01 November 2006

Some very selective hearing....How the Home Office, the ACMD, Science and Technology Committee and DfES all choose to hear only what they want to...

A couple of years ago, the Home Affairs Select Committee recomended that cannabis be moved from Class to Class C. The Home Office rejected many of the Home Affairs Select Committee's recomendations, such as the unequivocal "injecting rooms should be piloted without hesitation."

But, perhaps sensing youth votes or for other reasons, the Home Secretary proceeded to move
cannabis to Class C.

However, daunted by the barrage of criticism from the police and the media, David Blunkett fudged the process of reclassification, changing PACE to make posssession of Class C drugs an arrestable offence and increasing the penalties for supplying Class Cs.

In effect, although Cannabis was reclassified, all the rules about class C drugs were so altered as to make the reclassification virtually meaningless. This confusion was then reinforced by the ill-advised and unevenly ACPO guidance on policing cannabis, soon to be the subject of judicial review.

Blunkett and subsequent Home Secretaries have since come under intense pressure to revise the classification of Cannabis.

Charles Clarke was asked to consider moving cannabis back to Class B. Although his personal opinion was apparently that it should be moved back, he instead put the matter in the hands of the ACMD, and asked if, in light of 'new' research evidence of its impact on mental health, cannabis should be moved back to class B.

If he hoped that the ACMD would give him the answer that he wanted, Clarke was to be dissappointed as the ACMD said that cannabis should remain as a Class C drug. In a clear shot across the bows of the Home Secretary, members of the ACMD made it known that there could be high profile resignations from the ACMD if the Home Secretary simply disregarded their recommendations.

Faced with this, Charles Clarke followed the ACMD's lead, and left cannabis in Class C, but decided that there should be a review of the whole classification system, to ensure that the penalties and restrictions were appropriate and commensurate with risk.

This review was undertaken, as instructed, by the Science and Technology Committee. It reported in October this year, in a report which was highly critical of both the drug classification system and the ACMD. It concluded that the current classification system was not 'fit for purpose' and castigated the ACMD for its failure to highlight the inadequacies of the system to successive ministers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Home office and the ACMD didn't respond favourably to "Making a Hash of It." The Home Office rejected virtually all their recommendations; the ACMD issues a short, terse response using some very pointed language.

This spat reveals the very real problem at the heart of the UK's drugs policy. It lacks cohesion, direction or an evidence base. It is being pulled in different directions by various parties, rather than having the intellectual and policy foundations shaped by expertise and evidence.

The ACMD should be making recomendations to Ministers, and these should be put before Parliament. It is not for the Home Secretary to pick and choose what measures are, or are not taken forward. The ACMD for example said they recomended against the use of Sniffer Dogs or drug testing in schools. Yet the DfES are continuing to take forward a drug testing pilot in Kent - in direct contradiction of the ACMDs response.

Likewise, in their report on Drug Deaths, the ACMD called for a pilot for drug consumption rooms, a call echoed by the Home Affairs Select Committe and more recently by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

But despite evidence and recomendations from these respected bodies, the Home Office rejected these calls on the most cursory of grounds.

If we are truly to have an evidence-based drugs policy, we should be listening more closely to the ACMD. But in turn the independence of the ACMD should be more carefully protected. We grow more and more concerned that its composition will be more closely controlled and vetted by the Government of the day, and therefore more likely to produce "Government-friendly recommendations." This would be a disaster for policy and practice.

Making A Hash of It - report
ACMD response
Home Office Response

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