Take decisions on drug classification out of politicians' hands, say advisers
Like interest rates, the final decision on the classification of illegal drugs should be free from political influence, say the government's drug advisers
An independent drug classification body could downgrade ecstasy from class A to class B. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA
The power to decide the classification of illegal drugs should be taken out of the hands of the home secretary and given to a small, independent committee of experts, according to a proposal being considered by the government's top advisory body on drug classification.
The new group would act rather like the Bank of England's monetary policy committee, which since May 1997 has decided interest rate levels. Under the proposals discussed today by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, a "classification committee" of scientists, social scientists and experts in the drug field would decide which class a drug should occupy based on evidence of the harm it causes to individuals and society.
In a separate development, the ACMD's chair Prof David Nutt told the meeting that the advisory group would be undertaking a review of the classification of psychedelic drugs including LSD, psilocybin ("magic mushrooms") and possibly the currently legal drug salvia.
He said that the ACMD's technical sub-committee had decided that the classification of LSD and psilocybin as class A drugs was due for a review. The committee had not looked at the evidence for harm caused by these substances for some time, he said. Sir Gabriel Horn, a professor of behavioural neuroscience at Cambridge University, told the committee that the whole drug classification system needed to be reformed because national drug use has changed so much since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act was brought in.
The amount of cocaine use is now 30 times higher and there are up to 80 times as many deaths from injecting drugs. Horn advocated taking decisions about drug classification out of the hands of politicians to avoid the kind of political row that has accompanied the government's decision to move cannabis from class C to class B.
"It appeared that a decision had been taken at the very highest levels in government that cannabis should be classified B before the advice had been received in the report from the [ACMD]," he said. "I think that is a very unwise step. I think it is a dangerous step." He said interest rate decisions used to be embroiled in similar political wrangling before the government devolved decision-making to the Bank of England.
"There used to be in days gone by huge controversy as to whether the chancellor of the exchequer should go one way or the other ... Now we don't have that."
Horn was presenting a report from an Academy of Medical Sciences committee, which he chaired, on the harm caused by drugs, although he said the proposals about a classification committee were a "personal view".
Former shadow home secretary David Davis MP was scathing about the idea. "I hope his level of analysis of his own subject is better than his level of analysis of the monetary history of the country," he told the Guardian, referring to the monetary policy committee's failure to foresee the current financial crisis.
Davis said that the issues surrounding drug classification were too complex for any scientific committee to tackle without political input.
"They relate to social issues and issues of judgement such as the relationship between certain drugs and crime, the impact of classification on the behaviour of the police and the behaviour of the population – all of which are not susceptible to the laws of physics or even the laws of biology," he said. He added that the proposal would not succeed in taking the politics out of drug policy. "In truth the political battle would move to who was on the committee," he said. He said that members of the committee should not be appointed by the home secretary, as is the case with the ACMD, but by "trusted" institutions such as the Royal Society and the British Academy in order to free the committee from political influence.
Source: Guardian UK; http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/nov/25/illegal-drugs-classification