Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1200-1219)

JOAN RYAN MP, AND MR VERNON COAKER MP

14 JUNE 2006

  Q1200  Dr Harris: However, Professor David Nutt, who is the Chair of the ACMD Technical Committee, says, "I think the evidence base for classification producing a deterrent is not strong". So, on the basis of what you have just said, will you now take that away and change your answer? If you are referring to him, he disagrees with you by 180.

  Mr Coaker: Professor Nutt, as you know, is a member of the ACMD. We have a matrix which we use. That matrix is part of the way we determine which drug should be in which category. Of course, we always look at the evidence that people give us; we always look at the opinions that they give to us; but what we have there is Professor Nutt being part of the ACMD and we take his advice.

  Q1201  Chairman: It is disturbing for the Committee—and this is about evidence and policy, Vernon, not about whether the Government's policy is right or wrong. What we are saying is this. Is there any occasion when the Home Office has commissioned research to show that when you put a drug into a higher classification it actually has a deterrent effect—or the opposite?

  Mr Coaker: We have a scientific basis for determining harm. The ACMD refer to that when they classify drugs. When we come on to methylamphetamine, they risk-assessed that against the matrix, and that is when they have come forward with the proposals they have with respect to that drug.

  Chairman: We will return to that specific drug.

  Q1202  Adam Afriyie: I have just one last question around evidence and research. Have you commissioned any research to look at the classification of a drug and the level of crime associated with it? It does seem from studies in America and elsewhere in the world—I am not sure about the UK because I have not seen the research here—that if a drug is in a higher class, it therefore has a higher perceived street value; dealers get involved; there is a higher economic incentive for crime. Have you commissioned any research into that area?

  Mr Coaker: The Department of Health carry out a lot of research and we work closely with them. They commission a lot of research into different aspects of drugs. I have here a number of reports, both by the Home Office and by the ACMD, which research into various aspects of drug and drug abuse.

  Q1203  Adam Afriyie: Do they look at the class of a drug and the crime associated with that and the correlation between them?

  Mr Coaker: There is an obvious example with respect to that recently. As Phil was saying, we will come back to the methylamphetamine. Cannabis is an example of a drug that they looked at and did some research into. Ketamine is another one that recently the Technical Committee looked at and, obviously, date rape. So there are a number of research projects which are going on at the present time, looking into various drugs—both recently and now.

  Q1204  Chairman: Coming back to the ABC classification, in January the then Home Secretary announced that a consultation paper on the ABC classification system would be published within a few weeks. It has still not been published. Why?

  Mr Coaker: I am sorry, could you repeat the question?

  Q1205  Chairman: In January the then Home Secretary Charles Clarke announced that a consultation paper on the ABC classification system would be published within a few weeks. There was obviously a concern about it at that time. Why has it not happened?

  Mr Coaker: Two things. First of all, the Home Secretary—in post for four weeks—has not yet taken a decision on how to proceed with the review of the classification system. With respect to the consultation document which is in draft form in the department, the view is that we will need to wait until such time as we decide how to proceed with respect to the review of the classification system and also, similarly, wait for the report of this Committee—which we want to take into account in determining the best way forward.

  Q1206  Chairman: That is a very honest reply, if I may say so.

  Mr Coaker: I am trying to be helpful.

  Q1207  Chairman: Of course you are. Do you think, as the minister responsible now, the classification system should be directly related to the penalties for possession and trafficking? Do you think there should be that direct relationship between classification and penalties?

  Mr Coaker: I think that the classification system is based on harm, and there is a relationship therefore between harm and the penalties that should be apportioned to them, according to that classification. Yes, I do. Class A drugs, for example, are regarded as the most dangerous drugs and therefore in that sense the penalties associated with possession, supply, et cetera, correlate to that degree of harm.

  Q1208  Chairman: So the greater the degree of harm of the drug should then attract the highest penalty?

  Mr Coaker: That is a matter for the courts in the end, as to what they actually think; but certainly that is the way the legal system is based—on the potential harm.

  Q1209  Chairman: Do you support that? Do you support that classification equals penalty?

  Mr Coaker: Classification equals the degree of penalty which is available to the courts.

  Bob Spink: Could I get clarification? Will methylamphetamine be reclassified as a Class A drug?

  Chairman: You can answer that when we get on to that section.

  Q1210  Mr Newmark: Is there a need for a more scientifically based scale of harm to be developed to facilitate education and debate, with an emphasis on a scientifically based scale of harm?

  Mr Coaker: I referred earlier to the way the ACMD—which is the statutory body that we have to consult—have a harm index, which includes taking into account some of the scientific evidence that it gets. It also takes into account social harms, and so on. So there is a degree of assessment which is made, according to the matrix that they use.

  Q1211  Mr Newmark: That is a form of matrix. I am talking specifically on the science of harm itself.

  Mr Coaker: But they will receive reports; they will receive evidence; they will look at various things that are happening, and get people coming to them to talk to them. So scientists will come to them and talk to them about their scientific beliefs, their research. People will come to them with reports about what they think about particular things. The ACMD can take that into account when they are determining the way forward. The science plays an important part in the determination of the ACMD's conclusions.

  Q1212  Mr Newmark: I am not sure if you have answered my question but, given that you put great stock in the ACMD, how do you respond to findings by experts, including the chairman of the ACMD Technical Committee, that tobacco and alcohol are more harmful than LSD and Ecstasy, both of which are classified as Class A drugs?

  Mr Coaker: There is an important point to make about the ACMD. We put great store in what they say. We listen carefully to the comments that they make. However, it is not a cosy relationship; it is a challenging relationship. They will challenge us in a whole variety of areas. I think that is as it should be. It is an independent body. It is a body whose opinions we respect, and we try to work closely with them.

  Q1213  Mr Newmark: Do you disagree then that tobacco and alcohol are not as harmful as those two particular drugs?

  Mr Coaker: Alcohol and tobacco are legal drugs, and they operate within the framework of our society.

  Q1214  Mr Newmark: But they are very harmful, are they not?

  Mr Coaker: They are harmful in many respects, if abused—or alcohol, if abused. But they are socially acceptable drugs; they are drugs that most of us, particularly with respect to alcohol, will use sensibly. If we are looking at the real issues of society, alcohol and tobacco clearly are issues which, if abused—alcohol if abused, and smoking, as we know, is harmful—we are trying to combat, in terms of the abuse of alcohol and, in terms of smoking, trying to reduce that as well. However, they are legal drugs and we have to look at them within the context of the society in which we all live.

  Q1215  Mr Newmark: How will that sort of thinking that is coming out of these experts influence future policy decisions on crime, with respect to drugs, crime and public health?

  Mr Coaker: In terms of where we have particular representations made about drugs which are harmful, where they are talking to us about different things, then—as I was saying earlier in reply to Adam—that is the other aspect of drug policy, which has to be an enforcement policy. There has to be a policy which is out there, trying to tackle the supply and those people who deal in it on the streets. We have taken a number of measures in order to try to deal with that as well. For example, if you look at the recently established Serious and Organised Crime Agency, that has, as a very real focus and as one of its top priorities, the tackling of the supply of drugs.

  Q1216  Mr Newmark: Why is it that in the UK spending on addiction research is so much lower per head than, for example, in the US? Is this a reflection of it being a lower priority over here versus over in the States?

  Mr Coaker: We massively increased the spending on drugs, on trying to tackle the harm which drugs are causing in our communities. The drug treatment programmes, the establishment of the various projects that we have, have seen a massive increase in spending.

  Q1217  Mr Newmark: And when it comes to addiction research?

  Mr Coaker: With respect to addiction, there are priorities that people have. The health service and all the other bodies have seen big increases in spending. Do we want to see more spending on that sort of research? I think that is a legitimate question to ask and something we should look at.

  Q1218  Mr Newmark: So would you like to see more money spent on it?

  Mr Coaker: I think that it is something we should look at, yes.

  Q1219  Mr Newmark: Do you feel that the lack of evidence in this area is actually an impediment to evidence-based policymaking itself?

  Mr Coaker: You have taken evidence from the ACMD, but I think that they would say that their advice to us is evidence based. They take evidence from a variety of sources and, in taking that evidence, they make recommendations to us. I think they would say that the various reports that come to us, the various recommendations that they make, are based on evidence which they have taken and considered.


 
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