Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by Dr Mark Monaghan, School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds (DP102)

May I first begin by expressing my belief that an inquiry into drugs is a welcome development. Please find enclosed a completed submission. This makes two key, interrelated points to which I would like to draw the attention of the committee. The first is that the whole process by which evidence is used (or not) in decision-making needs to become more transparent. As it stands it is unclear as to how certain kinds of evidence find their way into policy documents and others do not. The second point is that the process of drug policy formulation in government is in need of being streamlined with the appointment of a drug strategy coordinator overseeing policy development in this area.

I would also like to put on record that I would welcome the opportunity to expand on any of the points raised in the oral evidence sessions.

Executive Summary

The advantages of evidence-based policy making are clear to most people, yet the process by which evidence is selected in policy lacks clarity. Evidence does not speak for itself and thus policy formulation needs to be more transparent and accountable so that the evidence that is used in decision-making can be made open to scrutiny. The transfer of data/evidence/knowledge from research producers to research users is an issue that has vexed academics and policy makers for a long time and the connection is made more difficult in heavily politicised areas such as drugs. This submission argues that the Government should be committed to the evidence agenda and to developing policies on the best available research data with the full recognition that this is not always an easy task. In addition, the process through which evidence is used and policy is formulated within government in the area of drugs is in need of reform. This should involve the removal of the drugs brief from the Home Office and the creation of an office of an independent drug strategy coordinator.

1. Mark Monaghan is a lecturer in social policy and crime at the University of Leeds. His ESRC-funded PhD studentship followed the scientific and political battles through which cannabis classification decisions were made in the UK in last decade. Mark has researched and published on drugs policy. His recent monograph Evidence versus Politics: Exploiting Research in UK Drug Policy? was published in 2011 by Policy Press. Mark is an Associate Editor of the Journal Evidence & Policy. This submission is based on his ongoing research in the area of evidence-based drug policy formulation.

2. The decision by the Committee to take a comprehensive review of drugs policy is welcome. The reasoning behind decision-making should be open to scrutiny and parliamentary select committees are well placed to undertake such a task. It is, furthermore, a positive sign that this review intends to be wide-ranging. This short submission, however, focuses on one key area under consideration:

(a) The independence and quality of expert advice which is being given to the government

3. In recent years evidence-based policies have become the yardstick by which most policies are judged. The advantages of evidence-based policy making are clear to most people. The Government Office for Science recently stated that “The UK is respected internationally for ensuring that the right evidence is acquired and brought to bear on issues”. But more needs to be done to ensure that policy makers have access to the best scientific evidence and advice and are therefore in a position to make the best decisions about the challenges… facing the country (Government Office for Science, 2009, 1).

4. Evidence does not, however, speak for itself and thus policy needs to be transparent and accountable. As it stands, it is something of a mystery as to how certain kinds of evidence survive the policy process and so become used in policy decision-making. Professor Stevens’ (2011) account of his time in a major government department is one of a small number of studies to shed light on this issue, but as the recent Royal Society of Arts (RSA) (2007) report noted: “At the level of national government, it is not clear at the moment how ministerial groups like the Serious and Organised Crime and Drugs Cabinet Committee, the Drugs Working Group or the Drug Strategy Delivery Group operate. Nor is it evident how effective they are.”

5. As somebody who has spent the last eight years researching this area, it appears that if evidence is being considered in policy, this does not take place on a level playing field, nor is it consistent. The range of stakeholders involved in all stages of drug policy formulation are widespread. They include politicians, civil servants and the ACMD. Various groups and NGOs from civil society are important players as are the police and criminal-justice professionals and various health professions. The chances of influencing decision-making, however, depend on how receptive politicians and policy makers are to the evidence and ideas supplied by the various groups and organisations.

6. The location of the drugs brief in the Home Office for the majority of the time since 1971 has meant that certain kinds of evidence—those from criminal-justice agencies—enjoy particular salience in the development of contemporary drug policy. Research has shown that evidence that fits in with the “world view” of the decision-makers is more likely to be utilised in decision-making at the expense of evidence that challenges the existing status quo, but that this is not a foregone conclusion. (Stevens, 2007; Monaghan, 2008), Recent debates over the evidence-base for the drug classification system and the place of cannabis (and ecstasy) therein are testament to this and are concentrated on here. Other examples—such as the continued investment in supply-side interventions as a means of tackling the drug problem; the continued focus on drug-related crime and the development of quasi-compulsory treatment to counter this—could also be cited as areas where policy-makers proclaim policies to be evidence-based but where the rhetoric does not always match the reality.

7. On one level the 2004 reclassification of cannabis from class B to class C was an evidence-based decision. This heralded a subtle, but significant change in UK drug policy. Advice was sought from across the policy spectrum. There were two initial triggers for this change. Firstly, a number of high-profile inquiries into drug policy and legislation which occurred in and around this time, both domestically and internationally highlighting the relatively benign nature of cannabis vis-à-vis other prohibited substances. The Police Foundation (2000) inquiry into the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, also known as the Runciman Report, suggested that in terms of its toxicity or harmfulness, it was not comparable with either class A or B drugs. This was supported by subsequent inquiries of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee (2002) and the ACMD (Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs) (2002).

8. The second and main trigger was a governmental concern with public service efficiency. The Police Foundation Report (2000) also recommended that cannabis be reclassified from a class B to a class C drug, making cannabis possession a non-arrestable offence (except in aggravated circumstances). It was perceived that this would reduce the number of “otherwise law abiding, mainly young people” being criminalised and potentially receiving a custodial sentence to the detriment of their futures (Police Foundation 2000:7). It was also perceived that this could free up police time, enabling them to concentrate on issues associated with class A drugs.

9. In 2004 cannabis was reclassified under the watch of the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett. In March 2005, his successor Charles Clarke announced that the reclassification would be placed “under review”. In doing so, Clarke was concerned about whether high-potency strains of cannabis such as “skunk”, should be given a higher classification as studies had shown how these had been linked with the increased risk of developing schizophrenia (eg Arsenault, et al, 2004). In January 2006, the ACMD (2005) published its review, stating that the initial reclassification should remain, thus maintaining cannabis as a class C substance.

10. Whilst David Blunkett and Charles Clarke had differing appreciations over what “evidence” should count, it was clear that evidence was very much a part of these policy decisions. Within weeks of assuming office, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that the classification of cannabis would again be referred back to the ACMD. The ACMD (2008) concluded that although the council was still “very concerned” that cannabis use was widespread and a genuine health threat to users, they pointed out that it was a “public health” problem that requires a public health solution. They also stated that—the major emphasis must be directed at ways that the demand for drugs could be reduced, but that that cannabis should remain a class C drug. This was based on the fact that although there is recognition of a consistent, though weak correlation from longitudinal studies between cannabis use and the development of certain psychotic illnesses including schizophrenia, little evidence exists of the social harms associated and its association with acquisitive crime and anti-social behaviour.

11. In 2009 it was announced, however, that cannabis would be reclassified back up to class B. This was the origin of the dispute between Professor Nutt and the New Labour Government. The government’s main support in this decision came from the Magistrates association, reaffirming the point that criminal-justice related lobbies are powerful in drug policy development. As the evidence-base for policing, health and social harms had not altered significantly over the course of the previous decade, it is impossible to draw any other conclusion that the decision to classify cannabis back up to a class B drug was a political one and not supported by the groundswell of evidence. This is frustrating as hitherto a commitment to evidence use had been prominent in the decision-making process; something not always the case in heavily politicised policy areas like drugs.

12. How can the research and policy connection be improved? The transfer of data/evidence/knowledge from research producers to research users is an issue that has vexed academics and policy makers for a long time. The main issues surround timing in that it takes a long time for research to be done, yet policy-makers require almost instant access to information. Research is often presented in lengthy reports with numerous caveats, yet policy-makers require bullet pointed summaries. Ultimately, some simplification of the process in central government would be beneficial. One way to achieve this would be to give the responsibility to a “drug strategy coordinator” who is invested with the power to make the relevant departments involved in policy delivery accountable. This would demark the position from the previous “drug czar” experiment. As far as possible the position would have to be filled by an independent candidate. One of the major problems of formulating drug policy is that it takes place in a febrile, highly politicised atmosphere. Depoliticising the issue is necessary. This is not depoliticisation in the manegerialist sense that accompanied much public-sector reform of the 1980s and 1990s, but something more akin to “taking the heat out of the debate”.

13. In sum, those responsible for drug policy need to be committed to a scientific and social scientific, evidence-based approach. Drugs is an issue that crosses departmental boundaries and should be conceived as a general social policy issue. Currently, because of its location in the Home Office, it appears that if evidence is being considered in policy, this does not take place equitably. Furthermore, the current system does not ensure accountability. Only recently in the UK have steps been taken to make the drug policy making process more transparent. In 2006 the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (2006) criticised the ACMD for failing to host its meetings in public, which brought about change in this state of affairs. Additionally, although there are warranted grounds for politicians to ignore the advice of their advisors, scientific or otherwise, the process through which government’s respond to advisors needs to be less opaque and again some accountability needs to be brought into this process.

References

Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (2002). The Classification of Cannabis under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971), London: Home Office.

Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (2005) “Further Consideration of the Classification of Cannabis Under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971)”, London: Home Office.

Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (2008) “Cannabis: Classification and Public Health”, London: Home Office.

Arseneault, L, Cannon, M, Witton, J and Murray, R M (2004). “Causal Association Between Cannabis and Psychosis: Examination of the Evidence”, British Journal of Psychiatry 184(2): 110–117.

Government Office for Science (2009). Science and engineering in government: An overview of the government’s approach. London: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

House of Commons Home Affairs Committee (2002). “The Government’s Drugs Policy: Is it Working?” London: Home Office.

House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (2006b). “Drug Classification: Making a Hash of It?” London: The Stationary Office.

Monaghan, M. (2008) Appreciating cannabis: the paradox of evidence in evidence-based policy making, Evidence and Policy 4 (2) 209–31

Police Foundation (2000). Drugs and the Law: Report of the Inquiry into the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971), London: The Police Foundation.

Stevens, A (2007). “Survival of the ideas that fit: an evolutionary analogy for the use of evidence in policy”, Social Policy and Society 6(1): 25–35.

Stevens, A (2011). “Telling policy stories: an ethnographic study of the use of evidence in making policy on drugs and crime, Journal of Social Policy, 40 (2) 237–55.

The ideas contained in this submission are spelt out in further detail in the following publication: Evidence Versus Politics: Exploiting Research in UK Drug Policy Making? Monaghan, M (2011). Bristol: Policy Press.

January 2012

Prepared 8th December 2012