Memorandum from Transform Drug Policy
Transform Drug Policy Foundation is campaigning
policy think tank, and the UK's leading centre of expertise of
drug policy and law reform. Transform is a registered charity
(no 1088508) and company limited by guarantee (company no. 4882177).
Transform exists to minimise drug-related harm
to individuals and communities by bringing about a just, humane
and effective system to regulate and control drugs at national
and international levels.
Transform's work includes:
Carrying out research, policy analysis
and innovative policy development.
Challenging government to demonstrate
rational, evidence based reasoning to support its policies and
Promoting alternative, evidence based
policies to parliamentarians, government and government agencies.
Advising non-governmental organisations
whose work is affected by drugs in developing drug policies appropriate
to their own mission and objectives.
Providing an informed, rational and
clear voice in the public and media debate on UK and international
For more information please visit www.tdpf.org.uk
or contact the Transform office on 0117 941 5810.
Transform provides policy responses to Government
consultations on issues that have implications for drug policy
and law. Transform also submits evidence to Select Committees,
independent inquiries and other policy fora, and would welcome
the opportunity to give oral evidence to the Science and Technology
committee. Transform gave written and oral evidence to the Home
Affairs Select Committee drugs inquiry in 2001.
For more information and discussion please see
"After the War on DrugsOptions for Control",
a major new report from Transform examining the key themes in
the drug policy reform debate, detailing how legal regulation
of drug markets will operate, and providing a roadmap and time
line for reform. Transform can provide printed copies, or the
report is available online at www.tdpf.org.uk.
Transform Drug Policy Foundation argue that
the drug classification system:
is based upon the false assumptions
underlying historical prohibition of specific drugs rather than
evidence of the efficacy of the classification system at reducing
is not predicated on a framework
that enables policy makers to make decisions about how to classify
drugsas no meaningful indicators exist to measure effectiveness;
is neither strategically planned
nor effectively reviewed and evaluated against meaningful indicators;
is compartmentalised and not subject
to cross departmental review.
That government risk assessment regarding drugs
inconsistent, frequently ignoring
expert advice both internal and external; and
driven by uninformed media coverage
and non-scientific government disinformation based around the
demonisation of illegal drugs rather than their inherent dangers.
That the Advisory Council's decision-making
process is not transparent, is politically constrained, is ministerially
determined, and has failed to advise on the most important policy
That there is a distinct lack of publicly funded
research in key policy areas because of the reticence of policy
makers to expose policy failings.
That successive Governments have sought to hype
the dangers of illicit drugs rather than communicate scientific
That the result of the above is a drug classification
system that fails to deliver on its policy objectives and underpins
a wider drug policy that increases drug harms rather than decreasing
1. Any consideration of the UK drug classification
system must consider the broader political context of UK and international
drug policy thinking over the last century that has informed its
development and implementation.
Drug Classification and the UN system
2. The UK drug classification system is
an integral part of drug prohibition, a legal system established
in international law under the UN drug conventions which criminalises
and prescribes penalties for the production, supply and possession
of certain drugs (excluding alcohol and tobacco) nominally according
to perceived harms associated with use.
3. Some 250 substances are listed in the
Schedules annexed to the United Nations Single Convention on
Narcotic Drugs (1961), the Convention on Psychotropic Substances
(1971) and the Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic
Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988). As of 1 February
2003 179 states are parties to the Single Convention 1961 with
174 and 166 signatories respectively to the 1971 and 1988 Conventions
is respectively. The UK is a signatory to all three conventions,
and as all 15 countries of the EU have signed the three drugs
conventions, these conventions have been incorporated into what
is known as the EU's acquis or legal foundations. This means that
all acceding countries also are obliged to sign them. 
4. According to the EU European Legal Database
on Drugs; "The purpose of this listing is to control and
limit the use of these drugs according to a classification of
their therapeutic value, risk of abuse and health dangers, and
to minimize the diversion of precursor chemicals to illegal drug
All EU member states classify drugs roughly according to the conventions,
using the annexes from the 1961 convention
on narcotic drugs and the 1971 convention on psychotropic drugs
as the guide (although there are some notable differences between
states). These annexes prescribe the level of legal controls required
by signatories for each category of drug, with drugs categorised
into one of four schedules according to harmfulness. The conventions,
perversely, do not include the most harmful drugs in global public
health terms; alcohol and tobacco.
5. The UK has therefore been locked into
a prohibitionist system (for selected drugs), for more than 45
years, legally binding under international law (EU and UN), that
requires the criminalisation of production, supply and possession
of non-medical use of some psychoactive drugs, the penalties for
which are determined by a classification system also broadly established
under international law.
The UK classification system, based as it is upon international
prohibition, also excludes alcohol and tobacco.
6. At the time of the drafting of the conventions,
and indeed the UK's domestic policy response in the form of the
1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, the concept of using prohibition to
eliminate drug use was entirely without evidential foundation.
In reality the only major experiment with prohibition had been
US alcohol prohibition, a benchmark for poorly thought out drug
policy lead by moral imperatives rather than evidence of effectiveness.
It should be noted that much of the 1961 convention was drafted
in the 1940's in an era when patterns of drug use and drug related
harm were entirely different to those we face today. However,
the essential tenets of prohibitionusing criminal law to
enforce the moral view that all drug use is unacceptablehave
remained unchanged since the Victorian temperance movement. Drug
production and use have risen consistently since the Misuse of
Drugs Act was commenced in 1971the precise opposite of
its policy objective.
Drug classification in the UK
7. Transform argue that it has been political
forces, international and domestic, rather than rational analysis
of evidence that has have defined drug policy thinking in the
UK. Domestically drug policy is an intensely emotive and politicised
issue, intimately intertwined with the populist/partisan law and
order debates. Political discourse has been dominated by tough-talking
drug war rhetoric, and it is in this context that the unscientific
un-evidenced and ineffective system of drug classifications/punishments
has evolved, supported by ineffective institutions and entrenched
unscientific practices described below. (This briefing will
not go into detail about the numerous anomalies within the classification
systemwhich will no doubt be highlighted by others.)
1. There is no evaluation or review of the
classification system against meaningful indicators.
8. Before trying to establish if the classification
system is effective we must ask what it is seeking to achieve.
The Misuse of Drugs Act seeks to reduce the availability and misuse
of prohibited drugsits ultimate aim being a drug free society.
However there appear to be no effective systems of policy evaluation
and review in place, or even a set of meaningful indicators by
which the effectiveness of reaching these policy objectives can
be assessedfor the classification or the policy as a whole.
Neither drug availability nor levels of misuse (or health harms
related to use) are measured in a meaningful or consistent way.
9. For example, in order for ACMD to make
an informed decision about the recent reclassification of cannabis,
they would need to know how changes in classification reduce or
increase the mental health problems of users. The evidence for
this did not, and does not exist. In his oral evidence to ACMD's
recent cannabis review, Transform's director described the classification
system as speciousprohibition and the classification system
are both "deceptively attractive". They purport to do
something for which neither have an evidence base: prohibition
purports to eradicate and eliminate the problem in the first instance
and, having failed, classification purports to accurately describe
the harms associated with use and demarcate appropriate penalties
to reduce those harms. Both are palpable nonsense. Ministers,
quite simply, have no idea whether the classification system is
working or not.
2. The system is based on the un-evidenced
assumption that criminal penalties are an effective deterrent
and that stronger penalties are a stronger deterrent.
10. At the heart of the classification system,
and indeed the entire prohibitionist paradigm within which it
operates, is the assumption that criminal sanctions are an effective
deterrent to use, specifically that the heavier the sanctions
the stronger the deterrence. However, Transform is aware of no
piece of research ever undertaken by the Home Office to establish
any evidential base, let alone prove this key assumption.
There is also no evidence to show that key target groups understand
or pay any attention to the classification system or related announcements
from the home secretary when making drug taking decisions. It
can only be assumed that no research is commissioned on these
key topics as it would expose policy failings.
11. The little independent research that
has been done in this area suggests that the law and enforcement
are, at best, marginal factors in drug taking decisionsespecially
for the most excluded groups; young people, those with mental
health problems and those from socially deprived communitieswho
are most vulnerable to problematic use. Studies in Australia and
the US have compared levels of cannabis use between different
states with different enforcement regimes for cannabis offences
(from harsh penalties to effective decriminalisation) and found
no causal link between penalties and incidence of use.
12. Criminal law is supposed to prevent
crime, not "send out" public health messages. When this
has been tried it has been spectacularly ineffective, as the unprecedented
ballooning of drug use over the last 35 years demonstrates. Moreover
it has been actively counterproductive, making drugs more dangerous
not less, whilst simultaneously fostering distrust of police and
public health messages amongst young people. Since 1971 the use
of all of the major illegal drugs of concern has increased dramatically,
with the increase in the most risky class A drugs being the most
dramatic. For example the current ballooning in the use of cocaine
and crack cocaine, the rapid expansion of ecstasy use in the late
1980's early 1990's, and the 3,000% rise in heroin use since 1971.
3. Alcohol and tobacco are not included in
the classification system
13. It is this omission from the classification
system that, perhaps more than any other, truly lays bare its
fundamental lack of consistency, reasoning or evidence base. Any
and all medical authorities will acknowledge that by far the greatest
harm to public health from drugs stems from alcohol and tobacco
use. In the UK they are estimated to be responsible for 30,000
and 100,000 premature deaths each year respectively, more than
300 a day. This figure is approximately 40 times the total number
of deaths from all illegal drugs combined, and even if relative
numbers of users are taken into account, if classified under any
realistic assessment of toxicity, addictiveness and mortality
rates both drugs would certainly be criminalised and prohibited
under the current system.
The reason they are absent from the classification system is that
they are, for entirely political/ historical reasons, absent from
the international prohibitionist legal system. This distinction
is arbitrary, perverse and illogical.
"Why not criminalise tobacco,
place it within the Misuse of Drugs Act, put it into Class C and
have two years for simple possession of this dangerous drug?.
. . it is an awkward question in the debate that needs to be asked."
Griffiths Edwards (former chair
of the ACMD) "Matters of Substance"
14. It should also be noted that the special
place of alcohol and tobacco in drug policy extends beyond the
absurd exception from the UN and MDA classification system. Alcoholic
beverages are the only food or beverage not required to list ingredients.
Alcohol is also the only widely consumed dangerous drug not required
to have standard pharmaceutical health warnings on the packaging.
Tobacco products similarly are not required to list the many hundred
of potentially harmful additives which can constitute up to 30%
of their content. These policy anomalies further expose the bizarre
a-scientific world in which UK and international drug policy is
4. Drug harms are mediated by the nature
of the user, the dose of drug consumed and the method of consumptionmaking
a system based upon broad sweep single classifications for each
drug fundamentally unscientific, and meaningless in most practical
15. Nature of user: some individuals
will be susceptible to certain harmful effects of some drugs whilst
others will not, the effects of cannabis on those with pre-existing
mental health problems being a good examplethere are many
16. Dose of drug consumed: As an
example, the classification system makes no distinction between
coca leaf chewing and smoking crack, because they are both cocaine
use (class A). However coca chewing is low dose and slow release
and is not associated with significant health harms (and even
some benefits)whereas crack smoking is high dose and rapid
release and consequently associated with high harm/risk. Similarly
some drugs are low risk if used occasionally but become increasingly
high risk with increasing intensity and regularity of use. The
classification system makes no allowance for responsible or moderate
use of any illegal drug and completely ignores the possibility
that some drug use may be beneficial (pleasure, relaxation, pain
relief etc). Whilst society and policy makers (see Blair quote
below) are entirely capable of making the distinction between
responsible and irresponsible alcohol use (having a drink of wine
with your evening meal compared to having a bottle of vodka with
your breakfast) current legislation and most political discourse
allows no such distinction.
"Millions of us enjoy drinking
alcohol with few, if any, ill effects. Indeed moderate drinking
can bring some health benefits."
"Ultimately, however, it is vital
that individuals can make informed and responsible decisions about
their own levels of alcohol consumption. Everyone needs to be
able to balance their right to enjoy a drink with the potential
risks to their ownand others'health and wellbeing."
Tony Blair (from the forword to
the 2003 Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy)
17. Consumption methods: most drugs
can be eaten, smoked, snorted or injected (along with various
other less common methods). Whilst the classification system increases
penalties of some drugs if "prepared for injection",
no differentiation is made between other consumption methods despite
their being associated with significantly different levels of
5. Translating generalisations about harms/risks
to an entire population into penalties for individuals is both
unscientific and unjust.
18. Even if one accepts that consenting
adult drug use is a criminal act (Transform does not) it remains
unethical and unscientific to base penalties for an entire populationincluding
the majority of non-problematic userson the small proportion
of drug users who experience difficulties or health problems.
The committee asks whether the existing
advisory bodies are being used in a satisfactory manner:
19. The key advisory body regards drug classification
is the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. This body is established
under the 1971 misuse of drugs act to advise ministers within
its remit in "preventing the misuse of such drugs or dealing
with social problems connected with their misuse" and "restricting
the availability of such drugs or supervising arrangements for
their supply". Transform questions the utility of the ACMD
and points out that the political backdrop of the Council's work
mitigates against evidence based policy making and effective policy
development in a number of key ways:
20. The ACMD is established and operates
as part of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. As such it can make recommendations
for minor tweaks to the policy of prohibition but cannot challenge
its basic tenets. There is no history of the broader policy of
prohibition being evaluated or reviewed (despite its obvious failings)
or alternative policy options being considered.
21. ACMD members are appointed by a Government
that is both legally locked into and publicly committed to the
prohibitionist paradigm. As such the committee lacks independenceit
operates within a highly restrictive political environment, one
that stifles dissent and does not reflect the balance of opinion
within the broader drugs field.
22. The ACMD lacks transparencyIts
deliberations are not open to the public, are unpublished and
are unavailable for independent comment or scrutiny.
23. The ACMD is essentially a reactive bodythe
Minister dictates its agenda and the scope and remit of its inquiries.
It has limited capacity to proactively open up lines of inquiry
and a limited or non-existent research budget.
24. Ministers also appear to misunderstand
the role of the ACMDthe recent cannabis reclassification
farrago provides an instructive example. Asked by a journalist
recently what he intended to do about cannabis, the Prime Minister
replied that he had referred it back to ACMD to find out whether
its reclassification to Class C had sent the wrong message to
young people. Drug policy experts had thought that ACMD had been
asked to review new evidence of a link between cannabis and mental
health problems, not whether it had caused a PR problem.
The committee asks how media treatment
of risk issues impact on the government approach
25. As noted in paragraph 7, drug policy
has long been highly politicised, associated with populist law
and order debates and dominated by emotive drug war rhetoric.
The media have undoubtedly reinforced this, with shocking stories
of drug related misfortune providing frequent and easy headlines
for tabloid editors. Drugs have provided the fuel for classic
"moral panics", such as the ecstasy panic in the late
80's, following a pattern established by the "reefer madness"
scares from earlier in the last century. This coverage has been
characterised by poor understanding of drug risks and with factual
voids filled with exaggeration, anecdote and hysteria. Politicians
have proved all too willing to jump on this bandwagon. They exploit
misplaced popular fears to promote there own "tough on drugs
and crime" credentials by demonising drug users and drugs,
repeating popular myths, ignoring scientific evidence of actual
dangers and calling for harsher penalties for drug offenders.
26. Ecstasy provides a useful example. There
have been numerous calls for ecstasy to be reclassified to B from
A. These have been based on clear evidence that, whilst toxic
and not without risk, it is not an addictive drug and therefore
should not be classified alongside heroin and cocaine in Class
A. However, a series of high profile ecstasy related deaths that
received saturation coverage in print and broadcast media (most
notably Leah Betts) have clearly been instrumental in preventing
Ministers from implementing the change.
The committee asks if publicly funded
research is being published
27. Whilst acknowledging that the Home Office
undertakes and commissions much worthwhile and high quality published
research in the drugs policy field Transform would also like to
point out that a recent review of UK drug policy commissioned
by the Prime Minister from the number 10 strategy unit was not
published until a freedom of information request by Transform
and others. Then it was only published in part, the remaining
suppressed sections (that were highly critical of policy failings)
only entering the public domain when they were leaked to The
Transform notes that a page of information ranking drugs according
to harm within this Number 10 report has glaring discrepancies
from the rankings that underlie the classification system.
Transform Drug Policy Foundation recommends
that the Science and Technology Select Committee:
28. Call for an overhaul of the drug classification
system in line with expert evidence.
29. Call for ACMD deliberations to be fully
transparent, and all reports to be made public.
30. Call for appropriate research to establish
an evidence base for the classification system's effectiveness
in reducing harm, including a set of meaningful indicators to
be established against which such effectiveness can be measured.
31. Call for a cross departmental review
of the efficacy of the enforcement of prohibition and penalties
as defined by the classification system.
32. Call for a quadripartite select committee
to review UK drug policy more broadly including a more detailed
consideration of alternative policy options including shifting
the drug brief from the Home Office to the Department of Health,
and the possibility of legally regulated and controlled production
and supply of some or all currently illegal drugs.
1 David Bewley-Taylor, (University of Wales), Cindy
Fazey (University of Liverpool) "The Mechanics and Dynamics
of the UN System for International Drug Control". (http://www.forward-thinking-on-drugs.org/review1-summary.html Back
The ELDD notes that: "in some countries the law states that
the sanction for possessing a controlled drug will depend on the
type of drug in question, while in other countries the law foresees
the same punishment for an activity, no matter which substance
is involved." http://eldd.emcdda.eu.int/index.cfm?fuseaction=public.Content&nNodeID=5622&sLanguageISO=EN Back
Transform are happy to elaborate on this if requested, with an
analysis of existing policy indicators. Back
In response to a direct question on evidence of enforcement related
deterrence from the Home Affairs Select Committee 2001 (see http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200102/cmselect/cmhaff/318/318m92.htm)
the only research referenced by the Home Office was a single MORI
poll commissioned by the Police Foundation in 1999. This same
poll has been used by others to suggest the opposite-ie a weak
deterrent effect. Back
It is smoked tobacco that is particularly harmful due to the
effect of smoke, and its toxic constituents, on the lungs. Non
smoked tobacco or other nicotine use (patches inhalers) are comparatively
low risk. Cigarettes are designed to be smoked and therefore,
unlike alcohol, always harmful when used as directed. Back
See p 35 of the No 10 Strategy Unit drugs report linked in footnote