Thursday, January 24, 2008

ACMD cannabis classification review submission (round 3)

Tediously enough the ACMD will yet again be reviewing cannabis reclassification next month (for the third time in 5 years) and Transform today publishes its written submission (also for the third time in 5 years), as a prelude to the oral evidence session on Feb 5th to which we will also be giving evidence (for the second time in 5 years - they didn't do one last time around). Our latest submission considers how the political and media backdrop to the latest review has distorted both science and policy thinking around this issue, as well as offering a broader critique of the classification system and the flawed and outdated science on which it is nominally based. The discussion and recommendation sections are reproduced below. True cannabis policy wonks can read the full submission in all its nerdy glory here (pdf).



The debate around drug law reform remains intimately entwined with the wider populist law and order debate. The question of how cannabis should be policed has often become confused by emotive anecdotes and misrepresented data concerning the harm associated with cannabis use, or debate around the moral rights and wrongs of drug use generally. It is vital that the ACMD, as an independent body of expertise, is not drawn into the political gamesmanship, or swept along by the sporadic media and politically fuelled drug panics that have cast a long shadow over the UK's failing drug policy for the past two generations.

The aim of drug policy should be to reduce the harm drugs cause, both to users and the wider community. Current policy is demonstrably failing to do this and it is only by rational consideration of the evidence, both of prohibition's failure, and of policy alternatives that we can take positive steps toward this goal.

There is an ongoing debate about the extent of cannabis risks, and research has often been selectively used to bolster the case for and against legislative reform (reclassification and/or legalisation/regulation). From Transform's perspective the debate around health risks is a distraction from policing and law reform issues:

  • An effective drug policy would accept the reality of widespread cannabis use and implement measures that reduce harm to users and the communities in which they live

  • The dangers presented by cannabis, in its various forms, point towards increased and better prevention and education for young people and potential users as part of a co-ordinated, evidence based public health strategy for reducing drug harms. This should be based on well established harm reduction principles and public health education methodology, including a clear message that the best way to avoid harm is not to use at all

The classification debate is a distraction from the bigger debate around prohibition – one we believe the ACMD is obliged to engage with in a structured and meaningful way. Drugs need to be legally regulated because they are dangerous, not because they are safe, indeed the greater the dangers of using cannabis, the greater the importance of strict legal regulation and control of cannabis markets. If the Government is serious about getting rid of illegal dealers and reducing the harm associated with cannabis use the only effective course of action is to have legally regulated and appropriately licensed outlets. This would:

  • Largely remove the illegal profits, collapse the illegal market, and put illegal dealers out of business

  • Allow more effective prohibitions on sales to minors

  • Enable quality control of the product and health warnings, potency and dose information, and harm reduction information on packaging and at point of sale

  • Free up scarce resources (and potentially generate tax revenue) for public health based prevention, education and harm reduction initiatives

To the objective observer the intellectual problems with the classification system are as obvious as its abject and ongoing failure on all meaningful indicators. The Government's response to criticism, which now includes detailed and thoughtful work from the Police Foundation (2000), the Home Affairs Select Committee (2002), The Science and Technology Select Committee (2006), the RSA (2007), and even the ACMD (Pathways to Problems 2007) and its technical advisers writing in the Lancet (2007), has been nothing more than contemptuous and is entirely lacking in intellectual or empirical credibility. The Science and Technology Select Committee's 2006 conclusion that the system was 'not fit for purpose' was altogether too diplomatic.

There is certainly potential for ranking different drugs along the various vectors of drug harm that might usefully include; toxicity, addictive potential, particular risks for specific populations (e.g. sex, age group, mental health) safety critical activities (e.g. driving) or behaviors (e.g. injecting, poly-drug use, pregnancy). However, this sort of information does not lend itself to the broad generalisations of a simplistic ABC system, however well thought out the placing of individual drugs may be. People need honest and accurate information about drug risks so they can make informed decisions; the ABC system singularly fails to deliver.

More significantly, the debate over which drugs should be in which class is a distraction from the more profound problem that the ABC system exists primarily to determine a hierarchy of criminal penalties, and there is no evidence whatsoever to demonstrate that this approach has either criminal justice or public health benefits. The Government's refusal to honour the promise Charles Clarke made to the House of Commons in January 2006, to hold a review of the classification system is transparently a politically motivated one. Their 'belief' that the system is effective, when the opposite is demonstrably the case is simply not acceptable and should be a profound concern to everyone in policy making, law and the wider drugs field.


Short term

  • That the ACMD maintain their long held position that cannabis should be a class C drug under the current system.

  • That the long promised review of the entire drug classification system (not merely the classification of individual drugs within it) be undertaken with some urgency. This should include a detailed consideration of the effectiveness of an ABC hierarchy of criminal penalties for different drug in achieving desired criminal justice and public health outcomes. (A call for such a review has also come from Drugscope and the Home Affairs Select Committee, the RSA, the Science and Technology Select Committee, and indeed the ACMD)

  • That the ACMD make strong objections to the way in which its role and authority is being undermined by Ministers announcing reclassification decisions regards cannabis before the ACMD have reported back[1]. The ACMD should further ask why the classification issue was included in the recent strategy consultation document, when such decisions are clearly the remit of the ACMD (which already consults extensively).

Medium term

  • That the ACMD deliberations consider the specific harms created by prohibition, and disentangle these from the harms created by drug use per se. Specifically; prohibition related crime, the mass criminalisation of young - often vulnerable - individuals, and the exacerbation of drug harms to users (when drugs are produced and supplied through illicit channels).

  • That the ACMD actively consider the policies of decriminalisation and legalisation/regulation of cannabis and all other currently illegal drugs in line with its remit in “preventing the misuse of such drugs or dealing with social problems connected with their misuse” and “restricting the availability of such drugs or supervising arrangements for their supply”.

[1] Gordon Brown is on the record saying that “we are about to make changes to the cannabis law”


Anonymous said...

As someone who has been involved in this charade for many years now (as a former police officer responsible for drugs policy in a particular force - and an advisor on the JRF Research carried out by my bestest pal Tiggey)I tire of this whole debate.

Whilst I submit that 'ordinary' members of the general public (apparently a vast majority are'users'according to the BCS) would want to know what potential health risks are associated with a drug and the consequences of being caught in possession or trafficking in it,
I suspect they wouldn't care if it was classified as being a subtle shade of grey with a blue polka dot and sequin finish.

It was confusing enough last time - leave it alone for goodness sake.

Anonymous said...

I am a family support worker for a tier two and three service in Sheffield. Many of the families we support have the issue of cannabis and a loved one and in very many cases their is mental health issues such as psycosis, paranoia, OCD to name a few.

Steve Rolles said...

anon - theres no dispute that problems with cannabis use exist - the question is what is the sensible policy response?