Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


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 representatives from:

    —  the practice of medicine;

    —  the practice of dentistry;

    —  the practice of veterinary medicine;

    —  the practice of pharmacy;

    —  the pharmaceutical industry;

    —  chemistry other than pharmaceutical chemistry; and

    —  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 areas.

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 body.

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?

  No comment.

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?

  No comment.

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

  No comment.

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 ACMD.

4.   Transparency, communication and public engagement

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

  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 situation.

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?

  No comment.

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.

January 2006

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