Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examinatin of Witnesses (Question 438-439)


26 APRIL 2006

  Q438 Chairman: My apologies for starting this session a little late, but I am sure you were fascinated by the comments of Panel One. Could I introduce Mr Steve Rolles, the Information Officer for Transform Drug Policy Foundation, Mr Martin Barnes, the Chief Executive of DrugScope and Mrs Lesley King-Lewis, the Chief Executive of Action on Addiction. You are all very, very welcome. Mr Rolles, because you are in the middle could we ask you to field questions wherever necessary. You have been chosen as the chairman of your panel by a unanimous decision of our Committee. The ACMD told us that the purpose of the ABC drug classification system was to "classify the harmfulness of drugs so that the penalties for possession and trafficking should be proportionate to the harmfulness of the particular substance". Do you think the classification is effective in achieving that objective?

  Mr Rolles: I suppose that in the context of an ABC system up to a point. There has obviously been some discussion about anomalies of certain drugs and certain classifications and there will no doubt be more discussions on that. I do not think that anyone is disagreeing that there are anomalies within that system. I would say that the objections of the classification system are actually more than that in that it is at the very heart of the Misuse of Drugs Act and broader prohibition is paradigm, the aim of which is to reduce drug use and misuse, to reduce drug availability as a way of reducing drug use and misuse and more broadly to reduce harm related to drugs in society. I think if you look at the evidence of the last 45 years it has transparently not done any of those things. Drug use has gone up exponentially; drugs are more available than they have ever been and drug harms have increased correspondingly to an astonishing degree. On any criteria you choose with regards to misuse, availability and overall harm the classification system and the policy that it sits within have failed in quite spectacular fashion.

  Mrs King-Lewis: I very much agree with Steve and I think we have missed that opportunity, in that we failed to measure any of the impacts which John Strang mentioned earlier. We have had so much opportunity to actually look at what is the impact that classification has had on society at large. Have we seen an increase in cannabis use? Have we seen a decrease? Have we seen more users within young people? What has been the actual effect and the impact? We have failed to measure all that so what we would really welcome is automatic review of outcome measures whenever there is a change of the classification or a change that has implemented policy. We have missed so much opportunity to gather that vital evidence.

  Q439  Chairman: When you say "we" who do you mean?

  Mrs King-Lewis: That is a very good question. We, as a research charity, are calling for government and ACMD and in respect of the previous argument I think a weakness there is that there is no-one who is proactively determining a research strategy for this country. There is no-one who is commissioning research and there is no money available. We really need an independent body to actually implement the research. I think there is a very good role for the ACMD to be more proactive identifying what the gaps are and then having the budget attached to it but getting it commissioned by an independent body. That is very important; it has to be independent.

  Mr Barnes: I agree with Steve to some extent that if the goal is to reduce drug use or prevent drug use then clearly the lessons of the last thirty years show that we have not succeeded but I do not think you can put the blame just on the system of drug classification per se. We have the wider debate about the divide between legal and illegal drugs. You have covered alcohol and tobacco this morning in terms of the comparisons of harm, but within the context of setting a legal framework for illegal substances the drug classification system as it operates is far from perfect. However I think there is actually flexibility built into the system. The issue is perhaps why have we not seen since the Act was introduced sufficient change in the way certain drugs have been categorised. What are the triggers that should lead to those reviews and those changes? I think more importantly what are actually the barriers? We have covered a lot in previous inquiries in terms of anomalies where current drugs sit, the role of the ACMD but all of that operates within the political context, the way the media covers these issues and the fact that when we deal with the issue of drugs and drugs policy it is very difficult on almost any level to have an informed, objective, evidence based discussion. More often it is heat rather than light that it is generated and politicians are nervous about drugs policy; they are nervous about being seen to make changes and if we needed any evidence to confirm that just look at what happened with the cannabis re-classification. Historically it is a significant change but in terms of the system overall it is not that big, but that was not the way it was reacted to politically or in the media.

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