Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1240-1259)

JOAN RYAN MP, AND MR VERNON COAKER MP

14 JUNE 2006

  Q1240  Margaret Moran: So there is a formal role for the Chief Scientific Adviser?

  Mr Coaker: As I say, the Home Secretary will get the suggested people who should be on the committee or who should be members of it, and he will make the final decision.

  Q1241  Chairman: I would really like to know your views on this. The previous Home Secretary and the Chair of ACMD seemed to disagree about the role of ACMD in considering social harm. Charles Clarke said, ". . . clinical, medical harm is the advisory council's predominant consideration". That was backed up by Andy Hayman who said, "What is directing which classification a drug goes into is the scientific and medical harm". However, Sir Michael, who is the chairman, contradicted this by telling us that social harms were given "equal weight" in the committee's deliberations. What is your view?

  Mr Coaker: The committee's deliberations on it include social harm, and I think that is an important consideration.

  Q1242  Chairman: Sir Michael says, "given equal weight"; the previous Home Secretary said no to that and Andy Hayman said no to that. What is your view?

  Mr Coaker: My view on it is that the committee have a number of things that they consider alongside social harm. They consider physical harm, withdrawal, pleasure, and so on. So they take a number of things into account as well as social harm. I think that the balance the ACMD currently has is right.

  Q1243  Chairman: So you agree with Sir Michael rather than the previous Home Secretary?

  Mr Coaker: No, I agree with what was being said before—the previous Home Secretary—that it is the balance, where you have physical harm, pleasure, withdrawal, as well as social harm.

  Q1244  Chairman: No, the previous Home Secretary said, ". . . clinical, medical harm is the advisory council's predominant consideration". You agree with that, and not Sir Michael Rawlins, who says that the whole issue of social harm should in fact be given equal weight.

  Mr Coaker: Social harm should be included in the research harm index which they do, which it currently is. So I agree with what Sir Michael is saying: that it is not only social harm; it is physical harm; it is pleasure; it is all of those sorts of things. That is the matrix that the ACMD currently use to help prioritise what their decisions are.

  Q1245  Chairman: You agree with both of them, but they take contrary positions. That is not tenable.

  Mr Coaker: No, what I am saying is that the research matrix, the harm index that the ACMD currently use, is a tested thing. Social harm is a part of that. It has a number of priorities within it, and social harm is one of those; but, alongside that, physical harm, pleasure and withdrawal also have to be used. So Sir Michael is right in pointing out that those are the things that they use to consider their decisions.

  Q1246  Chairman: In terms of the role of the Association of Chief Police Officers, we were somewhat confused by the response we had from Andy Hayman about the role of ACPO on the committee. Do you feel that ACMD should consider evidence from the police in its deliberations, or is it for ministers to integrate that advice from police with advice from ACMD? We were concerned that he did not see it as his role to initiate anything on ACMD, even though he is representing all the police forces in the UK. What is your view?

  Mr Coaker: My view on it is that Andy Hayman and indeed Howard Roberts, another senior police officer who is on the ACMD, play a very important role on the ACMD. I think the role that they bring to it is the knowledge they have of policing and law enforcement in this particular area. It is that professional expertise which they are bringing to the committee, and that sits alongside all the other sorts of people you have on that. My own view is that, as well as reflecting the view of the police, they bring an independent voice to it, which is about law enforcement and the practical implications of the policies that the ACMD are considering.

  Q1247  Chairman: Vernon, here is the rub. The police forces do collect evidence about the effects of drugs on the streets and how it interfaces with crime. They have that evidence. If we were going for evidence-based policy—and you have agreed that the ABC classification should in fact have a link between the degree of harm and punishment—surely the police, through their representatives, should be initiating advice to ACMD rather than just being there to comment on what is going through the committee?

  Mr Coaker: ACPO will—

  Q1248  Chairman: He said no. He specifically said no, that was not their role. He was there to deliberate rather than to initiate. I just want to know whether you think that he should be initiating rather than deliberating.

  Mr Coaker: If he is in the committee, he will be informing the committee of his view based on his experience and the experiences of the police forces throughout the country. That is part of why he is there. He is there as a voice of police experience, if you like, as is Howard Roberts.

  Q1249  Chairman: That is not the point I am making. The point I am making is that, if we are looking at evidence-based policy here, the police have a vast amount of evidence to bring to the committee. That does not appear to be happening. Do you think that it should?

  Mr Coaker: You would expect and hope that the police are bringing that knowledge and experience of dealing with these issues to the committee. In my view, that would be why they are there: to bring that experience, knowledge and understanding to the committee—both with Andy Hayman and with Howard Roberts. Clearly ACPO sometimes, outside of that, will come to us about other matters and other issues.

  Q1250  Dr Iddon: Could you confirm to us this morning that the Government is considering reducing the amount of all drugs, including cannabis, which individuals will be allowed to carry and bring them at risk of being charged, instead of with possession of the drug, with possession with intent to supply a drug? That brings a maximum sentence of 14 years in jail, of course.

  Mr Coaker: As you will know, as a result of the Drugs Act, at the present time we are considering what the thresholds should be, in terms of coming to a conclusion as to what it should be for presumption of supply. No decisions have been made at the present time; but we are looking at that, yes.

  Q1251  Dr Iddon: Will Parliament get a chance, either on the floor of the House or in delegated committee, to debate any changes, or can the Home Secretary do this without consultation?

  Mr Coaker: No, it is affirmative resolution, so it will have to come before the House with respect to determining these thresholds.

  Q1252  Dr Iddon: Will there be wide consultation with outside agencies before any decisions are made?

  Mr Coaker: We have already consulted with different people. There was a consultation exercise which started in January and ran till March. Those consultations are currently being considered and, just recently, we have had the ACMD letter come back to us which has given us their view. We will take their view into account, and we will take into account the other consultations which took place in the three-month consultation period, before coming to a decision as to what we should do.

  Q1253  Dr Iddon: We have changed the classification of cannabis from B to C; we are now considering changing it back again, from C to B. We are considering changing the amounts that people can carry, related to the charges that might be imposed upon them, and the previous Home Secretary agreed to look at the classification of drugs. Would it not be sensible if all this were done together, rather than in a piecemeal fashion?

  Mr Coaker: We are trying to move forward with a coherent drugs strategy. No decision has been made as to how we move forward with respect to the review of the classification system. The Home Secretary has yet to make a decision on how we proceed with that. We are required by the Drugs Act to come to a decision about determining the thresholds at which we have to presume it is supply. There has been widespread consultation on that. With respect to cannabis, you will know that that was recently confirmed as a Class C drug—although, I emphasise, an illegal drug. Whatever system you have in place, there will always be issues which arise with respect to this. There will always be people who have opinions about what should happen—quite rightly, because it is a very important and serious matter—but there will be people who will argue and disagree about different aspects of it. We have a drugs strategy; we are moving forward on it, and we are taking decisions as and when appropriate.

  Q1254  Dr Iddon: However, I think you would agree with me that the worst thing we can do is to confuse the public, and particularly the young people in the public.

  Mr Coaker: With my background, I know how particularly important that is. I think it is very important for us to say from this Committee that, whatever the arguments there were about cannabis, it remains an illegal drug. That is the message we have been putting out from the Home Office. That is the message that I have continued to put out in the various road shows I have been to and will continue to go to; and that is the message that I will continue to push.

  Q1255  Dr Iddon: What evidence do you or the Home Office have that led you to classify magic mushrooms as some of the most dangerous substances, aligned with cocaine and heroin? They are not addictive, of course.

  Mr Coaker: The whole debate about magic mushrooms was really not with respect to classification; it was trying to clarify the law, and that is why it was changed in the Drugs Act. You know that psilocin, which is the active ingredient, is a Class A drug; but the problem with it was within fresh or natural mushrooms. We saw a huge increase in the number of people who were importing magic mushrooms into the country. There was a big increase in that. There was therefore a concern that there was a loophole in the law with respect to psilocin being got—for want of a better way of putting it—through this loophole. People were able to get psilocin through this loophole. We felt it important therefore, since psilocin is a Class A drug—and there was clearly a problem out there, there was a huge increase in the import of it—for us to take action. So we saw it as a clarification of the law rather than any classification change.

  Q1256  Dr Iddon: We seem to have agreement between the Committee and yourself this morning that classification according to the ABC system is according to harm—50% harm to the individual, 50% harm to the society. That is what the ACMD have told us. If that is the case, psilocin and psilocybin are not sold in shops and are not available on the street. I have not met anybody in my capacity as chairman of the Misuse of Drugs Group who uses them. I do not know a single person who has been harmed by them. Why are psilocin and psilocybin therefore in Class A?

  Mr Coaker: Because that is the advice: that they were powerful hallucinogenic drugs, and that is why they were categorised with respect to that.

  Q1257  Chairman: But we are supposed to have an evidence-based policy. That is the point that Brian is making. There is no evidence at all to show that these have the degree of harm which should put them into Class A.

  Mr Coaker: What we are saying is that, should they be used, they are harmful drugs. They are Class A on the basis of the harm that they would cause were they to be used. We saw huge increases in the numbers of magic mushrooms which were being imported—naturally grown mushrooms, which were outside of the law—which would suggest that, if they were being imported in increasing numbers, somebody out there was using them, because people would be bringing them in to—

  Q1258  Chairman: There is absolutely no evidence about that.

  Mr Coaker: The police were saying to us that clearly, if you have this increase in imported magic mushrooms, they are being imported for a purpose. The law with respect to psilocin is that it is a Class A drug. We were worried that this was a loophole and we have closed that loophole. On the basis of clarifying the law—as was made in one of the court judgments in 2004, somewhere in Gloucestershire I think it was, in Gloucester Crown Court—we were asked to do that, which is what we did.

  Q1259  Dr Iddon: You have moved drugs up and down this classification. Bob is going to come to one that you have moved up. You have moved cannabis down. Why has nobody looked at psilocin and psilocybin in the classification, decided that they are not causing harm to society or individuals, and moved them down? In which case, magic mushrooms would not be in Class A with a maximum penalty of 14 years' jail.

  Mr Coaker: The opportunity for drugs to be looked at will always be there, and that issue is there; but at the current time there are no plans to reclassify it. Those drugs are Class A drugs. No doubt people will have heard what you have had to say this morning and consider the evidence; but, as I say, that is where they are at the moment. There was a loophole in the law which we wanted to close.


 
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