21 April 2008

Brown v the ACMD - cannabis is the side show

Within the next week, we can expect the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to publish their recommendations regarding cannabis. They have been asked to consider if, in light of existing research, they feel that it should remain in Class C or if it should be moved back to Class B. Following their report, the Government should make a decision as to whether it will follow or reject the ACMD’s recommendations.

According to media reports, both the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister have made it clear that they favour a move back from Class B to Class C. And media reports have also suggested that the ACMD is satisfied with cannabis in Class C. The truth of all these media assertions will, doubtless, be resolved very shortly.

What the ACMD actually decides is almost, now, a moot point. Thanks to the Home Office’s tinkering with the Classes when cannabis was reclassified, there is precious little difference between Class B and Class C anymore. They both carry a maximum sentence of fourteen years for supply (it used to be 14 for Class Bs and 5 for Cs) and possession of either Bs or Cs is an arrestable offence – previously possession of Class Cs was not an arrestable offence.

The only significant change with a move from C back to B would be an increase in the maximum penalty for possession increasing from two years to five years. But in practice these larger sentences would not be used for simple possession.

Everything else – how cannabis is policed, the awareness raising that accompanies it, the market that produces and supplies it – will remain the same.

The production and supply of cannabis can carry a maximum of fourteen years: this penalty will remain the same even if cannabis is reclassified. So there will be no increased deterrent by moving it from C to B as far as production is concerned. In a country now dominated by large-scale organised growers, reclassification will have no impact on the production end.

Use of cannabis has not increased in the past four years; indeed there is some evidence that it has declined, and there is no evidence that a move back to B would hasten this decline.

But really this is all a side argument. The real question should be whether the Prime Minister will follow the advice of the experts at the ACMD or for one of the handful of times in the past 30 years, he will ignore their advice and follow his own feelings on the matter.

In a field currently swamped by lobby and campaign groups with a variety of vested interests, the importance of the ACMD cannot be underestimated. Unlike the rest, this is not merely a lobbying group with a drum to beat. Established by Statute under the Misuse of Drugs Act, the ACMD is intended to provide a neutral, expert and influential body to advise Ministers. The drafters of the MDA clearly recognised that drugs policy was a political and moral hot potato. To avoid it being thrown around in the interests of political expediency, the ACMD provides expertise. Government has no obligation to follow this advice, but if they don’t they presume to know better than their own experts.

Given the current political climate, it has probably never been more important that there is an independent body to advise on drugs. We have the perfect storm of a party slumping in the polls, days before the local elections, and a leader who is unpopular and indecisive. How Brown must yearn to reclassify cannabis tomorrow – to garner some positive media coverage as a decisive protector of youth.

Unfortunately for him and fortunately for us, the ACMD report may only come out at the end of April. This will probably be late in the day for Brown to use any decision therein to bolster Labour’s political chances. Not that this will stop the leaks or media briefings that indicate Brown will reclassify regardless of the ACMDs stance. In the run up to the election this could be the ONLY comment emerging from Downing Street.

Post election, maybe, just maybe, cooler heads will prevail. Good or bad election result, the reclassifying of cannabis will be a moot point from an electoral point of view (unless the election result triggers a decision to call a snap general election – though this doesn’t seem likely.) In such a less fraught environment, Brown can side-step the controversy by following the ACMDs advice.

If the Home Secretary decides to disregard the ACMD the reaction of the ACMD is of critical importance. They cannot simply stand by and brief anonymously. There should instead be a whole-scale set of resignations by the Chair, and other members. This should send a clear message to the Government – the ACMD is there for a reason and it must be heeded.

Such a decision for mass resignations should not of course be taken lightly, and nor is it anything to do with cannabis. It must be done to highlight that when a Government decides to disregard the evidenced position of their own experts, then those experts should recognise that this Government considers them superfluous. If the Government would rather choose to listen to Daily Mail columnists, parent-activists and pollsters rather than a diverse panel of experts, then those experts should show their disdain for the process by resigning. To carry on without any such complaint would be to provide endorsement to this decision and facilitate the next decisions made in the face of the evidence.

In tendering their resignations, the ACMD can demonstrate just how critical it is that decisions on drugs policy are not left to politicians.

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