29 November 2009

MMCAT Madness

The bulletin boards of the UK drug scene, the media and drug agencies are all talking about the same drug MMCAT (also known as mephedrone). For those readers unfamilar with this drug there's a briefing on the KFx website at http://www.kfx.org.uk/mmcat2009.pdf

MMCAT is a relative newcomer to the drugs scene and is probably one of the best examples of a true designer drug that has gone global in a couple of years. Developed and marketed in Israel in 2007, it started to crop up in the UK early 2008 and by late 2009 has reached a high level of market penetration.

Drug discussion boards, music and party sites are full of mephedrone discussion. It's become an increasingly popular stimulant, lawful to possess, Ecstasy-like effects and perceived safety all make it a drug likely to be the must-have as the festive season approaches.

The emergence of MMCAT highlights the inadequacies of current Government drugs policy and strategy. Despite the fact that MMCAT has been available for over two years, it has not been the subject to any assessment of risk, review, or any efforts made to regulate or control the trade.

In March 2009 the ACMD wrote to the Home Office http://drugs.homeoffice.gov.uk/ACMD_Letter_to_Home_Secreta1.pdf partly to tellthe Home Secretary that they had an Early Warning system to provide information about trends. On this occasion the system appears to be sadly lacking as, while the letter speaks of looking at Spice, it doesn't mention Mephedrone at all.

However, prodded in to action by a recent flurry of media interest, the Home Office was reported on Sky as saying "The ACMD are looking into it as a priority as part of their review into legal highs....they will report back next year and their advice will inform our response to these substances." http://news.sky.com/skynews/Home/UK-News/Party-Drug-Meow-Meow-Sold-Online-As-Mephedrone-Teenager-Gabi-Prices-Dies-After-Taking-Legal-High/Article/200911415468664?lpos=UK_News_First_Home_Article_Teaser_Region_7&lid=ARTICLE_15468664_Party_Drug_Meow_Meow_Sold_Online_As_Mephedrone%3A_Teenager_Gabi_Prices_Dies_After_Taking_Legal_High

However, with the ACMD currently without Chair, following the Home Office intemperate decision to sack Professor David Nutt, the festive season approaching and a general election after this, the odds are that it will be a good six months before any legislation can be put before Parliament.

The legislation alone could prove challenging. The UK has relatively wide ranging catch-all drug clauses within the Misuse Of Drugs Act, which covers many of the Phenylethylamine family of drugs. This legislation, widened after Ecstasy (MDMA) became popular, was intended to ensure drugs based around the same 'parent' as Ecstasy would also be illegal, even if they had molecular differences.

Now MMCAT is built on a cathinone base; this is the same compound present in Catha Edulis, the African plant Khat which is widely used in Sub-Saharan Africa. While Khat is currently legal in the UK, specific components and related compounds are not: so cathinone and methcathinone are controlled drugs. But compounds built on this base are not controlled. So chemists have been exploring a whole family of drugs - the beta ketones, which are not currently as tightly controlled as the Phenylethylamines.

So any legislative changes would need to be drafted carefully to ensure that they didn't simply create lots of new loopholes.

But this isn't really about legislation to 'control' MMCAT. More than anything MMCAT (and Spice before it) highlight the complete failure of the current control systems. The speed and development of new synthetics will continue to outpace the lumbering progress of Academics, media and politicians. Even if MMCAT is added to the list of controlled drugs, new products will not be far behind. The spread of knowledge, tools, markets and producer countries far outstrips the ability of States to control and remove them.

So for example, although precursor chemicals for many drugs (like Ecstasy and Amphetamine) are closely watched, the precursors for MMCAT are not, making it a relatively easy product to synthesise.

The extent to which producers and users are ahead of the curve, and the researchers and enforcement behind it is well illustrated by a look at some websites. So, for example the site Drugs Forum (http://www.drugs-forum.com/) has a massive compilation of user reports, product descriptions, advice, harm-reduction and dangers. It runs to several hundred pages of resources. In comparison there's a single page on the Government funded Frank website. In comparison you could probably count the number of academic texts or journal articles on one hand without using your thumb.

The inadequacies of the current system are also exemplified by the "no man's land" in which MMCAT suppliers find themselves. It's not a controlled drug so it can be lawfully supplied BUT it can't be supplied for consumption as it runs the risks of falling foul of the regulations relating to the supply of medicine. But the work-around - of labelling the products as "bath salts" or "plant food" and marking them "not for Human consumption" leaves users at greater risk. Rather than being able to accurately label products with dosage information and risks, suppliers use code to suggest how to use the substance. But this leaves much confusion.

Further, as the substances are not sold for "human consumption" there's no protection for consumers - and no holding suppliers to account. So we end up with the worst of all worlds: an unregulated market, no clear information on harm reduction, no consumer protection and a grey area that is in no-ones interest.

But if Government and the ACMD have acquitted themselved badly in the face of Mephedrone, little could be worse than some of the hyperbolic, inaccurate and hysterical media reporting over the past few weeks. Given a new drug, some linked fatalities and an absence of "authoritative information" the media has gone in to overdrive.

So for example the "Sun" reported that "Legal Drug Teen Ripped His Scrotum Off"
but the article backs this up by quoting the police who in turn support their claim, rather than through toxicology reports but through website chatter. So we don't know for example if another drug (e.g. Ketamine) was involved.

The Daily Mail have been worse still. When reporting the tragic death of 14-year old Gabrielle Price they reported that she had taken "plant fertiliser Mephedrone." It may be many things to many people, and although sold as a plant food is not any such thing.

But the Daily Mail is a shining light of journalistic excellence compared to the Evening Telegraph and Post

It quotes local councillor Bill Sangster who flies in the face of Police and Home Office opinion and says "It is illegal, harmful and can become addictive.” Well, two out of three ain't bad.

More ludicrous are the claims "According to the Levenmouth-based Drug and Alcohol Project Ltd., the mixture in the capsules is produced in varying colours to signify its composition and strength, although cocaine is believed to be the main ingredient.
Capsules are broken and the contents are snorted, placed on to the eyeball, or swallowed by the user, who experiences an immediate high described as mix between ecstasy and LSD."

This is either the most ill-informed drug service in the UK or the worst journalism, possibly both.

The article goes on to report that the tested capsules contained a low dose (0.191g) of MMCAT but this fact seems to have escaped the sub-Editor who allowed the rest of the drivel to be printed.

So given an ill-informed media, an unregulated substance, an ill-prepared Government and an impending festive season, we have an almost perfect storm. In the aftermath, there will almost certainly be moves to make MMCAT a controlled drug. But the wider systemic changes that need to be made won't be forthcoming and so this situation will happen again and again and again.

20 October 2009

Seeds of Destruction...

Hemp seeds, THC, False Positive Tests and Intransigence.

This is sad, cautionary, true story. It is intended to highlight a little-known hazard of hemp-seed products. The names the people and organisations involved have been changed.

In March 2009, a woman called Anna got in touch. She had lost her job, she claimed, because she had failed a random urine test at work. She had tested positive for cannabis metabolites. Her employer, a large national company with a strict drugs policy and testing regime, had dismissed her. With the help of her Union Rep she planned to challenge the dismissal. Could, she asked, we help?

She was adamant that she had not used any illict forms of cannabis. She was however a regular user of Hemp Seed Oil, a legal and highly regarded dietary therapy. Hemp Seed Oil is reputedly high in Essential Fatty Acids and Omega 3,6 and 9 EFAs. Could this have been the cause of her positive test result?

Anna had been using Hemp Seed Oil from a reputable herbal therapies supplier. They said that the amount of THC in their product was 6 ppm (parts per million). This alone would come as a suprise to most people, who assume that there is simply no THC in seeds. However, in cropping and processing, resin can adhere to the outside of the seeds. While careful washing and processing will remove the majority of this THC, a small amount will survive the processing and get incorporated in to the final product, albeit at very low doses. However, the website of the Herbal Remedies supplier makes no mention of this, even after Anna's experience, of which the company are aware.

Anna was taking up to six table-spoons of Hemp Seed oil a day - some 60ml/day at 6ppm THC. This would mean she was consuming around .35mg THC/day. This is well below a psychoactive dose, but would it be enough to trigger a positive urine result.

There is very little robust research on the subject of THC levels from use of Hemp Seed. Much of the research has been funded by manufacturers of Hemp Seed Oil, keen to disprove that Hemp Seed Oil could result in positive THC results. Attendant negative publicity would have damaged the Hemp Seed Oil market, something manufacturers were keen to avoid.

Fortunately one piece of robust research had addressed this problem, in a paper snappily entitled "Urinary Cannabinoid Detection Times after Controlled Oral Administration of 9-Tetrahydrocannabinol to Humans" Clinical Chemistry. 2003;49:1114-1124.
This paper reported that "The 0.39 and 0.47 mg/day doses produced maximum urine THCCOOH concentrations (cmax) of 7.3–38.2 and 5.4–31 µg/L, respectively, with mean times to the highest THCCOOH concentration (tmax) of 99.9 and 85.9 h, respectively."
The cut-off for a positive result used by the Labs used by Anna, and by her employers, was 15 µg/L, a level that Anna had just exceeded. But based on the Journal of Clinical Chemistry, a dose range of 0.39mg/day (a fraction higher than Anna's 0.35mg/day) produced results that ranged from 7.3-38.3 µg/L. At the high end this means the results would be more than double the cut-off used by her employees.

Based on these results it seemed very apparent that the Hemp Seeds could well have caused the positive results, especially when at high doses for a sustained period of time. In Anna's case this was more than six months: far longer that the time frame used in the clinical trials.

These results were submitted to the Appeals Board on Anna's behalf. We were optimistic that the Appeal would be successful based on the evidence submitted which was robust and scientific.
Amazingly, the appeal was not allowed. Her Employees didn't reject the evidence about the test results. Instead the company used their policy demand that "any medication which may affect a persons ability to undertake their duties must be disclosed at the earliest oppertunity." Anna hadn't disclosed her use of Hemp Oil. Why should she have done so? Nothing she had been told by the herbal supplier suggested that it would produce a positive drug result. And the THC levels present in the Oil wouldn't have affected Anna's ability to undertake her duties. So there was no need and no reason for her to have notified her employee of her Hemp Seed Oil usage.

Unfortunately her employees didn't see it this way; they argued that the Hemp Seed Oil, which resulted in a positive drug test, may have affected her ability to do her job, and so should have been disclosed to her employees at the earliest opportunity. As this hadn't happened, the dismissal was upheld.

As a result the woman in question lost a job that she enjoyed, and entered unemployment thanks to a flawed drug testing regime and an inflexible drugs policy.

I was furious on Anna's behalf. Her employer's inflexibility was astounding and an appeal to an Industrial Tribunal for unfair dismissal seemed the only way forward.

And at this point Anna taught me an important lesson. She decided that she wasn't going to let battling with her former employees ruin her life. After deciding not to appeal she wrote saying "So, now I can concentrate on finding a wonderful new job and of course carry on enjoying the life of a lady of leisure going for long summer walks and sitting in the garden reading long novels!"

Frankly I was blown away by Anna's ability to overcome the injustice and move on. So following her lead I have tried to do the same rather than raging on. But her story still needs to be shared. Because there may be other people who are using Hemp Seed Oil at risk of false positives. And there are still manufacturers of Hemp Seed Oil that don't warn there products can cause a positive drug test result; and there are Testing Labs that will swear blind that the positive test results and cut-offs could only come from cannabis abuse when this is just not the case. And there may be other employers who share the inflexibility and intransigence of Anna's.

On which note if, perchance, Anna's former employeres read this article, I hope that they will spare a moment for the wonderful person that they sacked, and ponder the stupidity of a policy that can't flex enough to cope with an unforseen situation like this in a sensible and humane way.

15 June 2009

First they came for the terrorists…

The news that Police Officers in Enfield have been suspended while investigations take place in to allegations of assault, ‘torture’ and misappropriation of property has been widely reported in the press. Coming on the back of reported Police excesses at the G20 protests, it is all too likely that it will get dismissed as just another local example of poor policing, an ‘isolated incident,’ rather than viewed as more of a systemic problem.

Because there is a bigger problem here. It’s one that organisations such as Liberty constantly warn us about, but is too often dismissed as liberal softness. It’s the risk that when ill-treatment, brutality or a suspension of Human Rights is suspended in one context, it starts the process of legitimising the same abuses further away from the original case. So behaviour that has become increasingly acceptable to some in the “war” on “terror” seeps, inexorably into the “war” on “drugs.”

Of course, the constant demonisation of drug users by politicians and the media has contributed to this process. Legislation has eroded the legal rights of drugs users to a greater extent than any other group in society, apart, possibly, from terrorists. While the police have largely balked from setting up Itemisers at the door of McDonald’s to search for people who have had contact with explosives, there’s no such hesitation at setting up such testing points at pubs and clubs. Thanks to the power of Closure Orders, a person can be evicted from a house associated with nuisance and Class A drug activity although they have not personally used any drugs or convicted of any offences.

In a world where “Rat on a Rat” is an acceptable police campaign to encourage reporting drug suppliers, it can come as little surprise that some Police officers will reduce the rights of suppliers to a similar level.

There may also be another parallel here with the way that torture crept in to the war on terror. Commentators have highlighted how fictional torture (in, for example 24) may have inspired, legitimised and promoted the use of torture in extreme situations, justifying the ends against the means. Perhaps, in a similar way, fiction such as the Shield and, closer to home, Ashes to Ashes has inspired (or created nostalgia) for the torturing of suspects and profiting from the seizure of goods.

But in practice this is neither a nostalgic throwback to smoke-filled basements and giving the suspect a good going over, nor is it turning over the Armenian money-train. This what happens when the Government and successive mayors in London sanction brutality against protestors, strikers, demonstrators and suspected terrorists, and the media and politicians create a folk devil out of drugs and those who use them. You reap a whirlwind.

11 June 2009

You wait for ages for a Drugs News service and then three come along at once!

The strange saga of Daily Dose and DS Daily...

It’s been a funny few months for drug news services. For a long time the Daily Dose, established by David Clark, was the first daily Drugs News bulletin. Compiled by the industrious and diligent Jim Young, it built up a significant number of subscribers.

But, in April 2009, Jim Young left the Daily Dose. Editorials on the Daily Dose website suggested that attempts by the NTA to interfere with editorial content was the cause of this, a claim refuted by the NTA. The Daily Dose was briefly suspended, before reappearing with a new format at the end of April.All this must have been manna to Drink and Drug News who launched their own email Drug News service at the end of March. This subscription service (at
http://www.drinkanddrugsnews.com/Register.aspx) is a relatively slim affair compared to Daily Dose, focussing as it does mainly on UK news services.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Drugscope then launched their own news service DS Daily – (
http://www.dsdaily.org.uk/) in May 2009. Previously, their news had come from their regular Members Briefings but the DS Daily represented a new development, currently not dependent on Drugscope membership. But the biggest surprise of the launch was that Jim Young had moved across to Drugscope and was editing/running the DS Daily. First impressions of DS Daily is that it looks to be an excellent service, well-edited, and covering important stories. It is also much tidier and not overly cluttered either by advertising or by op-ed pieces.The launch of DS Daily, and the re-emergence of Mr Young within the Drugscope team, suggests an interesting back-story. The website name was only registered on the 7th May 2009, and the website was up and running a couple of weeks later. This all suggests some nimble footwork on the part of Harry S at Drugscope and some fast work by Jim. As an aside, site admin appears to have been done by Ash Whitney of Wired Up Wales, who had previously been the webmaster for Daily Dose!

However, three similar news aggregators would seem to be too many to be sustained. Few people are going to want to receive all bulletins as they will contain much duplication. Some will lose subscribers. This probably won’t be fatal. The bigger challenge will be funding, and which provider can garner sufficient funds and clout to survive.At present, Daily Dose has a far higher profile than DS Daily. But then it has been around since 2001, and so has a major headstart over the Drugscope upstart. And even if there is a drop off in subscriptions, the number of organisations linked to Daily Dose assures it a high search-engine rating for the foreseeable future. But it isn’t all about traffic. The funding is crucial and here, Daily Dose has probably shot itself in the foot.

Following their contre-temps with the NTA, Daily Dose decided to decline further funding from the NTA. We don’t know how much this was scheduled to be; in the year 07/08 it appears to be £50,000. For a charity that reported sponsorship of only £80,000 in financial year ending May ’08, such a drop off in funding could be catastrophic. Ominously, the NTA email hinted at the role that other could play, saying “However, the shut-down provoked some people to start asking questions, and others to suggest that they could step into the breach to provide an alternative”

Drugscope’s sponsorship of Daily Dose was scheduled to end anyway; the NTA’s has now gone, and it will be interesting to see how long sponsorship from the Home Office (which results in the FRANK logo and Tackling Drugs Changing Lives) remains.

It may well be that we end up with three distinct ‘products:’ the Wired-In community site which ends up primarily promoting a recovery model, Drink and Drug News bulletins, which includes some news stories and importantly recruitment opportunities and field-specific developments, and DS Daily, which will concentrate on the dissemination of news and bulletins. We will have to wait and see.The only thing that also remains unclear is what really went on behind the scenes in late April at Wired-In resulting in Jim’s departure and rapid reappearance at Drugscope. While the NTA’s email may have been significant, the developments point strongly to internal issues at Wired-In and the direction in which Daily Dose was going. But, as with which of the drug news services will survive this year, only time will tell.

10 February 2009

Last twist of cannabis reclassification travesty

In the last post on cannabis reclassification it appeared that there would be a delay before Penalty Notice Orders (PNDs) for cannabis possession were introduced.

The Statutory Instrument that would have brought PNDs in for a variety of offences had been scheduled for introduction on the 26th January 2009 but, faced with a rising chorus of opposition from bodies such as the Magistrates Association, the introduction was suspended.

This was to allow the Ministry of Justice to undertake a proper consultation with stakeholders about the offences covered, something that, up until this stage hadn't happened.

However, in their desire to introduce PNDs for Cannabis Possession, the Government then decided that consultaton on this specific PND was not actually required and asked the House of Lords to pass a motion introducing PNDs for Cannabis possession.

After a mere fifteen minute discussion on the subject (most of which was of little value) the Motion was passed and, it seems PNDs for cannabis came in to force. The passing of the Lords motion took place on the 26th January 2008 between 7.55 and 8.20pm. Two Lords spoke. The Motion was then passed. This it seems was all that was required to bring the PND in to force.

The record of the debate is here

Ironically, Lord Bach, proposing the Motion for the Ministry of Justice had the temerity to assert "The proposal that cannabis possession should be added to the penalty notice for disorder scheme was made public last October. We believe that there has been plenty of opportunity for people to comment on it."

This is a laughable assertion. There was no formal consultation on the subject despite the fact that Home Office had previously assured that there would be a consultation. There was a complete failure to consult. We asked the Ministry of Justice in November 2008 when the consultation would take place. In January 2009, two weeks before the motion was passed we finally received a reply from the Ministry of Justice, letting us know that no formal consultation would be taking place.

If Lord Bach therefore truly believes that this represented "plenty of opportunity for people to comment on it," then there is something truly rotten within the MoJ.

Further it seems that while other less serious offences being considered for PNDs are now on hold, pending consultation, one of the most serious, cannabis use, is not considered worthy of consultation or proper debate and has been fast-tracked for political expediency.

While it seems almost certain that PNDs for cannabis have come in to force, we are double checking this; while ACPO and the Home Office have released guidance, information and resources which state that PNDs can now be issued, there may still be some confusion. Certainly two days after the Lords Motion on the subject, Maria Eagle MP, providing a written answer said "When, penalty notices for disorder become available for the offence of possessing cannabis, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will issue guidance under section 6 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 about their issue." (ref)
Which certainly gives the impression that either the Parliamentary Secretary for the Government Equalities Office (!) doesn't have a clue what she is answering questions about OR further action needs to be taken before the PNDs come in to force.

Frankly, who knows? Maybe FRANK does? But in an interesting departure the new information leaflet on cannabis reclassification comes not with FRANK's usual happy banter and warm graphics. Instead there's a formal HM Government/ACPO document (see
here) which explains the changes in fairly formal terms.

Given the millions being spent on Frank it seems a little strange that the vehicle for publicising the change would be such a utilitarian one. It could be that given that the move to reclassify cannabis is not popular with young people, there is an attempt to "insulate" Frank from negative associations by creating the illusion that this is something that the Government is doing and nothing to do with avuncular, independent Frank. Alternatively it could be that in the current financial climate there wasn't enough time or money for a swarm of designers to make the document look hip.

All this confusion should come as no suprise. It's the tail end of the actions of a home secretary who first decided to ignore the guidance of the ACMD and push ahead with reclassification, who decided to pursue PNDs for cannabis possession without consulting, and then decided to push through the required legislation by sidestepping the elected houe and getting the Lords to do it late in to the evening. So much for evidence based policy. So much for consultation. So much for democracy.

The ACPO guidance is here

The Home Office FAQs are here

26 January 2009

To B or not to B - the chaos of Cannabis Re-reclassification

Cannabis moves back to B while everyone tries to work out how policing will now work

On the 26/1/09 Cannabis moved back to Class B. To accompany this move, new policing strategy and guidelines should have also come in to force, which included a series of escalating penalties for cannabis possession. This should have included the introduction of Penalty Notice for Disorder (PNDs) for second offences of Cannabis Possession.

However, as with every other aspect of cannabis policy, the reclassification has ended in farce, confusion and recrimination.

As we previously reported, the proposal to introduce PNDs has had to be postponed as the spectrum of offences to be covered by PNDs has met with the disapproval of the Magistrates Association, amongst others.

So PNDs will not now be introduced until the Ministry of Justice has undertaken a proper consultation on the subject, something that as early as last week they maintained was neither required or possible.

As a result of this, PNDs for cannabis possession will not now come in to force at the same time as cannabis moves back to Class B.

At present, neither ACPO nor the Home Office has indicated how cannabis should be policed in the meantime. It is likely that the existing regime - of two cannabis warnings at most followed by arrest - is the most likely course of action. This would mean that, in the short term at least, the move back to Class B would have no meaningful impact on cannabis possession.

The media coverage of the reclassfication today has been as confused as the reclassification itself. Interviewed on the Today programme, John Fassenfelt of the Magistrates Association railed against the way reclassification had been conducted. He argued that cannabis was, illogically, being treated differently to other class B drugs and that the power of magistrates to look at cases was being circumvented by the decision to allow PNDs for cannabis possession. He somewhat undermined his case by being unable to think of another Class B drug, but the principle remains.

However, the most poor performance came from the woefully underprepared Home Office Minister Alan Campbell. He was challlenged on why cannabis should be treated differently to other Class B drugs - and be the subject of PNDs when other drugs weren't. One of the reasons he offered was that each drugs really should be treated on its own merits and that, even within Classes drugs should not be treated the same. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty damning indictment of the current classification system.

However, the most laughable suggestion as to why cannabis should be policed and treated differently was that cannabis was easier to identify in the street (unlike other Class B drugs such as Amphetamine) and so could be handled differently as nothing needed to be sent off for analysis. Presumably, the same bizarre logic could be applied to a host of other drugs, such as Magic Mushrooms.

Unfortunately, Campbell wasn't pushed as to why the Home Office and MoJ had botched the introduction of PNDs quite so badly. So instead he spent a lot of time stressing that the first option available to Police Officers was to arrest and charge, and that they had the discretion to use other interventions.

This was somewhat disingenuous as ACPO guidance on cannabis to date has stressed a presumption against arrest. Further, the onus has been on the police to demonstrate that an arrest was warranted as opposed to it being an approved intervention in all cases.

So at present, cannabis has moved from Class C to B, with no guidance to explain how it will be policed in the short term, and uncertainty as to how the rollout of PNDs will take place now. Now that's what you could call sending out clear messages about cannabis!

21 January 2009

PNDs for Cannabis on Hold

Cannabis back to Class B but PNDs will have to follow later

Hot on the heels of the last post, lamenting the Government's failure to consult properly on the introduction of PNDs, there has been a change of heart at the Ministry of Justice and there will now be a period of consultation.

However, this is not a cause for jubilation. Nor does it appear to be directly related to cannabis. Instead it seems to be a result of Magistrates raising objections to the PNDs on the grounds that many of the offences were considered by Magistrates too serious to be handled with PNDs. Their focus (according to the Daily Mail) was the addition of unlicensed cabs to the list of offences which could receive a PND.

As a result, the Ministry of Justice has now said "the government has listened to concerns about certain aspects of extending the penalty-notice-for-disorder-scheme and has decided to consult more widely on the new offences to be included."

So last week, according to the Ministry of Justice, a consultation had taken place, (albeit of a limited nature) and there was no scope for wider consultation, and a week later, a wider consultation is required.

Now, hopefully, this will be a proper, open, public consultation. Then again, who knows what will happen next week.


19 January 2009

Cannabis Fines - Home Office Misleads regarding Consultation

No Consultation on PNDs for Cannabis Possession despite Home Office Assurance.

In October 2008, in their press release entitled "Tougher Action on Cannabis" the Home Office said that prior to Penalty Notices For Disorder (PNDs) being introduced, consultation would take place.

They said "Under penalty notice for disorder proposals, on which the Ministry of Justice (new window) will shortly run a consultation."

We wrote to the Ministry of Justice in November asking when this consultation would be taking place. A long period of silence followed.

Last week we finally received a reply from the MoJ saying that no consultation would take place, and suggesting that responsibilty for this lay with the Home Office. They said:

"Possession of cannabis is included on a list of proposed new offences drawn from a longer list on which we consulted stakeholders in 2006. The Government decided that the PND should be available to officers, subject to Parliamentary approval, on re-classification of the drug to Class B on 26 January 2009. In the light of this decision, it has not been possible to carry out a full consultation."

This response is astonishing. The Home Office clearly stated a consultation would take place. This would have been an opportune time to explore how impractical the introduction of PNDs would be, what safeguards would need to be in place, and give stakeholders a chance to comment and critique the proposal.

In 2006, a small scale MoJ consultation looked at adding certain offences to those which could be dealt with by PNDs. However, this consultation was restricted to ACPO, Justices and Magistrates Associations but not the public.

In the Explanatory Notes which accompanied the Criminal Justice and Police Act Ammendment (2009) which included adding cannabis to the list of PND offences the MoJ said:

"More recently, Departments with substantive policy responsibility for the various offences now being added have conducted consultations with their own stakeholders Therefore, although
there has been no formal public consultation, all those most involved and affected have had ample opportunity to make their views known."

So in effect the MoJ are saying that, as far as they are concerned, the Home Office consulted their Stakeholders regarding PNDs for Cannabis. And the Home Office said the MoJ would consult.

More worryingly, these proposals were never debated in Parliament. The Statement made by the Home Secretary on the 7th May 2008 made no mention of PNDs. They were mentioned in Written Answers in October 2008, and again they were mentioned in the Lord's Debate on the subject in November 2008.

Th upshot of this has been the introduction of PNDs never taken before the House of Commons, and no public consultation on the subject - just a RIA which was not available when the proposal went before the Commons.

Conspiracy or confusion? Who knows. The end result is the same.

January 2009