, the ACMD as an advisory body has to be aware of the Government's position, which has not given any intention to consider the control of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine". ACMD do not identify and refer to alcohol and tobacco as drugs, contrary to scientific evidence. This leads to inaccurate and misleading statements by ACMD. The Secretariat has declined to provide reasons for this.

  4.  Application of an extreme precautionary principle:

    4.1  Government drugs policy is summarised by their statement "All controlled drugs are dangerous and no one should take them". Non-traditional drugs are identified with their maximum harmfulness instead of differentiating, for each drug, patterns of use that are (a) reasonable safe, (b) harmful to the consumer (a health issue) and (c) harmful to others (potentially a criminal issue), as occurs with the risk assessment of traditional drugs. No mention is made of a cautionary or precautionary principle but scientific evidence that use of a drug is not harmless is used to justify the prohibition of all use. In contrast the Government's response to this Committee's report The Scientific Advisory System said "Application of the precautionary principle does not usually mean imposing a ban. Its purpose is to ensure that where uncertainty exists, decisions err on the side of caution and so seek to avoid serious damage if things go wrong, yet meet criteria such as proportionality and cost-effectiveness".

    4.2  ACMD's review of the classification of cannabis concluded that "the high use of cannabis is not associated with major health problems for the individual or society". This suggests harmful cannabis use is not "sufficient to constitute a social problem", the criteria required by the MDA. However the ACMD report continued "cannabis is not a harmless substance" and consequently recommended that cannabis remained prohibited, as a Class C drug, without assessing the option of licensed regulation. Harmless substances do not exist and to suggest the possibility is unscientific and misleading.

  5.  The ACMD Chairman's letter to The Times demonstrates how these two assumptions combine to frame the problem of harmful drug use unrealistically. He said "the classification system for drugs does not mean that any of these substances are harmless. If they were, they would not be included in the Misuse of Drugs Act". Such a view is not compatible with evidenced-based statements such as the World Health Organisation's that "More deaths are due to tobacco than to any other drug".

  6.  The classification system has not evolved with the evidence base, as intended by the MDA, because the ACMD's independent scientific advice depends on Government policy (3.2 above) while Government drugs policy depends on UN drug Conventions (3.1 above). The system is closed to scientific evidence—evidence that alcohol and tobacco are equally harmful drugs and that reasonably safe use of some non-traditional drugs is not only possible but widespread.

  7.  The Government uses scientific evidence selectively to:

    —  justify predetermined decisions or positions (compliance with UN drug Conventions);

    —  erroneously frame issues as predominantly scientific disguising moral or value judgements (traditional drugs used by the majority are good, non-traditional drugs are bad—independent of harmfulness); and

    —  delay making contentious or complex decisions (assessing drug risks and regulations equally).

  8.  ACMD provide little confidence that the MDA's classification is transparently evidence-based. The Chairman said in The Guardian "The basis on which any of the things were classified is obscure from reading the minutes". The ACMD annual report of 1999-2001 said "Subjects considered by Council: A review of the criteria used to consider whether a drug should be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the development of a new risk assessment protocol. This work is still in progress but should be completed in 2001-2002". This remains unpublished in 2006.

  9.  ACMD do not assess risks and evaluate regulatory options in accordance with Government guidance, as required by the Code of Practice for Scientific Advisory Committees. The HO does not follow Government guidance on the use of scientific advice, risk assessment and better regulation.

  10.  The current MDA classification of harmful drugs uses scientific evidence to justify discrimination between traditional drugs used by the majority and non-traditional drugs used by minorities. As a result the former have been under-regulated and the latter over-regulated. Other examples where the traditional majority discriminates against non-traditional minorities are sexism and racism.


11.   What impact are departmental Chief Scientific Advisers having on the policy making process?

  Professor Wiles, the HO CSA, has assured me that the Government does not interfere with the independence of the ACMD and that ACMD have freely decided not to advise them about traditional drugs. Concerning the lack of transparency surrounding the selective use of evidence (the omission of alcohol and tobacco from ACMD advice) he said "the ACMD is aware that the Government has no intention of controlling tobacco and alcohol under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Alcohol and tobacco are so widely used in modern society that criminalisation of their supply and use is not considered appropriate". He appears to assume that ACMD can only recommend prohibition, that prevalence of use is a factor in determining the regulatory option for harmful drugs and that a lack of transparency about these issues is of no concern.

12.   What is the role of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser in the policy making process and what impact has he made to date?

  Professor Sir David King replied to our concerns by firstly asking the HO CSA to address them. Consequently Professor King said "I note, of course, your concerns about transparency and the need to avoid the selective use of advice. I agree with you on these points. But in this case it is for the Committee itself to decide what to investigate, and to ensure it adheres to the Guidelines and Code". However the ACMD Chairman has not replied to our subsequent letter and the ACMD Secretariat has not replied to our last letter to them.

13.   Are existing advisory bodies being used in a satisfactory manner?

  No. ACMD is used for independent advice on risk assessment and evaluation of regulatory options. HO should evaluate that advice following the Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policy Making. However since both ACMD and HO assume that any evidence of risk justifies prohibition, they do not follow Government guidance on risk assessments (see 18 below) and the evaluation of regulatory options.

14.   Are Government departments establishing the right balance between maintaining an in-house scientific capability and accessing external advice?

  No. ACMD members do not appear to have expertise in risk or regulatory assessment. The full range of opinion is not reflected in ACMD advice and HO evaluation, though experts and the public hold entrenched polarised views in a sensitive cross-cutting policy area. Examples of external advice include:

    —  The Department of Health. Their report Dangerousness of Drugs [2001] includes the traditional drugs alcohol and tobacco, discusses methodological problems of obtaining, analysing and ranking evidence of drug risks and includes a wide range of methods of assessing evidence of risk, including the EU drug risk assessment guidelines of EMCDDA.

    —  The World Health Organisation advises on all drugs irrespective of tradition and legal status and provides scientific advice to UN drug agencies.

    —  Leading scientists. For example Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council described the MDA's classification saying "It is antiquated and reflects the prejudice and misconceptions of an era in which drugs were placed in arbitrary categories with notable, often illogical, consequences. The continuous review of evidence, and the inclusion of legal drugs in the same review, will allow more sensible and rational classification" [A Scientifically Based Scale of Harm for all Social Drugs].

    —  Other stakeholders affected including consumers, suppliers and producers.

15.   What mechanisms are in place to ensure that policies are based on available evidence?

  None. The HO and ACMD appear unaccountable concerning their failure to follow Government guidelines.

16.   Are departments engaging effectively in horizon scanning activities and how are these influencing policy?

  No. There has been a continuous trend since the 1950s when the risks from drugs traditionally used in the west were under-estimated (they were not even viewed as drugs) while the risks from non-traditional drugs were exaggerated, with regulations proportionately biased. The change in the evidence base is exceptional: in 1955 the World Health Organisation's report Physical and Mental Effects of Cannabis stated "under the influence of cannabis, the danger of committing unpremeditated murder is very great; it can happen in cold blood, without any reason or motive, unexpectedly, without any preceding quarrel; often the murderer does not even know the victim, and simply kills for pleasure". Six years later the first UN drug Convention criminalised cannabis. In contrast WHO's 1995 cannabis report states "cannabis appears to play little role in injuries caused by violence, as does alcohol".

  The trend is toward scientific evidence of actual risk steadily replacing perceived risk with social attitudes altering accordingly. Since 1971 public opinion in favour of drug policy reform ("legalisation") has increased at around 1% a year. Public opinion is now balanced roughly 50-50. Evidence that traditional drugs are harmful drugs has increased dramatically in the last decade. The long-term trend for traditional and non-traditional drugs is toward integration as the evidence base increases. This constitutes an inevitable risk to Government's currently dis-integrated alcohol, tobacco and "drugs" policy but also a significant opportunity. The UK could lead the world in integrating traditional and non-traditional drug misuse policy based upon the Government's modernisation program. This could lead to significant improvements to substance misuse policy (drugs & food, see 17 below) and, more generally, to policy relating to altering the unconscious habitual unhealthy behaviour of the public.

17.   Is Government managing scientific advice on cross-departmental issues effectively?

  No. ACMD has stated that society's risk tolerance toward the legal drugs alcohol and tobacco influences attitudes to illegal drugs, especially for young people (Drugs & the Environment).

  Alcohol is covered by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and their advisory body, AERC; tobacco by DoH and their advisory body SCOTH; caffeine by FSA and their advisory body, COT; and "drugs" by HO and ACMD. DoH and DfES both identify and refer to alcohol and tobacco as drugs but HO and ACMD do not.

  The failure to integrate traditional and non-traditional drugs policy has wider consequences. "Substance misuse" is a term currently incorrectly used to cover the harmful use of traditional and non-traditional drugs. The failure to correctly define "drug" and "substance" results in the failure to correctly identify harmful food consumption as being a form of "substance misuse". The harmful consumption of food and drugs is the largest public health problem and the major common risk is dependency. Dieters have the same relapse rate as recovering heroin addicts. Common risk and regulatory assessments are required to provide an integrated policy toward substance misuse.

18.   Is risk being analysed in a consistent and appropriate manner across Government?

  No. ACMD and HO do not follow Government guidance on risk assessment and management. They do not correctly frame the problem as "all harmful drug use" but instead frame it as "all use of only non-traditional drugs". Perceived benefits (eg relaxation, enjoyment, socialising) are taken to be risks of dependency, in contrast to alcohol policy. Risk impacts are listed but not their likelihood. Risk factors, such as frequency of use, route of administration and setting, are not sufficiently analysed. Voluntary risks, usually viewed as a health issue, are not distinguished from risks imposed on others, usually viewed as a criminal issue. Perceived risks, known to be strongly influenced by familiarity, are not identified and distinguished from evidence-based risk. Non-scientific factors (eg public opinion, economic factors such as competition and taxation, human rights and inequalities, international law) are not identified and distinguished from scientific factors. The ACMD's risk assessment is not consistent with that of any other harmful product, especially those voluntarily consumed. HO do not appear to carry out risk assessments to the public or to Government, relying solely on the ACMD's assessment of risk to the public.

19.   Has the precautionary principle been adequately defined and is it being applied consistently and appropriately across Government?

  No. See 4 above.

20.   How does the media treatment of risk issues impact on the Government approach?

  The risks of non-traditional drugs have been exaggerated and associated with intense negative value judgements in the past, initially by Government and international authorities, then by the media. Public opinion has been severely influenced. These three groups have formed a self-reinforcing system of biased risk perception fuelled by risk amplification and closed to evidence.

21.   Is there sufficient transparency in the process by which scientific advice is incorporated into policy development?

  No. There is no transparency concerning which types of scientific and non-scientific evidence have been considered relevant, how this has influenced policy-making and how conflicting rights and responsibilities of stakeholders have been balanced during policy making. ACMD do not publish minutes of their meetings, contrary to the Code of Practice. HO have not answered our concerns about the complete lack of evidence of risks to the public in the Regulatory Impact Assessment for the prohibition of magic mushrooms, though the RIA proposed criminalising one million people as Class A drug users.

22.   Is publicly-funded research informing policy development being published?

  No comment.

23.   Is scientific advice being communicated effectively to the public?

  No. There is inconsistent use of the word "drugs". The Government's drug education website, Talk to Frank, says "Drugs are illegal" and then "alcohol can play a major part in many people's social lives. That's why it's easy to forget that it's actually a very powerful drug".

24.   Are peer review and other quality assurance mechanisms working well?

  No. There appears to be little peer review or quality assurance.

25.   What steps are taken to re-evaluate the evidence base after the implementation of policy?

  None. Policy remains unchanged despite an improved evidence base, significant changes in public opinion and increasing non-compliance and enforcement costs.

  When Home Office minister Bob Ainsworth was asked by the Home Affairs Committee "what evidence do the Government have to show that confiscation and the prosecution of drugs suppliers have made any difference to the amount of drugs use in this country?" he replied "As the law to date has been so relatively ineffective, I doubt whether it has made much difference at all".


  To comply with Government guidelines, and perhaps their statutory duty under the MDA, ACMD should reframe their current advice to Government so it is consistent with the evidence that:

    —  Alcohol and tobacco are harmful drugs.

    —  Harmless drugs do not exist.

    —  Legal and illegal drugs are equally harmful according to scientific evidence.

    —  Different regulatory policies toward legal and illegal drugs are determined by non-scientific factors, not scientific evidence.

    —  Recreational drug consumption is widely accepted in society—90% of adults consume the stimulant and intoxicant drugs caffeine and alcohol.

January 2006

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Prepared 31 July 2006