Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380-399)


26 APRIL 2006

  Q380  Chairman: Just to clarify that, from your point of view you think the classification is to deal with possession and trafficking and the penalties that follow from that. That is the main purpose. It is not about education; it is not about debate; it is not about the degree of harm; it is just about that.

  Mr Hayman: Other people make the determination as to the degree of harm; we are not in a position to comment on that. What we do is that once those discussions have been held by the experts in that field they get put into those classifications and that will then direct police resources and priority. I think, on a really practical note here, even when you ask this question you need to have some kind of view as to what we would replace the system with if we were to rubbish it. I do not think there is an easy answer to that. You are going to have to have some kind of brackets, whether you call it A or 1 or any other division. What is going to direct you to put a certain drug into those categories? That goes back to my earlier point which is: why should we get too hot under the collar about it?

  Q381  Chairman: Why bother having classifications at all?

  Mr Hayman: Because then you will not be able to direct effort either in the health service or in policing or any other discipline to a given priority. They will all get given the same kind of even handed response. For me, as long as we all know that the determination is pretty crude, the way they go into these different categories, let us all go into it with our eyes open knowing it is crude. On the other hand, if you want it more precise then we will have to do some more thinking on it. I think, as ever, it is the middle ground. I think there is some decision there because it is directed by health and scientific experts; it is not as rough as some are making out but it is certainly not as precise as perhaps some of the other commentators would want.

  Q382  Chairman: Would you be happy for it just to be left to the police to use their discretion?

  Mr Hayman: We do anyway.

  Q383  Chairman: So the classification is irrelevant to you.

  Mr Hayman: No, it is not irrelevant. The discretion will be around the priorities that we give policing-wise to the different categories. Clearly a Class A drug is determined by the experts as being the most harmful and the criteria which is directed into that conclusion and therefore I think it would be illogical from the police perspective if we were putting a lot of effort into a Class C drug when actually Class A presents more harm. It is helpful in that regard.

  Q384  Chairman: Alcohol, which is not in a classification at all, is a lot more harmful than most of the drugs that are in Class C.

  Mr Hayman: I am not in a position to comment on that.

  Q385  Chairman: Professor Blakemore, what do you feel should be the primary purpose of the classification?

  Professor Blakemore: I would agree with Andy that the classification is intended as a useful guide to the direction of priorities for medical care, to policing operations and to the work of the judiciary in trying to deal with the problem of drug abuse. The question would be that if the system is acknowledged to be rough—I think Andy used that term, that it is only a rough guide—then where is the nuancing of the interpretation coming from and on the basis of what expertise is that nuancing occurring? Is it on the basis of some additional assessment of risk in the mind of a doctor treating someone with drug problems? Or a police officer considering whether to caution them or arrest them? Or the courts in dealing with the case? Is it an opportunity for the exercise of personal views and prejudices?

  Q386  Chairman: Is the primary purpose then really, as Andy said, about helping in terms of policing and the judicial system? I am surprised, in your particular position, that you would not see it in terms of sort of degrees of harm and how we actually deal with it; a classification system which would actually support the work of the MRC and the health service.

  Professor Blakemore: I am no expert on the law but I think primarily the classification is used to guide policing efforts. However, it also influences public and political reaction. The fact that a drug is classed in a category which is perceived as being especially risky influences the attitude of people, the media and politicians to that drug. If the placement of the drug in that category is only rough and if it not particularly rationally assessed then the attitudes to society and the media and politicians are misplaced.

  Q387  Dr Iddon: I want to try to direct my questions to Mr Hayman, please. Do you think placing a drug in a higher category has any deterrent effect on the user at all?

  Mr Hayman: You would have to ask a user that to get the best reply, but if you want my professional judgment based on my interaction with users I cannot envisage a user—a dependent user, that is—having any kind of thought as to whether it was a Class A, B or C drug they were consuming. They may know that but they may not; all they are worried about is the dependency that they suffer from. That is my professional take on it, but I think you would have to ask the users to get the most accurate reply.

  Q388  Dr Iddon: Do you think there is any relationship between the classification of a drug and the amount of criminal activity? I put it to you that by placing a drug in a higher category with the higher risks involved of sentencing and the whole judiciary process, that puts a higher price on the drug so the criminals are more attracted to trading in those higher classification drugs.

  Mr Hayman: It depends on what you are defining as the link with crime. We have to go back to first base. What is directing what classification of drug goes into is the scientific and medical harm. It has no relationship with the crime that might be associated with it. It would be a very interesting research project I am sure (which Colin would jump at) to try to determine whether there is a relationship as you have tried to suggest. For me there is well recorded academic research which shows that certain drugs have certain linkages with certain crimes. Some are violent; some are acquisitive, but to start making those links in with the classification I think we are going to mix up loads of different methodologies. For me it is very clear; there is a clear thought process as to why a drug goes into a different classification. Certain drugs have certain relationships with certain crimes.

  Q389  Dr Iddon: Has ACPO ever discussed the classification of drugs, even before the home secretary decided to look at the system?

  Mr Hayman: Yes.

  Q390  Dr Iddon: What conclusions did you come to?

  Mr Hayman: I think it was in 2001/02 when we wrote the ACPO policy statement right across the whole agenda of drugs which included classification. In fact at the moment we are just reviewing that for an update. You may see our position as a bit of a cop-out but I think it is a professionally reliable position. We do not have a view on what classification is; that is not our job. It is for experts to determine what classification drugs go into and once that is then linked to legislation and police powers and priorities we would then implement that. Our position on the re-classification on cannabis was that we all stand ready for the experts to express their opinion and then we will operate guidelines to implement that on the street.

  Q391  Dr Iddon: We will be coming to cannabis shortly so I will not pursue that now. To any member of the panel, do we have the best practice operating in Britain regarding our classification system or is there a better one somewhere else in another country?

  Mr Hayman: I have probably already shown my hand in the earlier questions, I really do not think we should get too hot under the collar around this classification. It is there to guide and it is as simple as that. If we get too sophisticated around that process we will be strangled by the sophistication of classifying a drug rather than getting on and doing the job both from a medical perspective and from a law enforcement perspective and for the greater good of the community. It might be very interesting to travel to other countries but actually we are in this country now and we have a job to do and I think we should just roll our sleeves up and get on with it.

  Q392  Dr Iddon: In this early part of this evidence session I am getting the feeling that perhaps the home secretary is misguided by reviewing the system because everybody here seems quite happy about it. Why is the home secretary calling for a review of the system? Does anybody know?

  Mr Hayman: He is the person to ask.

  Dr Iddon: We will, of course.

  Q393  Chairman: Can you hazard a guess, Colin?

  Professor Blakemore: I think that the driver for the review was quite clearly the time, effort, deliberation and conflicting advice that impinged on the decision not to re-classify cannabis, and the realisation that the arbitrary (and I would defend that word) boundary between B and C was not easily defensible. If it took so much effort to consider one particular drug and whether it should be placed on one side or other of a boundary, does it not imply that the entire mechanism for classifying requires a new look? There are other issues too and I suspect that the Advisory Council pointed these out—that some drugs might simply have become lodged in categories on the basis of historical allocation, which might have seemed very reasonable at the time but the present position cannot easily be defended on the basis of present evidence. I point particularly to the hallucinogens in category A and also perhaps to ecstasy.

  Mr Hayman: I think another interesting question to pose here is that, let us say this is such a grim situation that we are facing here and we have it all badly wrong. I do not mean this in a flippant way but, so what? What is the consequence of getting it so badly wrong and how much effect does that really have on the medical and law enforcement functions? I actually cannot see that there are major consequences.

  Q394  Mr Devine: Surely if I had that Class A drug I would go to jail but if I had a Class C drug you would let me go.

  Mr Hayman: Not necessarily, no.

  Q395  Chairman: If you were caught selling magic mushrooms which are in Class A you would go to prison.

  Mr Hayman: On the current classification and the current penalty.

  Q396  Chairman: You have been arguing that one of the major reasons for the ABC classification is its links in terms with crime and punishment.

  Mr Hayman: Having been classified the punishment is then linked to that.

  Q397  Chairman: You are splitting hairs.

  Mr Hayman: That is what I am saying. Exactly. I think the whole debate is very interesting but it does not take us anywhere at all. If we got members of the public in here now, even with the layman's understanding of it, and if we put all the different types of drugs on the table I bet they would be able to determine which were more serious than the others.

  Q398  Mr Newmark: I am interesting in what you are saying here, Andy. On the one hand you are saying that you play a very passive role in this whole process of classification and that at the end of the day it does not matter because frankly if you see kids dealing in something in a playground in a village in Essex—where I am from—you will deal with it anyway, whether it is magic mushrooms or acid or heroin or whatever. You are just going to go there and do it. That is what you are saying. You say it helps guide your priorities, but you have not talked at all about what input you have in this process. You must have, as the police, some input because it is your resources that you are allocating at the end of the day. You are at the sharp end in seeing what is going on on the ground. I am really curious; you must have some input as a police force in determining what this classification is.

  Mr Hayman: We do; we have two seats on the ACMD and we will make a contribution to it. When we had the re-classification of cannabis debate I was part of that discussion. It has to be said that the input from the police is going to be very narrow compared with other colleagues on ACMD because the main rationale as to why something goes into a different classification is based on medical and scientific evidence, not necessarily on what the police would bring to the party. I am not saying it is ignored because it is not and the chair of the ACMD is very inclusive, but I am not in a position to be able to offer that kind of technical advice. What I can offer are some of the points that I was asked before about the impact that certain drugs have on crime on the street and on the fabric of the community, and the consequence of drug misuse or dependency in the community under controlled circumstances.

  Q399  Mr Newmark: Also the proliferation of drugs and therefore if you are seeing far more on the ground, ie people are using a particular drug far more, I have to believe that as a police force you then have input on determining what the classification or the re-classification of that drug should be. If something is something is suddenly Class C—hypothetically—and you are spending ten times your resources now dealing with that Class C drug, surely you are going to go back and say that this needs to be re-classified.

  Mr Hayman: My understanding—and I might be wrong on it—is that that would not be a strong weighting or indeed a current criteria as to why something goes into A, B or C. It is very relevant material but it is not a show stopper for it.

  Professor Strang: You asked a little while ago about what functions the classification system served. The other one that I hope you would consider is the way in which it shapes the general public's views on drugs. There is something about the way in which government and the public perception of drugs are portrayed which influences those early stages of drug use that I do not see any involvement in in my clinical work. In that regard it is strange that we do not peep over the garden fence at the alcohol and tobacco fields to try to learn lessons where you would presume there were generaliseable findings. The presumption would be that those observations would be generalised.

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