The Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs, the Government appointed panel of experts established under the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) 1971 to advise ministers on drug policy and law, yesterday opened its doors to the public for a full meeting (or at least part of it) for the first time. I went along and it wasn't nearly as boring as I expected.
The Home Office: 'come on in' (actually the meeting was in a Hotel in Victoria)
The impressively knowledgeable and diverse panel of 30 or so experts from the drugs field spent several hours discussing a range of current concerns and how best to respond to them including a detailed discussions on the growing use of anabolic steroids, the threat of GBL (a precursor of GHB), implementation of the Council's recent 'Pathways to Problems' report, needle exchanges, and the upcoming reviews of the classification of ecstasy (MDMA), cannabis (again - at the request of the Home Secretary) , and, we were told, all drugs covered under the MDA. A full agenda is available here.
This last point I found interesting as a quick look at the drugs covered under the MDA reveals that there are over 400. No timetable was given but at the Council's going rate of reviewing about 2 drugs a year, and I'm being generous here and assuming the Government doesn't ask them to undertake pointless re-reviews (a la cannabis), we can therefore look forward to the process being finished sometime around 2200.
Even if they are only looking at, say, the top 20 problem drugs we are still looking conservatively at the process ending sometime around 2020 and lets face it, that's just not good enough. At one point during the public Q&A session Professor Nutt said, in response to a question about why they weren't looking at cocaine given the worrying growth in its use, that they had 'a lot on their plate' and couldn't do everything. It was a fair point to which I, rather supportively I think, suggested that it was about time the Home Office provided the appropriate resources to give the them the required research capacity to deal with all that stuff on said 'plate'. ACMD Chair Micheal Rawlins curiously said he didn't feel increased funding/capacity was necessary and that the Council would increasingly be working with the MRC and other research agencies. To me this was an odd answer: there are some specific tasks, like the 400 classification reviews, that only the ACMD can do.
I noticed Alan Travis from the Guardian was amongst the public audience and his report appears in todays Guardian, titled: Boys of 12 using anabolic steroids to 'get girls'. (it is probably worth noting that a lot of boys are also using steroids to 'get boys' but anyway). Travis quotes me at one point:
Challenged by Steve Rolles, of the drugs legalisation campaign Transform, to look at the whole system of drug classification, Rawlins remarked that the notes detailing the basis for each classification from A to D dating back to 1973 had been lost. But he confirmed the council is reviewing the legal status of ecstasy as part of a systematic look at the classification of each illicit drug in turn. The ecstasy review began in September and involves the Health Technology Association in Plymouth appraising 750 scientific papers on the harmful effects of the drug in relation to similar illicit substances.
He rather misunderstands the thrust of my question (as well as the fact that the classification system is A-C, not D). I observed that the most of the ACMD meeting had been considering, in detail, the evidence of harms for various drugs and the implications of this analysis for whether they should be brought within the MDA or have their classification changed. My point was that there was major flaw in the Council's thinking if the impacts on key public health and criminal justice indicators of such changes were not being evaluated (as we have discussed in detail in previous Transform briefings). I then pointed out that the Government had called for, and indeed fully prepared, a comprehensive root and branch review of the classification system, a move that had been supported by the ACMD itself, The Sci-Tech Select Committee, Drugscope, and as far as I am aware everybody in the drugs field. Since the Government had since canceled the review (for transparently political reasons), but the need for such a review remained pressing, would the ACMD itself undertake such a review itself?
Rawlins answered that yes there were anomalies in the system but that the systematic review of classifications was underway, including ecstasy, and that the ACMD did not have the power to change the law.
I responded that I was not talking about the anomalies, but rather the more general efficacy of and the ABC system and its nominally harm based hierarchy of penalties. I also noted that it is specifically in the ACMD's remit under the MDA to call for 'changes in the law' as they see being necessary, and also that they can undertake reviews of drug policy if they deem it 'expedient'. Rawlins replied rather vaguely that they would take my points on board and look at the question but this didn't translate into any firm commitment to make it an agenda item (although one member of the committee I spoke to afterwards was very supportive and said they would raise it in the 'closed' afternoon session). We'll wait and see, but I don't have much cause for optimism.
As Transform have said before, the work the ACMD does is of the highest quality. The recent 'Hidden Harms' and 'Pathways to Problems' reports being fine examples of this. The problem with the Council is not the work they do, but the questions they don't engage with, and nothing demonstrates this better than their equivocation over reviewing the efficacy of punitive ABC classification system, and indeed a broader cost benefit analysis of the MDA - and prohibition as the basis of UK drug policy. Given the disaster that has unfolded over the last 36 years, such a review would seem to be 'expedient'.