Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 107-119)


1 MARCH 2006

  Q107 Chairman: Good morning everybody, and could I make an especial welcome to Professor Sir Michael Rawlins and Professor David Nutt. You are very, very welcome this morning. Could I remind everyone that this session is being televised and, as with the Big Brother house, we want to make sure that all actions and words are commensurate with broadcasting licence agreements. This is the first case study in an over-arching inquiry into scientific evidence which the Government uses to inform policy. It is a particularly important area in terms of drug classification. I have to say that we are focusing specifically on the process and we are not making any judgments about drugs policy. We are very interested to make sure that the classification process is something that stands up to scrutiny. I shall start by asking our two eminent witnesses, beginning with you Sir Michael, to spend no more than one minute introducing themselves and say what their role is within their organisation.

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Thank you very much. I am Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (the ACMD) and I am Professor of Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Newcastle. I have been Chairman of the ACMD since 1998 and I have been in Newcastle since 1973.

  Q108  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.

  Professor Nutt: I am David Nutt. I am a psycho-pharmacologist at the University of Bristol. That means I am a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, who is interested in drugs and the brain. I have been Chair of the Technical Committee of the ACMD for the last five years and have a research track record in the field of drugs of addiction and mental processes. I spent two years working in the National Institute of Health in the States in the 1980s so I have some experience of the US system as well.

  Q109  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. I wonder if I could start by asking you, Professor Rawlins, what is the purpose of the ABC drug classification system that we have got at the moment?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: The purpose is to classify the harmfulness of drugs so that the penalties for possession and trafficking should be proportionate to the harmfulness of the particular substance.

  Q110  Chairman: Harmfulness to whom?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Harmfulness to the individual and harmfulness to society.

  Q111  Chairman: Which is the balance between the two?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: We take both of them into account, both the individual and the individual's family and society, and one does not overrule the other.

  Q112  Chairman: Do you feel you have been proactive in achieving that objective and that the ABC classification has done what it has set out to do?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: I think in terms of what it was intended to do, that is to say to try and make the penalties proportionate to the harmfulness of the substances that were being used or traded, yes. Of course, in the United Kingdom over the last 30 years the use of these substances has increased dramatically, not just in Britain but in most other countries as well, so in another sense one can say that we need more than that. I think one of the important things about drugs misuse is that it is not just a criminal justice problem, it is also a public health problem and one has to be certain that one is looking at it from both angles.

  Q113  Chairman: We did not know when we started this inquiry what the priority of the Government is in terms of those two angles; public health and law enforcement.

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: My view is that it is both a criminal justice problem and a public health problem, and a social problem as well.

  Q114  Chairman: Yes, but when somebody like Professor Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council, says this about the ABC classification system: "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", this is a man who has got a certain reputation to uphold and he is saying really it is a bit of a waste of time.

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: And he is a good friend of mine and a good friend of David's as well.

  Q115  Chairman: So do you think it is a waste of time as well?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: No, I do not think it is a waste of time but I think it is right that the Home Secretary is relooking at it. There are various ways in which one could do this sort of thing. Different countries have different arrangements. The notion that the penalties for possession and supply should be proportionate, broadly speaking, to the harmfulness seems to me reasonable, but it does not necessarily have to be done that way, so I very much welcome the approach that the Home Secretary is taking, that he is reviewing it and is going to produce a consultation paper shortly. I am not sure how far away "shortly" is.

  Q116  Chairman: What worries me here, and perhaps Professor Nutt you can comment on this as well, is that there does not seem to be a blind bit of evidence which your Committee uses to make any of the decisions on which you advise the Home Secretary. Indeed, Paul Flynn, the Minister responsible, one of our eminent MPs, described government policy decisions on illegal drugs as "largely evidence-free" in evidence to this Committee.

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: I cannot answer for him but if you look at the way we examine the evidence, there is a lot of evidence that we are able to look at. It is not perfect by any manner or means. There are gaps and in some areas there are large gaps, but there is evidence and there is evidence that we can use.

  Q117  Chairman: But have you then ever provided evidence to ministers which they have just disregarded?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: Not since I have been Chairman, no.

  Q118  Chairman: Have you ever given them advice which they have disregarded?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: No.

  Q119  Chairman: So in perfect harmony?

  Professor Sir Michael Rawlins: In the past ministers have rejected the Council's advice but not during my tenure of office and David's.

  Chairman: I will pass you on to my colleague.

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