Saturday, September 16, 2006

ACMD new report calls for review of the drug laws!

The latest report, 'Pathways to Problems', from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, published on the 14th September 2006 is now available from the Home Office website in pdf format here

In a surprising but welcome development for a group of scientists appointed by the Government, the Council has produced some useful analysis and makes a series of positive recommendations, many in conflict with Government policy and rhetoric. As Transform has observed (in recent briefings and Select Committee evidence on the ACMD and the drug classification system that it oversees see here ) the reports the ACMD produces are excellent - it is the questions they don't ask about the efficacy of prohibition that are the problem. To some extent this report offers a degree of redemption for ACMD, after a recent critical panning over its unscientific approach to the classification system and a history of avoiding engagement with more politically contentious areas of drug policy. Still a long way to go, but real progress none the less.

The media coverage of the report has focused on the policy recommendations regarding alcohol and tobacco which included:

- calls for better quality survey data of young peoples (licit and illicit) drug use
- much stricter controls of advertising and promotion of alcohol products aimed at young people
- better enforcement of existing age restrictions on alcohol and tobacco
- integration of (illegal) drug prevention with tobacco and alcohol prevention
- reducing the legal blood alcohol level for younger drivers
- raising the legal age limit for buying tobacco from 16 to 18

All seems fairly sensible and obvious really, but these issues are rarely raised and its great to see them getting an airing. Transform are particularly pleased to see the call for bans on advertising, better enforcement of existing regulations, better research, and an integrated approach to drug prevention - things that we have been publicly calling for many years. Let's hope the Government pays attention - you would hope they will, given that the ACMD exists purely to provide expert advice to Ministers.

One very significant recommendation that wasn't picked up by the media was number 1:

"As their actions are similar and their harmfulness to individuals and society is no less that that of other psychoactive drugs, tobacco and alcohol should be explicitly included in the terms of reference of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs"

Its may seem remarkable that the Council does not already have the two drugs that cause the most harm to society (by a vast margin) already within their remit, but this is a historical quirk of the fact that the ACMD is set up within the Misuse of Drugs Act, which obviously does not include alcohol and tobacco. Quite where this line of thinking is leading isn't clear. Is the council suggesting that alcohol and tobacco should be prohibited and brought within the MDA? presumably not. But this call will continue to emphasise the untenable legal distinctions between legal and illegal drugs - hopefully pushing the debate to its inevitable conclusion - that it is the drugs under the MDA that need to be removed and legally regulated, rather than the other way around.

Elsewhere in the report there was much of interest concerning illegal drugs that received little or no media coverage:

- There is a not-even-thinly-veiled critique of the 'very limited effectiveness' of school based drug education and prevention, which, it is suggested, should be subject to a 'careful reassessment', with future emphasis being on 'accurate, credible and consistent' information on all drugs (the implication clearly that this often hasn't been the case in the past)

- There is a very clear statement that sniffer dogs and drug testing 'should not be used in schools'. This is hugely significant, since it is in direct contradiction with a major policy initiative launched by the Prime Minister himself in a blizzard of tough talking populist rhetoric in the News of the World (and other media) last year. This is a triumph for pragmatism over drug war rhetoric ideology - the Council don't think these initiatives are supported by evidence of effectiveness and say so. Where this leaves the policy is moot - but it will be hard for any minister now to take it forward. This has been Transform's position, and that of Drugscope, Release, lifeline and other major drug agencies, from the outset.

- In chapter three (on drug availability and the impact of policy on it) there is a very clear acknowledgement that supply side interventions have not reduced supply or availability, summarised thus: 'intervening in illegal drug markets has not been clearly shown to influence the patterns of drug use amongst young people'.

Think about this for a moment - this is the Government appointed body of experts set up under the Misuse of Drugs Act, saying in crystal clear terms that prohibition does not work.

More interesting still is the policy recommendation that follows from this analysis that: "the current arrangements to control the supply of illegal drugs should be reviewed to determine whether any cost-effective and politically acceptable measures can be taken to reduce their availability to young people".

On the one hand this is diplomatic officialese that Humphrey Appleby of 'Yes, Minister' would be proud of, yet on the face of it, this innocuous sentence dangling from the end of chapter 3, offers a real nod towards reform. Why the scientists and experts on the council should be so concerned with political acceptability is curious, hinting at the politicisation (that the recent Science and technology Select committee recently alluded to) of what should be "an independant [sic] expert body that advises Government on drug related issues in the UK". None the less - if the ACMD is calling for a review of the legislation under which it is established that is great news, albeit about 35 years too late. If this happens, it could be the beginning of the end for the sorry old Misuse of Drugs Act. Lets hope it does.

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