Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 372-379)


26 APRIL 2006

  Q372 Chairman: Good morning. Can I welcome everyone to this session which is looking at the classification of illegal drugs within an overall inquiry which is looking at scientific advice to government in terms of policy information. Can I particularly welcome our Panel One: Professor Colin Blakemore, the Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council and Professor of Physiology at Oxford University; Professor John Strang, Professor in Addiction Research and Director of the National Addiction Centre and Mr Andy Hayman, the Chair of the Association of Chief Police Officers Drugs Committee. Welcome to you all, thank you very much for giving us your time. Could I start by asking you, Professor Blakemore, you said in 2004 of the ABC classification system for illegal drugs: "It is antiquated and reflects the prejudices and misconceptions of an era in which drugs were placed in arbitrary categories with notable, often illogical, consequences". That was in 2004; do you stand by that comment?

  Professor Blakemore: There are sometimes useful reasons for making what, with hindsight, might seem to be pejorative or hyperbolic statements, but I stand by much of what I said, although some of the adjectives could be attenuated. To call a system antiquated of course does not necessarily mean criticising it.

  Q373  Chairman: But "illogical consequences" is pretty severe.

  Professor Blakemore: The Monarchy, the House of Lords and Shakespeare's plays might be called antiquated by some people but they would not necessarily be dismissed by everybody. I think the logic on which the misuse of drugs classification is based is impeccable. The logic is that drugs should be classified according to their potential for harm and that classification should then guide particularly the judiciary in its attitude towards policing and sentencing.

  Q374  Chairman: You no longer think it is illogical.

  Professor Blakemore: I think the basis is logical, but I am not sure of the evidence on which drugs were placed in those arbitrary groups—they are essentially arbitrary; there is nothing that rationally could provide evidence of sharp boundaries in a scale of harm from drugs. I think that not all the evidence was taken into account in the initial classification and subsequent emergence of evidence has not easily been incorporated in re-classification.

  Q375  Chairman: Professor Strang, do you accept Colin Blakemore's original hyperbole?

  Professor Strang: It seems to me that people at a previous time have tried to place drugs in what they think is a ranking of the levels of concern which should be attached to them. Periodically it seems proper for us to re-visit that and decide whether the ranking is correct and also then the way in which we organise our responsibilities. Being concerned about the potential for harm we wanted to look at ways in which a harm that is otherwise going to hit individuals in society might be deflected by the system. I would have thought that in any system from yesteryear one is bound to see things that you want to change. Personally I was pleased to be reminded about your overall process, about looking at how science might or ought to be contributing to the process of government. I am not sure whether that is the correct terminology. It does seem to me that there are many examples where what you or me have is inherited and what we are wanting to know as well is a whether a move in one direction or another direction would bring benefit or more harm. That is a more urgent question, rather than whether people happened to get it right a number of years ago. What I crucially want to know is that when changes have occurred, when minor adjustments have been made to the classification—not just to the classification, to the way in which the law is applied, because the law may be an ass but it is a sometimes subtle ass—that it is not just what the documents say, it is the way in which is applied. We have lots of examples in the UK as well as overseas (but let us just stick with the UK) where we have changed the law or we have changed the way in which the law is applied. Examples in the last couple of decades would be that we have re-classified certain drugs.

  Q376  Chairman: We will come onto that specifically; we want to know why we have done some of those things. The basic premise that I would like to start with this morning is: is the ABC category as exists now as illogical and is it as arbitrary as Professor Blakemore said. What is your opinion?

  Professor Strang: I am being much more moderate about the view. I am not wishing to defend the precise drugs and I probably would not see it as my area of expertise. What I would say is that I think we are ill informed about whether the changes make it better or worse. We have changed the detail of it and we do not actually know whether that has made the situation better or worse, so changes we have made, what I would expect of government in science, is to be able to tell me: So you have made that change five years ago . . .

  Q377  Chairman: We would like to know why; what was the evidence on which it was based?

  Professor Strang: Yes. Not only would we like to know the evidence of why but in particular did the effects that you expected happen? Even if your evidence base was rather weak and arbitrary, and it seems to me that the political process sometimes needs to make decisions with a pace that does not fit science and the gathering of evidence, but when a decision is made I would expect to know three years down the line had the trajectory carried on going up or had it taken off or had it got worse and for it to be sufficiently transparent that if it had got worse you would say that we made what we thought was a correct decision, we now see that it actually had a contrary effect.

  Q378  Chairman: Mr Hayman, very briefly do you feel the current system of the ABC classification is antiquated?

  Mr Hayman: If you want me to be very brief, no. If you want me to elaborate on that I don't actually know what the problem is in this discussion. Why do we have that classification? Is it because we want something very precise or is because we want something as a rough guide? If we want something very precise then it is a problem; if we want a rough guide it is not a problem.

  Q379  Chairman: What do you think the purpose should be then?

  Mr Hayman: From a police perspective it only does a couple of things really. It puts certain drugs in a category which then has certain powers associated to that category and also it gives a bit of a steer which normally comes from government or from the local policing priority as to what the priority would be for policing those particular drugs.

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