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Westminster Hall

Thursday 14 June 2007

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Drug Classification

[Relevant documents: Fifth Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2005-06, HC1031, the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6491, and follow-up evidence to the Committee, Session 2006-07, HC65-i.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.[Liz Blackman.]

2.30 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I am pleased to speak in this packed Chamber to open the debate on the Science and Technology Committee’s report, “Drug classification: making a hash of it?” Our report, on the classification of illegal drugs, was part of an overarching inquiry. Although it stood as a one-off piece, it was also part of a major piece of work that the Committee did on scientific advice and risk and evidence-based policy making in government.

We chose to examine drug classification for a variety of reasons, but mainly because the misuse of illegal drugs is a major public health, criminal and social problem. That was confirmed in the recent Reuter-Stevens report for the UK Drug Policy Commission, which concluded:

That was a powerful statement to make and it is why everybody in the Chamber takes the issue seriously.

The classification system plays a key role in directing Government resources for tackling illegal drugs. About 75 per cent. of the total budget in the area is spent on enforcing drug laws, at the heart of which is the drug classification system. At the heart of our inquiry was a simple question: is the system fit for purpose? As such, we examined in detail the role played by the Government’s scientific advisory committee on the matter, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

Given the highly critical nature of our report, the responses from both the Government and the ACMD were extremely disappointing. The Government rejected more than half our conclusions and recommendations, and the response from the ACMD was unnecessarily aggressive. We felt that large elements of our report were totally misunderstood and misrepresented.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): As a member of the Committee, I share my hon. Friend’s analysis of the Government and ACMD responses. It is worth noting that, in a follow-up session, the chairman of the ACMD accepted that the grumpiness of its response was over the top. The ACMD at least recognised that, but perhaps the Government did not recognise quite so well the shortcomings in their own response.

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Mr. Willis: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Indeed, when Professor Sir Michael Rawlins and Professor David Nutt came before our Committee, as did the Minister, we received some clarification. However, it is fair to say that even after that meeting, many of our key recommendations were not accepted. We found that frustrating, because the issue is hugely important. We hope that, having had time to reflect on the report, the Minister will be able to provide us with more hope. I for one know that he is as anxious as any hon. Member to tackle the multi-billion-pound evil of the illicit drug trade and arrest the huge social damage caused by drug misuse.

My task today as the Chairman of the Committee is to provide an overview of the key themes covered in the report, give a brief update on developments of relevance and highlight some of the outstanding issues to be addressed by the Government. I am delighted to see two of my Committee colleagues here, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and the hon. Member for Bolton, South- East (Dr. Iddon), who is something of an expert. We look forward to hearing his contribution later.

I shall begin by addressing what I see as a lack of evidence supporting the current classification system. It was introduced in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and our attitudes to policing and punishment for possession and supply are scaled according to a drug’s classification. It is therefore essential that the classification is fit for purpose, but we found a range of anomalies in decision making about drug classification, some of which I am sure the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East will wish to refer to.

By way of example I shall focus on two particular drugs: magic mushrooms and ecstasy. Fresh magic mushrooms have been placed in class A, the highest level, despite an almost total lack of evidence to support that. There is a lack of evidence that such classification reflects the harms associated with their misuse or even that they are being misused. The chairman of ACMD told us that the active substances in magic mushrooms were psilocin and psilocybin, and that they were highly dangerous. Nobody particularly disputes that, but he went on to say:

It is surely unacceptable that drugs are in particular classes just because they have always been there. We are relying on classifications made more than 30 years ago, when there was less concern about the evidence base supporting policy. The 1971 Act does not specify why particular drugs were placed in different classes, and the then Home Secretary James Callaghan said that the Government had attempted in the Bill to put drugs

That was in 1970. In many cases, therefore, we rely on a classification system based on what the Government thought then.

We also considered the classification of ecstasy and heard evidence from Professor Colin Blakemore, the chief executive of the Medical Research Council, who said that ecstasy was

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In a climate of evidence-based policy making, which is what the Government say underlines the policy process, one should therefore reasonably be able to assume that the classification of ecstasy would be reviewed and that, if appropriate it would be reclassified. However, even if there were a wealth of evidence undermining the classification, ecstasy would remain in class A, because the Government have no intention of reviewing or reclassifying it. The Government’s approach to ecstasy therefore appears to be entirely political rather than evidence-based. The Minister told us:

It seems pretty pointless to have an organisation that is there to do the very job of advising the Government if they say, “No matter what evidence you bring before us, we’re not even going to look at it.”

I would be interested to hear whether the Minister has changed his mind on the issue. If not, will he at least recognise that the decision to keep ecstasy in class A is political rather than evidence-based?

Dr. Harris: My hon. Friend is putting the case superbly; it really is a clear exposition of the dilemma. Judging from his work on the Committee, is he surprised that the ACMD has not yet got around to reviewing ecstasy? Does he think that the reason for that is that it knows it would undermine its credibility to do so, because the Government have given advance warning that they will not accept what the ACMD says? Does he agree that it is quite corrosive to the whole advisory system for the Government if committees do not believe that they can do work that they would otherwise do, because they will look stupid as the Government have pre-rejected their findings?

Mr. Willis: My hon. Friend tempts me to go in a direction that I do not want to pursue, other than to say that it is important that any advisory committee that is independent of the Government and that is offering independent advice should have a mind of its own. Perhaps I could leave it there.

If there is a lack of evidence to support the classification of particular drugs, does the classification system support other planks of Government drugs policy? It seems not. We found, for example, that there is no solid evidence to support the idea that there will be a deterrent effect if a drug is placed in a higher class. Our conclusion has since been echoed by the UK Drug Policy Commission, which says that the concept of a deterrent effect has

To be fair, the Government accepted that there is an absence of conclusive evidence on the deterrent effect and agreed to consider ways in which the evidence base for such an effect could be strengthened. I would like to ask the Minister, first, what steps have been taken to strengthen the evidence base, and secondly, if new evidence were to undermine the principle of the
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deterrent effect, would that have an impact on the current policy on classification?

Linked to the idea of the deterrent effect is the notion that classification can be used to send out messages. We have a number of concerns about that notion. The purpose of classification should be to categorise a drug according to the comparative harm, be that physical harm, dependence or social harm, that is associated with its misuse. That does not necessarily sit comfortably with the secondary aim of sending out messages. It must be one or the other.

In our report, we considered the example of methylamphetamine, or crystal meth. The Government kept it in class B because they were concerned that reclassification to class A might send out the message that crystal meth was a dangerous drug, thereby increasing interest in it and encouraging potential users. There was absolutely no evidence on which to base that conclusion. The ACMD told us that it was “a judgment call”. That example highlights the inconsistency of a classification system that at times relies on moving a drug to a higher class to deter potential users—the deterrent effect—as was the case with ecstasy.

It is worrying that a Government who claim to formulate evidence-based policies are content to use classification to send out signals to users without undertaking any research to establish the relationship between the class of the drug and the signal that is sent out. Given the inconsistencies in the classification system and the lack of evidence to support the principles on which it is founded, the Select Committee believes that it is not fit for purpose. We concluded in our report, and continue to maintain, that the current classification system is antiquated, arbitrary and ripe for revision.

Our findings are not surprising. We reiterated the findings of the Runciman report, which proposed that the classification system be reviewed, and the Home Affairs Committee’s 2002 report on drug policy, which recommended that LSD and ecstasy be reclassified. Our conclusions have recently been echoed by the newly formed UK Drug Policy Commission and the report of the RSA—Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce—commission on illegal drugs, “Drugs—facing facts”. The RSA calls the current classification system “arbitrary, confused and haphazard”

Despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary, the Government assert that the classification system discharges its function fully and effectively, and that it has stood the test of time. There is little evidence to support that assertion, and I ask the Minister whether he can provide such evidence this afternoon. Perhaps he could also explain something that has confused me: how can the Government have so much confidence in the current classification system when the chairman of the ACMD technical committee, Professor David Nutt, told the Select Committee that he does not think that

The very person who heads the technical committee of the Government’s ACMD says that the system is not fit for purpose. I look forward to the Minister’s response to Professor Nutt’s strong statement.

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Having found the current classification system to be inadequate, we rightly turned our attention to possible improvements. We recommended that the Government establish a more scientifically based scale of harm. We believe that that would have much greater credibility than the current system, in which classification decisions seem quite arbitrary.

Our proposals have considerable support. In March, a paper by Professor Nutt, Professor Colin Blakemore, the chief executive of the Medical Research Council, William Saulsbury of the Police Foundation and Leslie King of the Forensic Science Service—hardly lightweights in the field—was published in The Lancet. The paper proposed a nine-category matrix of harm that took account of physical harm, dependence and social harms—the very things that are at the heart of the Government’s policy. Its main findings rejected the crude rank ordering of drugs and their segregation into groups under the ABC classification system. Significantly, it found that tobacco and alcohol were in the top 10 higher-harm groups.

Also in March, an RSA report recommended that the Government replace the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 with a misuse of substances Act that focuses on the harms that drugs cause. Like our report and the paper in The Lancet, the RSA report recommended that there should be an index of substance-related harms that is based on the best available evidence and modified in the light of new evidence. I am keen to hear from the Minister whether he is willing to explore how a more scientifically based scale of harm could be used.

One element of our proposal for classification to be based on the scale of harm is the question of whether the classification system should continue to have a direct link to the criminal justice system, as it has had since 1971. During our inquiry, we heard from the chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers drugs committee that the classification system was only

That was said by the deputy chief of the Met.

When we discussed the issue with police officers in the United States, we heard that the lack of a direct link between schedules and penalties gave the police the freedom to focus resources as they saw fit, rather than being tied in by the classification. We therefore recommended that the Government decouple the ranking of drugs on the basis of harm from the penalties for possession and trafficking. We believe that such decoupling would mean that harms could be assessed objectively without having practical implications for the criminal justice system. The ranking of drugs could be changed frequently within a scientifically based scale of harm in response to new evidence without directly impacting on the system of penalties.

If the scientific scale of harm were not linked to penalties, it would also be possible to include tobacco and alcohol in the scale and thereby give the public a better sense of the relative harms involved. We believe that the public would be interested to know, as was pointed out in the paper in The Lancet, that alcohol is rated as more harmful than ketamine, amphetamines and tobacco, and that tobacco is rated as more harmful than cannabis, LSD and ecstasy. That is quite a startling statement.

We did not use our report to recommend an alternative approach to determining penalties, as that
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was not in our remit, but we suggested that possibilities could include a greater emphasis on the link between the misuse of a drug and criminal activity, or a clearer distinction between possession and supply. The Select Committee was in no way trying to undermine the very real problems that the Home Office and the police have in dealing with drug-related crime. They need greater powers rather than fewer powers, but such powers must be very much directed at the problem.

The Government rejected our recommendation to decouple penalties and harm ranking. They said that a fundamental purpose of the classification system was to provide a framework within which penalties are set with reference to the harm caused by a drug. If the Government choose to pursue that line and insist that penalties are coupled with the harm rating of drugs, it is even more important that the classification system is reviewed to ensure that it is robust and evidence-based.

We are extremely disappointed that a review of the classification system is unlikely to take place. We were expecting our report to feed into the review of the system announced on 19 January 2006 by the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke). Frustratingly, in their response to our report, the Government announced that they no longer intended to undertake a review, despite having got as far as producing a draft consultation document. Frankly, it was illogical and patronising to be told that the Government want to concentrate on their drugs strategy and that a review of classification would mean that people spent their time arguing about that instead of concentrating on

We hope that the Minister will say whether a future review is still possible and that it has not been completely rejected.

Before concluding my remarks, I should like briefly to comment on two other issues covered in the report: the role of the ACMD and the importance of research about drugs. In the report we considered the role of the ACMD and its relationship to Government. Despite the misunderstandings, I do not wish to go over old ground, so I will pick up three of the recommendations about the ACMD that were accepted by the Government.

First, the Home Office and the ACMD should establish a more systematic approach to reviewing the classification of individual drugs. We suggested that the Home Office and the ACMD draw up a list of criteria to be taken into account when determining whether the classification of a particular drug should be reviewed. The Government accepted that recommendation in principle, and Professor Nutt, chair of the technical committee, said that all drugs should be systematically reviewed on a regular basis, probably in a five-year cycle. Will the Minister say what work the Home Office has undertaken with the ACMD to establish a systematic review of current drug classifications?

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