On Monday the blog considered the fact that Gordon Brown was blithely steamrollering over the drug strategy consultation process by making announcements about his intentions before bothering to hear the views of the public or experts in the drug field. Views requested by his own Government.
Specifically, the issue of views on cannabis classification have been added to the consultation document, although apparently this came late in the document's drafting process in response to the born-again tabloid canna-panic and various opportunistic Tory pronouncements calling for a move from C back to B.
Now there is something wierd about all this even before Gordon enters the picture. Drug classification is a strictly technical matter that, at least in theory, considers a range of social and health harms associated with a given drug as a way of determining if it should be A, B or C. There are all sorts of things wrong with this system (as discussed in detail here) even if it worked properly (which it clearly doesn't as the Science and Technology committee concluded in some detail after a lengthy and in depth inquiry last year). However, the system of determining drug classifications as is remains very clearly the remit of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and its Technical Committees, as established under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. After years of criticism the ACMD has finally revealed its new drug harms 'matrix' by which it will in future be making these classification decisions, as published in the Lancet earlier this year (and discussed on this blog here).
Never before has their been a even a small public consultation on a specific drug classification change, its simply not a decision for the public (although anyone is, of course, free to make representations to the Committee and/or now attend meetings). It is unprecedented, and evidently has nothing to do with the technical drug harm classification evaluations undertaken by the eminently capable ACMD technical committee, and everything to do with party politics. The ACMD has now done two such detailed cannabis evaluations (2001, 2004), both supporting the committee's long held view that Class C is the appropriate place for cannabis to be in terms of relative harms.
Now just to remind those who may have been misled by some shoddy reporting or opposition party /Daily Mail wittering:
- Class C does not mean 'legal' (you can still get 2 years in prison for possession or a whopping 14 years - the same as for class B - for supply)
- it does not mean 'decriminalised' (only that there is presumption against arrest for possession in most circumstances - which there was, de-facto, under class B anyway)
- It certainly does not that it is 'safe' (read the ACMD reports detailing potential risks and harms).
The late-doors cut and pasting of cannabis re-classification (or re-re-classification) into the consultation process, and the apparent negation/bypassing of long established structures for making classification decisions that this represents, is transparently political positioning on the part of the Government and the Home Office. Rational policy making, and intelligent debate based on evidence has once again been sidelined by populist drug war politics.....
The media are in one of their cyclical reefer madness frenzies (as documented on this blog here, here, here etc.) and the Tories, the Government's only realistic political threat at this point, are making hay wheeling out all the old school drug war moralising about sending out messages, accusing the Government of being 'soft on drugs', and vocally calling for reclassification back to B (notably without providing a shred of evidence or even argument as to how this would be a good idea or bring about any useful outcomes).
So, as discussed previously, the Government have once again kicked the issue off the political agenda as the next election looms by referring the issue back the ACMD for the third time in 6 years. Observant drug policy watchers will note that this is EXACTLY what happened before the last election: A few reports about cannabis related harms emerged (as they have done on a regular basis for all drugs for the last 100 years or so, because scientists sensibly like to research understand these things), then they were massively hyped and misrepresented by lazy journalists and opposition drug warriors. The then Home Secretary Charles Clarke didn't want it to become a big election issue so lobbed it back to the ACMD. Just to reinforce the sense of de ja vu, Clarke (like Brown) did this very publicly, with the then unprecedented release of his letter to the ACMD along with a press release (the whole saga is detailed and discussed here in Transform's submission to the second ACMD cannabis inquiry in as many years).
Needless to say many in the ACMD were, to put it politely, less than delighted to be having to trawl through the same stuff for the second time in two years, and unsurprisingly they came to the exact same conclusion they had before, and doubtless they will again.
So to Gordon Brown, who in his first breath as PM announces that (with nothing to do with media canna-panic scaremongering, the Tories, or the imminent election HONEST) he is going to refer cannabis back to the ACMD yet again. But this around time he is so concerned, and keen to publicly demonstrate this concern, that re-reclassification is also inappropriately squonked into the public drug strategy consultation document. BUT, unlike the previous (but one) Home Secretary, Gordon has gazumped both the ACMD and the consultation process long before either have reported. He has publicly claimed:
'I want to upgrade cannabis and make it more a drug that people worry about'.Worse than this, we now learn (sorry for missing it at the time) that on September the 6th he said:
"We have made changes, for example, in casinos, we are about to make changes in the cannabis law, we are about to make a review happen in 24 hour drinking, all these things, it’s by listening to people, by hearing what they say”.(Gordon Brown with Ed Balls at the 1st Citizens’ Jury in
So that's pretty unambiguous then: The decision is already made. The contempt he has shown for the consultation process and the ACMD review process makes something of a mockery of the bit about 'listening to people' and 'hearing what they have to say'. It will certainly be interesting to see what happens when the ACMD repeat their support for a Class C classification against Brown's wishes. Last time around there were threats of mass resignations if the committee was over-ruled for transparently political reasons - something that has never before happened. Brown has potentially made some considerable trouble for himself - and we must hope the the Committee can hold its nerve.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that cannabis is still just a political football for the major parties to kick between each other, but there is something profoundly depressing about the way this saga has has unfolded and exposed the shamelessness of the political process and the shallowness of the ever more ludicrous claims that drug policy is evidence based. Moreover the cannabis classification issue continues to dominate political discourse on drugs in a way that it is almost entirely negative.
It prevents discussion of more substantive problems relating to problematic use of illegal heroin and crack (and their international consequences), it wrongly conflates a scientific debate about drug harms with the debate about prohibition and legalisation/regulation, and it suggests that classification of a drug has some meaningful impact on the level of the drugs use and related social and health harms, which it demonstrably does not.