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  1. chillinwill
    The legacy of the rush to pass a 'tough' new law on mephedrone may ultimately be its unworkability

    It was Abraham Lincoln who said: "The best way to repeal a bad law is to enforce it strictly." The enforcement of the new law on mephedrone may eventually prompt its own self-destruction.

    The law making mephedrone illegal to possess or supply was passed in both houses of parliament yesterday and will come into force on 16 April. The order specified the home secretary had first consulted the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). He did, albeit in rather perfunctory manner. But the problem, legally, is that the ACMD is not constituted as required by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Following an exodus of scientific expertise, the council appears to lack two of its statutory members. (Naturally, I have asked the relevant officials at the Home Office for clarity on this point but without reply.)

    This technical detail may not hugely concern the fretful law makers in parliament as the leviathan of an election looms. But it is likely to be at least of passing interest to large-scale dealers of mephedrone; the uncertainty over the safety of this law could effectively be their insurance against future conviction.

    Similarly, the nation has few qualms about the outlawing of the drug because of the extraordinary lurid media stories about deaths, overdoses and severe addiction. But what do we actually know about the drug when the depleted coterie of experts have produced such a dismal report?

    I have experienced, at first hand, several ACMD investigations (ketamine, cannabis, qat, methamphetamine). The ACMD's mephedrone report maintains an intellectually coherent structure, but is devoid of many of the fundamental measures for assessing any drug's dangers.

    Dr Les King, the former chair of the ACMD's working group on legal highs, said the report is, "long on the chemistry, but short on almost everything else". He suspects, after losing its core of scientific experts, the bulk of the work has been done by co-optees. "I wonder what existing ACMD members contributed – not a lot I think," he said. It's rather like expecting a Premiership team to excel when most of their players have been hauled in on loan deals.

    The report has serious gaps in basic information. For example, there is "no purity data available", so we do not know how strong the drug is. The epidemiology is based, in part, on an article for the New Musical Express. Data on prevalence was derived from a survey conducted by dance culture magazine Mixmag and is also based on bare numbers of hits on the Talk to Frank website. That does not amount to a measure of its use.

    It is quite astonishing there are no studies on dependency, treatment or prevention. The evidence referenced from Guernsey, where controls have already been introduced, indicate mainland Britain could soon face a sudden emergence of street dealing, a leap in price and plummeting purity with plenty of associated violence. But this potentially disastrous development was reported blandly without even recognising it as a negative outcome.

    Three new statutory members were shoe-horned in (on the same day as the report was published) with precious little time to consider much of the evidence. The latest of seven members to resign, Eric Carlin, reported new papers being tabled but without time to consider them fully.

    The interim ACMD chair, Les Iversen, is a highly respected neuropharmacologist; his books on cannabis and amphetamines are definitive works. But this is a picture of chaos and corner-cutting in the ACMD which I do not remotely recognise under the previous chairmanships of Michael Rawlins or David Nutt.

    Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrat spokesman for home affairs, said the government, in controlling mephedrone, was "pandering to tabloid newspaper editors". It is worse than that – their advisers are actually using the inflammatory news reports as source material. The ACMD study says "media reports from 8 March indicate secondary school children were missing classes". This Daily Mail report, about 180 pupils in Leicestershire falling sick on mephedrone has already been exposed as, "not recognisable as any school in the county". Dr King also described this section on "societal harms" as "a hotchpotch of anecdotes, media reports and speculation".

    So bereft of useful material was the ACMD that they felt compelled to inform us that mephedrone "has no efficacy as plant food" as often advertised and so retailers, they suggest, could attract prosecution under the Trade Descriptions Act. A more bathetic point about a "killer drug" is hard to imagine.

    The ACMD has been denigrated by the government, who are guilty of their intellectual abuse. But the legacy of this rush to establish a new "tough" law may be more serious; a law with a fault line running right through it.

    Jeremy Sare
    April 9, 2010
    The Guardian


  1. chillinwill
    Rushing mephedrone ban is wrong

    The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has been put in an impossible position on the classification of mephedrone

    The home secretary might try to brazen out Polly Taylor's resignation from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). If so, the government's claim that it values independent scientific advice will take another knock. Waiting to impose a ban on mephedrone until the ACMD reports is not the same as basing a decision on scientific advice. The Home Office had already decided to ban mephedrone. The ACMD's deliberations were mere window dressing. So it is worth considering how the process of classifying a drug generally operates.

    Under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act the home secretary is obliged to consult the ACMD about any proposed changes to a drug's classification.

    Following discussion with the Home Office, an ACMD working group will draw up a draft report, normally over a period of four or five meetings. It will then go to the full ACMD for agreement, after which the ACMD will write to the home secretary with its recommendation. This is painstaking, detailed and time-consuming work.

    After giving the report due consideration, the home secretary makes his or her response. There then comes the formal consultation, lasting 12 weeks, and a regulatory impact assessment. Both houses of parliament then need to approve any change, as does the privy council. Following this the new classification becomes law.

    In normal times the whole process takes a year and a half, sometimes longer. The deliberations that led to cannabis being reclassified from class B to class C in January 2004 came on the back of an ACMD-led review that lasted close to two and half years.

    But these are not normal times. We are in the middle of a mephedrone scare in the runup to a general election. The result of this toxic combination is the current farrago.

    Since the mass resignations in the wake of David Nutt's dismissal, the ACMD has been unable to function. New members, originally due for interview in April, are now hurriedly being put into place.

    A report has been rushed through a depleted technical committee. Most of the ACMD members will not even get to see it until today's meeting, at which they will be expected to make a potentially far-reaching recommendation on classification.

    The interim chair, Les Iversen, has been put in an impossible position. I can not imagine that any of the current ACMD members can be feeling too good right now. We are facing a rush classification of a drug, the harms of which are still little understood. Indeed, some are openly questioning the principle of a science-based drugs classification system. The whole thing is a mess.

    Yet even at this late stage there is a chance to do things differently. The European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction, an EU body that provides factual analysis for member countries, is conducting its own study of mephedrone and is likely to report in July. This should give a far more rounded view of the evidence than the ACMD alone can provide.

    It is also about time that there was a serious debate about the alternatives to outright criminalisation. As David Nutt argued last week in the Evening Standard, legal, though regulated, supply of drugs like mephedrone, ecstasy and cannabis might be a better way of reducing the undoubted harms of drug taking than an approach that criminalises users.

    Criminalisation, at the end of the day, is a pretty blunt and ineffective mechanism for controlling certain behaviours deemed criminal. It is a thoroughly inappropriate means for seeking to protect individuals from the harms drugs cause, or ensuring they have the right kind of information to make informed choices.

    Richard Garside
    March 29, 2010
    The Guardian
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