The politics of mephedrone
If everything had gone according to plan the Home Secretary would have an answer to the problem of "legal highs" readily to hand.
Sitting in his in-tray would be a report from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on a group of Cathinones - or legal highs - including Mephedrone, Methedrone, Methylone, MDPV and something called Fluromethcathinone.
That report was commissioned last year, and a sub-committee of the ACMD - the New Psychoactive Substances Working Group - duly began its research in October. But that process was abruptly interrupted when the chairman of the ACMD, Professor David Nutt, was sacked and several members of the Council followed him out of the door in protest last November.
One of those to resign was Professor Les King, the leading chemist on the ACMD, and the chairman of the sub-committee investigating legal highs.
In the intervening few months, Professor King says, it's hard to see what progress could have been made. It took a while for the newly constituted ACMD to get going (the appointment of a new chairman, professor Les Iversen, was only announced in January) and the composition of the sub-committee investigating legal highs has still not been settled.
With an election now looming Professor King believes it could be the autumn before the ammunition to justify adding Cathinones like Mephedrone to the list of banned substances lands on the Home secretary's desk.
That assessment was confirmed today when the ACMD conceded that it could not present its full advice to ministers because a number of key posts on the Council - vacated by resignations over the Nutt affair - had not yet been filled. An interim report will be presented to Ministers by the end of the month.
The Home Office Minister Alan Campbell said the Government was determined to act swiftly. "We will receive the ACMD advice on 29 march and subject to this advice we will take immediate action".
Given the clamour in the papers following the deaths of two teenagers this week a lengthy delay would be politically disastrous. With parent, doctors, the police, and now opposition MP's all demanding action, the pressure for action to outlaw legal highs is ratcheting up.
But that puts the Home secretary in a difficult position. Banning mephedrone now would ride roughshod over the fundamental principles underpinning the Misuse of Drugs Act - that decisions about the classification of drugs should be based on scientific evidence of harm, and that that evidence should come from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
The whole point of the Act was to avoid the pitfalls of bad legislation by keeping day-to-day politics at arms length from the decision making process. We all know the old adage: legislate in haste, repent at leisure.
Tom Feilden | 12:25 UK time, Wednesday, 17 March 2010
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The politics of mephedrone