One of the most devious tricks a government can play is to hide a significant change to legislation deep in a  long and complex bill and then to keep quiet about it, hoping that no-one will notice until it’s too late. That is what the government has just tried to do with the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. A special mention must be made of the Drug Equality Alliance for being in the forefront of bringing this and other concerns about this bill to the attention of the media.

There has been a lot of publicity given to the plans to introduce temporary banning orders for “new” drugs which is included in this bill and the DEA are raising some serious concerns about that, but the issue this blog will address is the plans for the membership of the ACMD.

The ACMD is the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, it is the official body that advises government on many aspects of drugs policy. The ACMD is a body created by the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act (MoD), the act of Parliament which is responsible for the prohibition of cannabis and some other drugs and it is central to the workings of that act. The role of the ACMD is described in Section 1 of the act:

1. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

(1) There shall be constituted in accordance with Schedule 1 to this Act as Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (in this Act referred to as “the Advisory Council”); and the supplementary provisions contained in that Schedule shall have effect in relation to the Council.

(2) 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, and to give to any one or more of the Ministers, where either the Council consider it expedient to do so or they are consulted by the Minister or Ministers in question, advice on measures (whether or not involving alteration of the law) which in the opinion of the Council ought to be taken for preventing the misuse of such drugs or dealing with social problems connected with their misuse, and in particular on measures which in the opinion of the Council ought to be taken—

(a) for restricting the availability of such drugs or supervising the arrangements for their supply;

(b) for enabling persons affected by the misuse of such drugs to obtain proper advice, and for securing the provision of proper facilities and services for the treatment, rehabilitation and after-care of such persons;

(c) for promoting co-operation between the various professional and community services which in the opinion of the Council have a part to play in dealing with social problems connected with the misuse of such drugs;

(d) for educating the public (and in particular the young) in the dangers of misusing such drugs, and for giving publicity to those dangers; and

(e) for promoting research into, or otherwise obtaining information about, any matter which in the opinion of the Council is of relevance for the purpose of preventing the misuse of such drugs or dealing with any social problem connected with their misuse.

(3) It shall also be the duty of the Advisory Council to consider any matter relating to drug dependence or the misuse of drugs which may be referred to them by any one or more of the Ministers and to advise the Minister or Ministers in question thereon, and in particular to consider and advise the Secretary of State with respect to any communication referred by him to the Council, being a communication relating to the control of any dangerous or otherwise harmful drug made to Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom by any organisation or authority established by or under any treaty, convention or other agreement or arrangement to which that Government is for the time being a party.

(4) In this section “the Ministers” means the Secretary of State for the Home Department, the Secretaries of State respectively concerned with health in England, Wales and Scotland, the Secretaries of State respectively concerned with education in England, Wales and Scotland, the Minister of Home Affairs for Northern Ireland, the Minister of Health and Social Services for Northern Ireland and the Minister of Education for Northern Ireland.

The offending change is to remove the requirement for the ACMD to have any scientist members. It announces this massive change in the following way spread between pages 99 and 100 of the 101 page “Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill” which has recently been put before Parliament. Section 150 states:

150 Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs

In Schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (constitution etc of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs), in paragraph 1—

(page break)

(a)   in sub-paragraph (1), omit the words after “appropriate”, and
(b)   omit sub-paragraph (2).

This seemingly insignificant few lines changes schedule 1 of the act which defines the membership of the ACMD by deleting everything in blue below:

1. — (1) The members of the Advisory Council, of whom there shall be not less than twenty, shall be appointed by the Secretary of State after consultation with such organisations as he considers appropriate, and shall include—

(a) in relation to each of the activities specified in sub-paragraph (2) below, at least one person appearing to the Secretary of State to have wide and recent experience of that activity; and
(b) persons appearing to the Secretary of State to have wide and recent experience of social problems connected with the misuse of drugs.

(2) The activities referred to in sub-paragraph (1)(a) above are—

(a) the practice of medicine (other than veterinary medicine);
(b)the practice of dentistry;
(c) the practice of veterinary medicine;
(d) the practice of pharmacy;
(e) the pharmaceutical industry;
(f) chemistry other than pharmaceutical chemistry.

Thus removing at a stroke the requirement for the ACMD to have any scientific members whatsoever. Make no mistake this is no minor tweeking, it is  a major revision of a central plank of primary legislation with far reaching consequences and quite how an ACMD without scientists is supposed to do its job isn’t at all clear. In any case whatever the arguments might be for doing this, to try to slip such a major change to the workings of the criminal law through in such a devious underhand way is utterly despicable and thoroughly unacceptable. If this is the way the UK government intends to do business we are in very serious trouble.

The reason for wanting to do this of course is because of the trouble ACMD scientists have been causing for the prohibition regime in recent years. Their refusal to rubber stamp Gordon Brown’s decision to move cannabis back to class B was bad enough, but when Prof Nutt – the Chair of the ACMD tried to make perfectly valid observations about the relative harms of drug use compared to other activities the previous Home Secretary Alan Johnson sacked him for undermining the politicians “message”. The sacking of course was followed by a string of resignations and for a while the ACMD was unable to function.

In perhaps typical politician style the troublesome need for actual evidence in the formation of drug policy simply had to be changed, ministers had to have the right to make decisions based on their own prejudices without any need for evidence based justifications so the scientists had to go. Had they tried to do this in a high profile way through the usual procedures there would have been an outcry, so they tried to do it quietly and they very nearly got away with it.

It is true perhaps that the composition of the ACMD could do with a bit of revision. Quite why it needs a vet or a dentist isn’t immediately clear and a good case could be made for a psychiatrist to be included. But surely any such changes should be made in an open and properly democratic way, not smuggled in at the end of a bill which has quite a different focus.

Of course a cynic would say this sort of thing is only to be expected of the Tories, but what makes this even worse of course is the involvement of the LibDems in all of this. Of all the major parties they were the one which seemed to offer the best policies on drugs, promising that future drugs policy would be evidence based, yet here they are as a part of this coalition jointly responsible for moving drugs policy in totally the opposite direction to the one they promised. LibdDem supporters really have been sold down the river.

So what will be the basis for determining drugs policy under this new regime if not scientific expertise? Will it be the views of the police perhaps?  More likely the views of the tabloid press will be the deciding influence , even more than they have been over the past few years. The evidence base for drug prohibition was thin before, this blog has often criticised the dodgy studies which the scientific evidence is based on, but this change trashes any pretence of being an evidence based policy.

Despite being almost no evidence to support the claims that prohibition is in any way effective and the mass of evidence which suggests it isn’t, despite costing a fortune and resulting in an ever worsening situation in many countries abroad, prohibition policy will be decided by here today, gone tomorrow politicians.

Welcome to the new dark ages.

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Update Wednesday 8th @11.09

The Government has just announced its new drugs strategy which contains this comment on Page 8:

This Government is committed to an evidence-based approach. High quality scientific advice in this
complex field is therefore of the utmost importance. This is why we value the work and independent
advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which has experts from fields that
include science, medicine, law enforcement and social policy. We are committed to both maintaining
this expertise and ensuring the ACMD’s membership has the flexibility to respond to the accelerating
pace of challenges.

“maintaining this expertise” by removing the need for scientists?

More in a future blog.

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