Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 446-469)


26 APRIL 2006

  Q460  Dr Iddon: The previous panel gave us the impression this morning that the ACMD were rushed into making a decision. You have just implied that more research is needed on cannabis so why did the ACMD make a recommendation to change the classification from B to C in view of what the previous panel and in view of what you have told us just now?

  Mr Barnes: Firstly I was not on the ACMD, which recommended a change, the original recommendation was made and, as you know, it was not just the ACMD but in its recent report it did say, if I remember correctly, that there was a need for on-going and more research into the issue. It was asked by the home secretary to look again at cannabis re-classification and under the Act it had to do so. It spent two days considering the evidence. It was not rushed into a decision, it was at least a nine month process in terms of capturing the data, witnesses were called to give evidence on the first day of the inquiry as well. The report itself went through various stages. It went to the technical committee, it went back to the full ACMD. It was not a rushed process but in terms of reaching its conclusion to keep the classification at C but with a list of other recommendations as well, not least the need for a robust and comprehensive public education campaign, it could only base its decision on the evidence that we currently have.

  Q461  Dr Iddon: Do we have it right now? Is cannabis in the right classification system?

  Mr Rolles: The problems with the ACMD's deliberations were not that they did not look at all the evidence of the impact of cannabis on mental health and so on, but their decision in terms of recommendation for re-classification or not was based on an assumption that re-classification has some impact on levels of use and therefore mental health of cannabis users and there is absolutely no evidence at all to suggest it does so the whole exercise is just a big distraction. The whole thing is about the classification system and what impact that has on harms and because we do not measure it we have no idea so you can argue until you are blue in the face about which category it should be in. I have been trying to think of a metaphor for this and the best one I can come up with is that it is like arguing over what colour to paint a square wheel. Even if all the experts agree it should be blue it does not matter because that wheel does not turn. The classification system does not do what it is supposed to do, it does not reduce harm, it does not reduce misuse, it does not reduce mental health problems. In fact it seems to do the exact opposite so the whole thing is an exercise in distraction as we are concerned.

  Q462  Dr Iddon: Have we not got it right based on the evidence available?

  Mr Barnes: Yes, but let us keep it under review. I think coming back to the issue of research—and I was interested in Michael Rawlins' comments about ecstasy—firstly our knowledge base changes over time in terms of the harms or otherwise that the drugs themselves can do. Also the way that those harms interact with individuals and why society changes over time. Drugs do change in fashion and in use so research itself has to be an evolving on-going process. A word of caution is that we have to be careful that the research itself does not overly drive the public policy responses because a piece of research could reach what appears to be quite a firm, definite conclusion. If you respond too quickly to that and then find that a later piece of research contradicts or challenges—as so often happens, not just in the drugs field—that previous research, you are going to have a system of drugs bobbing in and out of classification. That would not be a better response I do not think.

  Q463  Dr Iddon: I hope we are talking about peer review as well.

  Mr Barnes: Yes.

  Q464  Chairman: Lesley, yes or no?

  Mrs King-Lewis: Only no in a few years time once we have evaluated the decision.

  Q465  Mr Devine: Today the Scottish Police Federation are debating the legalisation of drugs and as politicians you can imagine our primary role is to be re-elected. If we came out and said, "Legalise all drugs" we would be crucified by the media. I just wonder about media attention and how you think that that influences government decision making and how do we get what you want, a reasonable debate in the media and a discussion with young people about the real impact of drugs.

  Mr Rolles: I think the problem really is that we have two generations of demonising drugs and demonising drug users and it is a highly politicised area. It is a very emotive issue and it is very difficult to step back from all that and just look at the evidence and rationally discuss the alternatives. I think as politicians it is behoven upon you to say, "Okay, this policy we have at the moment, all the outcomes are not what we would expect, they seem to be going the wrong way, are there other alternatives we can look at and consider in a rational and scientific way?" I think the key to that is to move away from its emotive war on drugs rhetoric or some of the polarised debate where you have the drug warriors on the one hand and the evangelical drug legalisers on the other hand and consider that actually there is a lot of common ground. We all want to reduce the harm drugs cause, let us look at the policy alternatives and see from the evidence which one is most likely to achieve the best outcomes. I think that by approaching it in a rational, non-confrontational way we can have a sensible debate and it does not necessarily mean that your election chances are going to be jeopardised.

  Mr Barnes: My concern when we debate legislation is that there is a danger of focussing on that as the issue when actually there is a long way to go in the meantime in terms of incremental, radical and potentially controversial reform. It is at that stage itself that it is quite difficult to have an objective, informed debate. The recent front page article in The Times claimed "cocaine floods playgrounds" on the basis of an apparent report that showed an increase in cocaine use amongst seven to 15 year olds from one to 2%. That was the headline that parents on a Saturday morning would have seen when they opened their papers.[2] The issue of crystal meth, some of the ways that that has been reported—I know it is easy to criticise the media, we all so it—quite frankly has been irresponsible. I see in the ITV news van as the lead a story about Britain on the verge of a crystal meth explosion. The tea-time news explained that details about how to manufacture it are on the website and can be made with home made ingredients. Just coming back to the issue of the ACMD, when the recommendation was published by the home secretary, members of the ACMD were contacted by The Daily Mail to be asked, "Have you ever used drugs?" When we look at the issue of the transparency of the ACMD bear in mind that the people who sit on that committee have a very difficult role, have to tackle and make judgments on very difficult and potentially controversial decisions

2  Note by the witness: Although any increase is a concern, the actual increase was from 1.4 or 1.5% to 1.9%.

  Mrs King-Lewis: We are keen to move the debate from a criminal justice angle to a public health, really informing the public, the young people in particular, of the different levels of drugs and the different and varying harms that they can do to themselves. We need a much more rational debate.

  Q466  Dr Iddon: Bearing in mind that it appears that fresh magic mushrooms were put in Class A because psilocin and psilocybin were already there (which, of course, they contain) do you think we got it right in classifying fresh magic mushrooms as Class A drugs?

  Mrs King-Lewis: No.

  Mr Rolles: Absolutely not. There was a legal market there; that legal market did not seem to be causing a huge amount of problems before the 2005 Drugs Act but there were clearly issues in that the sale of these magic mushrooms was completely unregulated and unlicensed. What Transform was suggesting was that vendors were licensed and appropriate controls were put in in terms of age and information available at point of sale and various other appropriate restrictions. What did not happen in the Misuse of Drugs Act is that the regulatory impact assessment that was done on that particular clause within that particular Act should have, under regulatory impact assessment guidelines, considered in detail what the different options were and they did not consider in any detail the regulatory option, it was a throw away line in that regulatory impact assessment.

  Q467  Chairman: Martin, yes or no?

  Mr Barnes: I would say no.

  Q468  Dr Iddon: Were the ACMD consulted about this?

  Mr Barnes: I am not aware that the full council were asked to deliberate on this. I think because it was going through primary legislation and I think it was wrong for the home secretary to seek to enact it in primary legislation without properly consulting the ACMD and giving it time to deliberate on it. In terms of the classification the evidence has indicated that it is in the wrong classification, but I suspect that if the home secretary is presented with a fully considered report from the ACMD recommending change I think the answer would be no.

  Q469  Dr Iddon: Is that going to happen?

  Mr Barnes: I am not aware that the ACMD is planning to look at it; it certainly has not been asked by the home secretary to look at the classification of magic mushrooms.

  Chairman: On that note could I thank you. I am sorry it has been a helter-skelter run through, but the bell is just about to go for the announcement of the session. Steve Rolles, Martin Barnes and Lesley King-Lewis thank you very, very much indeed for helping us today.

2   and I think to inform that role and to do it robustly there has to be some degree of protection in terms of those individuals fearing that they have the confidence to expose themselves in that way and take part in that process. Back

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