Memorandum from Release
Release is the national centre of expertise
on drugs and drugs law. Release seeks to meet the health, welfare
and legal needs of drug users and those who live and work with
them, through the provision of a range of services aimed at preventing
or reducing the harm that drugs can cause. Release also acts as
a source of independent expertise on a wide range of matters concerning
drugs, the law and human rights.
The Science and Technology Committee has launched
an inquiry which focuses upon the mechanisms in place for the
use of scientific advice and how it impacts on policy making.
This paper will comment on the use of scientific evidence in relation
to the classfication of illegal drugs.
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs
("ACMD") is the statutory body which advices the Government
on issues relating to drug misuse. The ACMD derives its power
from section 1 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 ("MDA 1971").
The MDA 1971 states:
"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."
A further duty is placed on the Advisory Council
to consider any matter relating to drug dependence or the misuse
of drugs which may be referred to it by any Government Minister
(as defined in the Act).
Section 2(5) of the MDA 1971 places an obligation
on Ministers to consult with the ACMD prior to laying a draft
Order before Parliament or before making Regulations or changes
to the Act.
The ACMD is made up of experts within the drugs
field. There is a statutory requirement that the membership includes
the practice of medicine;
the practice of dentistry;
the practice of veterinary medicine;
the practice of pharmacy;
the pharmaceutical industry;
chemistry other than pharmaceutical
persons whom the Home Secretary considers
to have wide and recent experience of social problems connected
with the misuse of drugs.
The membership of the ACMD ensures that the
advice given in relation to the classification of drugs encompasses
a wide range of views.
It is in light of the ACMD's role that we consider
the questions raised by the Committee in relation to relevant
1. Sources and handling of advice
1.1 What impact are departmental Chief Scientific
Advisers having on the policy making process?
It is clear that the ACMD plays an important
role in the policy making process, especially in relation to the
classification of drugs. The ACMD's recommendations in relation
to the classification of Ketamine and GHB were adopted by the
Government. Furthermore, the ACMD recently advised that cannabis
should remain a Class C substance. We are pleased that the Government
took their advice on this matter.
However, there are concerns that the Government
is failing to consult the ACMD despite the obligations under the
MDA 1971. Section 21 of the Drugs Act 2005 provided for the inclusion
of fresh mushrooms containing psilocin in Part 1 of Schedule 2
of the MDA 1971. This meant that a previous uncontrolled product
became a Class A drug. The Government failed to consult the ACMD
on this matter. This undermines the potential impact of the advisory
1.2 What is the role of the Government Chief
Scientific Adviser in the policy making process and what impact
has he made to date?
It is the role of the ACMD to advise Ministers
(Home Secretary, Education Secretary and Health Secretary) on
current drug use and misuse. Specifically, the advice should relate
to drugs which are considered "harmful" and as such
to constitute a social problem.
The ACMD should also advise on measures which
should be taken in relation to preventing misuse of drugs or dealing
with the social problems connected to drug misuse. Section 1(2)
of the MDA 1971 provides for particular circumstances where measures
should be applied. In relation to classification of drugs the
ACMD have a statutory duty to consider measures which would restrict
the availability of drugs which they consider "harmful".
As previously stated, the ACMD has had some
impact on the policy making process.
1.3 Are existing advisory bodies being used in
a satisfactory manner?
The Government is obliged to consult the ACMD
and in most cases the advice given by the ACMD is taken on board.
However, we do not consider it satisfactory that it was not consulted
in relation to the classification of fresh mushrooms containing
psilocin (see above).
1.4 Are Government departments establishing the
right balance between maintaining an in-house scientific capability
and accessing external advice?
The ACMD has a number of committees and working
groups which report directly to it. These committees and working
groups can include members of the ACMD and experts who are co-opted
in because of their knowledge in a specific area which will relate
to the topic being researched.
In our opinion, it is right that there should
be a reliance on external expert advice so that the ACMD is appropriately
placed to advise the Government.
2. Relationship between scientific advice
and policy development
2.1 What mechanisms are in place to ensure
that policies are based on available evidence?
As stated, section 2(5) of the MDA 1971 places
an obligation on Ministers to consult with the ACMD prior to laying
a draft Order before Parliament or before making Regulations or
changes to the MDA 1971.
However, there is no obligation for a Minister
to act on the advice of the ACMD.
2.2 Are departments engaging effectively in horizon
scanning activities and how are these influencing policy?
2.3 Is Government managing scientific advice
on cross-departmental issues effectively?
The ACMD is required to advise three departments
within Government, namely the Home Office, Department for Education
and Skills and the Department of Health.
We do not know how the information provided
by the ACMD is managed by Government. However, in practice most
ACMD reports are published and therefore available to the public
as well as other Government departments.
What is not as clear is how far Government goes
to ensure that there is a clear and cohesive response by departments
to the scientific advice provided by the ACMD.
3. Treatment of risk
3.1 Is risk being analysed in a consistent
and appropriate manner across Government?
3.2 Has the precautionary principle been adequately
defined and is it being applied consistently and appropriately
3.3 How does the media treatment of risk issues
impact on the Government approach?
It is clear that the media have an impact on
Government policy with regard to the classification of drugs.
Recent media comment on cannabis and methamphetamine has placed
pressure on Government to react. However, in most circumstances
the Government are appropriately referring such matters to the
4. Transparency, communication and public
4.1 Is there sufficient transparency in the
process by which scientific advice is incorporated into policy
In most cases Government will make public responses
to advice provided by the ACMD. There are concerns where policy
is decided in the absence of scientific advice, for example, the
classification of fresh mushrooms. In this case, there was no
advice given by the ACMD. There was little transparency as to
the reasoning behind this policy, which appeared to be devoid
of an "evidence based" approach. This is an unacceptable
4.2 Is publicly-funded research informing policy
development being published?
The Research, Statistics, Development branch
of the Home Office commissions and publishes research into issues
surrounding drug misuse.
4.3 Is scientific advice being communicated effectively
to the public?
It is clear that problems exist in relation
to public understanding of scientific advice which pertains to
drugs and their classification. Cannabis reclassification is a
glaring example of where the Government has failed to effectively
communicate the scientific advice relating to cannabis use and
mental health. This, however, is also linked to the confusion
within the scientific community itself.
5. Evaluation and follow-up
5.1 Are per review and other quality assurance
mechanisms working well?
5.2 What steps are taken to re-evaluate the evidence
base after the implementation of policy?
As previously mentioned, the ACMD is required
to keep up to date on issues relating to drug misuse. It is their
involvement in the drug policy process which ensures that evidence
is re evaluated.
Mechanisms should be put in place to allow Non-Governmental
Organisations (NGOs) to request that the Home Secretary re-evaluate
policy based on new evidence.