Science & Technology

No Science, Please, We're British Drug Warriors


The British government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) no longer needs to have any scientists among its members. The same legislation eliminating the requirement for scientist presence on the council also gives the Home Secretary power to unilaterally ban any drug for a year with no consultation with the ACMD at all. Tom Chivers at the UK Telegraph explains why they want it that way--and why they shouldn't get away with it:

Scientific advisers have always said that cannabis should not be lumped in with amphetamines as a class B drug, and that ecstacy's position as a class A – like heroin and crack – makes a nonsense of the classification. And last year, after two deaths were linked with mephedrone (nicknamed "meow meow" in the press), a ban on the drug was rushed through to appease the hysteria in the press, against the advice of the ACMD and prompting the resignation of two council members.

Tragicomically, the two deaths were later shown not to have had anything to do with the drug at all – the teenagers had been taking methadone, a completely different drug available on prescription to heroin addicts, mixed with alcohol. Dozens of other deaths' links to the drug turned out to be equally spurious. Strangely, the media firestorm had passed on by that point.

And there is the problem with removing scientific advice from drug policy. It would have been politically very difficult to ignore press calls to ban mephedrone, despite there being no evidence-based reason for such a ban. If the ACMD could have been rendered toothless enough to give Home Office-friendly advice to ban it, that would probably have made the Home Secretary's life considerably easier. But it would have been giving bad advice. As it was, the good advice they did give was not taken, hence the resignations. But at least the Government could not pretend that they were doing it because they had been scientifically advised to do so.

[Hat tip: the Drug Policy Alliance's Meghan Ralston]

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  1. That's just nitpicking, isn't it?

    1. Let me try that again...

      Tragicomically, the two deaths were later shown not to have had anything to do with the drug at all . . .

      That's just nitpicking, isn't it?

      1. It's "nit-picking" to point out that the basis of a decision was wrong?

        1. Teh sarcasm

  2. Keep fighting that war, England! Don't go the path of Portugal.

    Unlike many of its neighbors who have witnessed a reduction or stabilization in the opiate addict population, Portugal's addict population and the problems that go along with addiction continue to increase.

    1. Yes, because obviously, if you have to drop all scientific inquiry to avoid questions, it must be a good fight. And I'm sure Portugal's problems don't stem the least bit from their own economic stagnation and instability.

      1. Again, sarcasm. Check out the commenter's handle.

  3. When it comes to drugs policy, why should scientists be consulted in their role as scientists at all? If ever objective criteria are drawn up to dispose of a drug's legal classif'n re "abuse", won't the criteria simply be reverse engineered to have the result intended on particular substances?

    In the USA the major criterion for an administrative agency (DEA) to add substances to the schedules of controlled substances is the resemblance of a substance to another already controlled, and the original list was made by legislation. When the unprecedented step was finally taken of getting them to re-evaluate cannabis (a substance on the original list) according to control criteria, the agency decision went primarily as follows:

    1. Cannabis is popular with children.

    2. It is well established that children have poor judgment.

    3. Therefore whatever children do against the wishes of their parents should be considered the wrong thing to do.

    4. Therefore cannabis has high potential for abuse.

    1. If I'm getting your point, you are basically saying "Why should the government care what scientists think, since the government won't care about what scientists think?" So, as far as I can tell, you are begging the question. If they actually asked scientists to come up with classification system based on likelihood of addiction and negative health affects, I can't see why that wouldn't be at least a small improvement over the total nonsense they have now.

      1. Read The Myth of Scientific Public Policy by Robert Formaini. "Addiction" is a very slippery concept that probably would have no application other than opprobrium, and "health effects" can be evaluated objectively only in veterinary medicine.

  4. Could it be that the reason why the government plan to remove the requirement for scientific advisors on the ACMD is due to a failure to recruit that required expertise? The ACMD currently lacks its mandated scientists, and is therefore inquorate. Decisions made by the government subsequent to consulting an inquorate ACMD may be legally questionable, which would be untenable for government.

    The ACMD lost its requisite personnel in the wake of the sacking of Professor Nutt, and the subsequent mephedrone madness, which prompted the scientists on the ACMD to resign. The Home Office then advertised for a Chair and eight members to replace those who had left.

    The advertisement is available here:

    After the dismissive behaviour of Jacqui Smith and Alan Johnson towards its scientific advisors, it would be a surprise if the Home Office was flooded by applicants. Indeed, we believe they drew a blank.

    To conclude: in spite of James Brokenshire's assurances, the desire to abolish scientific expertise from the ACMD seems more probably a result of the government's inability to fill the vacant positions. Therefore, under the Freedom of Information Act, we have written to the ACMD to ask how many applications they received by the closing date, November 18th 2010.

    If this is the real reason for the new proposal for the ACMD, then clearly we are in deep trouble: due to political interference, mutual trust between government and scientific advisors has been blown apart, with appalling consequences for policy in the United Kingdom.

    Further study of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill reveals more cause for concern. Another shocking proposal seeks to shift the target of selective drugs prohibition from its duty of protecting *society* from the harmful effects of drugs, to the goal of directly limiting the freedom of the *individual*.

    John Stuart Mill's harm principle sits at the core of British jurisprudence; individual liberty is respected even if the individual plans to do him or herself lethal harm. This is reflected in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, in that the harm a drug represents to the individual is irrelevant in law. The legislation is drafted specifically to protect society from the harmful effects of drugs, and not to encroach on individual liberty. This is why Parliament stopped short of prohibiting the use of most drugs (except in the case of opium, the only drug whose unauthorised *use* is prohibited under section 9). The 1971 government understood that it cannot legitimately justify interference in our individual liberty unless there is a social problem, which is why the Act was worded in the following precise terms:

    "It shall be the duty of the Advisory Council to keep under review the situation in the United Kingdom with respect to drugs which are being or appear to them likely to be misused and of which the misuse is having or appears to them capable of having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem" [MDA, S1(2)]

    Note that in the above phrase: "and of which the misuse is... having harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem", it is the conjunction "and" which guarantees the democratic character of the Act. Government power can only be legitimate if it is exercised to protect society; protecting responsible individuals from themselves is no business of the state.

    However, in the new Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, this democratic legitimacy is to be undermined within the proposed addition to the Misuse of Drugs Act: 'Section 2A'.

    The new 'temporary class drug order' powers to be awarded the Home Secretary to control people with interests in new drugs, will substitute the term: "harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem", with the shorter "harmful effects". Social problems are surplus to requirements. The anti democratic implications of this reorientation are enormous.

    It is truly alarming that the government seeks to grant the Home Secretary such sweeping and arbitrary powers to imprison people for up to 14 years for supplying new substances, without being compelled to seek the advice of the ACMD, without regard to whether society is adversely affected, and without a requirement to evidence the belief in a substance's 'harmful effects'.

    The relevant text of the bill is as follows:

    "2A Temporary class drug orders

    (1) The Secretary of State may make an order (referred to in this Act as a "temporary class drug order") specifying any substance or product as a drug subject to temporary control if the following two conditions are met.

    (2) The first condition is that the substance or product is not a Class A drug, a Class B drug or a Class C drug.

    (3) The second condition is that it appears to the Secretary of State that?

    (a) the substance or product is a drug that is being, or is likely to be, misused, and

    (b) that misuse is having, or is capable of having, harmful effects."

    [Schedule 16, Para 3, "Amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971" Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill]

    Edwin Stratton
    Drug Equality Alliance

    Securing equal rights and equal protection through the rational and objective administration of laws.

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