Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Transform Drug Policy Foundation

  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 expenditure.

    —  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 drug policy.

  For more information please visit 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 Drugs—Options 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


  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 drug harms;

    —  is not predicated on a framework that enables policy makers to make decisions about how to classify drugs—as no meaningful indicators exist to measure effectiveness;

    —  is neither strategically planned nor effectively reviewed and evaluated against meaningful indicators; and

    —  is compartmentalised and not subject to cross departmental review.

  That government risk assessment regarding drugs is:

    —  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 issues.

  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 advice effectively.

  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 them.


  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. [1]

  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 manufacturers."[2] All EU member states classify drugs roughly according to the conventions, using the annexes from the 1961 convention[3] on narcotic drugs and the 1971 convention on psychotropic drugs[4] 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.[5] 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 prohibition—using criminal law to enforce the moral view that all drug use is unacceptable—have remained unchanged since the Victorian temperance movement. Drug production and use have risen consistently since the Misuse of Drugs Act was commenced in 1971—the 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 system—which 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 drugs—its 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 assessed—for 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[6].

  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 specious—prohibition 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.[7] 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 decisions—especially for the most excluded groups; young people, those with mental health problems and those from socially deprived communities—who 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[8]. 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 formulated.

4.   Drug harms are mediated by the nature of the user, the dose of drug consumed and the method of consumption—making a system based upon broad sweep single classifications for each drug fundamentally unscientific, and meaningless in most practical terms.

  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 example—there are many others.

  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 own—and 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 harm/risk.

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 population—including the majority of non-problematic users—on 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 independence—it 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 transparency—Its deliberations are not open to the public, are unpublished and are unavailable for independent comment or scrutiny.

  23.  The ACMD is essentially a reactive body—the 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 ACMD—the 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 Guardian newspaper[9]. 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[10].


  Transform Drug Policy Foundation recommends that the Science and Technology Select Committee:

Short term

  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.

Medium term

  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.

January 2006

1   David Bewley-Taylor, (University of Wales), Cindy Fazey (University of Liverpool) "The Mechanics and Dynamics of the UN System for International Drug Control". ( Back

2 Back

3 Back

4 Back

5   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." Back

6   Transform are happy to elaborate on this if requested, with an analysis of existing policy indicators. Back

7   In response to a direct question on evidence of enforcement related deterrence from the Home Affairs Select Committee 2001 (see 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

8   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

9 Back

10   See p 35 of the No 10 Strategy Unit drugs report linked in footnote 9.


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