A few weeks ago this blog carried the news the the “Drug Equality Alliance” had won a freedom of information demand to get the proposals to review the drug classification system made by Charles Clarke when he was Home Secretary in 2006 made public. However, as the date the information was due to be released fell within the general election campaign, it came as no real surprise to hear that the Home Office had appealed at the last minute as this blog reported at the time.
Now the election is out of the way and Charles Clarke is no longer an MP, we have a tiny little bit of the drugs classification report released under the FOI ruling but the vast majority remains, to use the strange term for censorship, “redacted” by the big black pen pending the outcome of the appeal. Darryl Bickler of the DEA explains in a recent comment to the blog announcing the appeal mentioned above:
I now understand that the Appeal from the Home Office refers to 2 categories of information. S 21 information and s35 (1) (a) information.
The Home Office has conceded the release of the S21 information but now appeals only on the s35(1)(a) info (ministerial decision making processes). We have approx 40 pages disclosed by Home Office today with whole sections redacted.
In the redacted sections we see they want to hide the following sections:
1. The Ministerial Forward (!!)
2. The Purpose of the Review
3. The Options for consideration – alternative classification systems.
This is what the DEA has sent to UKCIA with comments by me.
Review of the UK’s Drug Classification System, a Public Consultation, May 2006
We are at least allowed to see the title! Note this was a proposal for a public consultation.
We aren’t, however, to know what the purpose of the review was to be which seems a strange thing to censure, what was it for if not to review the workings of the UK’s drugs classification system? We can only speculate.
Ministerial Foreword: [Redacted]
Again, not something we are to be allowed to know about which is quite strange.
Consultation questions: [Redacted]
Alternative systems for consideration: [Redacted]
So no idea of what questions the public consultation was going to ask or the alternatives to be considered, has someone dared to suggest serious drug law reform because the present sytem wasn’t working?
But we are allowed to see a bit of historical perspective which underpinned the Misuse of Drugs Act (MoD act)
3.4 Under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1964/ 1967, all drug offences were treated with the same degree of seriousness. For example, cannabis and heroin possession penalties attracted the same level of penalties. Increasing pressure for reform began to build as the law did not recognise relative harms different drugs caused and it was therefore deemed disproportionate and unfair.
Darryl Bickler of the DEA sees this as a vital admission, ie: that the failure to recognise the relative harms of different drugs having been seen as being “disproportionate and unfair”. The fact that this perception has been recognised within government is certainly interesting.
3.5 The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 sought to address the perceived inequalities by establishing a scale of harm… The Labour Home Secretary, James Callaghan said: “The object here is to make, as far as possible, a more sensible differentiation between drugs. It will divide them according to their accepted dangers and harmfulness in the light of current knowledge and it will provide for changes to be made in the classification in the light of new scientific knowledge”.
This establishes that the Misuse of Drugs act is supposed to reflect the relative harms of drugs in its workings and that the classification of those drugs will be based on the scientific understanding of the potential for harm. It apparently says nothing about the classification system being designed to “send out messages” to any particular section of the population in addition to this potential to cause harm, which was the reason given for returning cannabis to class B, nor to allow politicians to base their judgement of the classification of drugs on anything else they might like to think of, it’s clear that the ABC system is based solely on the science of the potential for harm. It would thus seem that Gordon Brown’s decision to reclassify cannabis to class B based on other considerations was an abuse of the MoD act.
But then we then have
4.15 …the drug classification system under the Misuse of Drugs Act is not a suitable mechanism for regulating legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco. The distinction between legal, prescription, and illegal substances is not unequivocally based on pharmacology, economic or risk-benefit analysis. It is also based in large part on historical and cultural precedents. A classification system that applies to legal as well as illegal substances would conflict with deeply embedded historical tradition and tolerance of consumption of a number of substances that alter mental functioning (ranging from caffeine to alcohol and tobacco). Legal substances are therefore regulated through other means.
That is a statement of opinion really, not something drawn from the wording of the Misuse of drugs act and it’s clearly full of holes. Cannabis, of course has a “deeply embedded historical tradition and tolerance of consumption” amongst many cultures that make up the UK population. The limitation of this exception to caffeine, alcohol and tobacco is clearly a subjective distinction based on little more than culturally biased (one might almost say racist) principles. It is also true that over the past 40 or so years cannabis use has become widespread to the point of arguably becoming normalised within the mainstream UK culture, at least in many areas of the country. If there is a logic in not including alcohol and tobacco within the MoD act based on cultural acceptance, then it should clearly apply to cannabis as well.
Legal and socially acceptable substances
Relationships with alcohol and tobacco
6.1 People have used substances that alter mental functioning almost since the beginning of time. Some are, or have become socially acceptable, whilst others have been made illegal. Alcohol and tobacco have a long tradition of social acceptability in the majority of countries across the world (with the obvious exception of Muslim countries in respect of alcohol, whilst tobacco is becoming less acceptable in certain countries). The production, marketing and distribution of these undoubtedly harmful substances tend to operate within a regulated regime of supply…
6.3 To many young people the regulation of tobacco and alcohol and the prohibition of drugs presents a dichotomy in terms of harm. They question why substances of considerable harm such as cigarettes and alcohol are able to be consumed relatively easily when possessing a drug like cannabis can lead to prosecution…
It clearly isn’t just “young people” who question the logic of prohibiting some drugs whilst tolerating others, it goes across the age spectrum.
Here of course the word “control” is being used in the political sense of meaning prohibition, which as we all know actually means “removing from a regime of effective control”
6.8 There has not, in the UK, been any attempt to impose controls comparable to illicit drugs where it would be an offence to possess and supply alcohol and tobacco. The social acceptability of, for example, alcohol would make such controls unacceptable to the majority who use alcohol responsibly and therefore impractical. But alcohol and tobacco account for more health problems and deaths than illicit drugs. To many young people this presents problems in understanding the rationale behind controlling drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy when their misuse contributes less overall harm to society than widely available drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.
Again, this is not something restricted to “young people”. But more importantly what is this paragraph actually saying? It seems to imply that the only reason prohibition isn’t applied to alcohol is because it would be impractical to do so because of the sheer number of users of that drug and the fact that they simply would not accept the imposition of prohibition. So where is the cut-off point? At what level of use does it become impossible (or apparently undesirable) to prohibit a drug because of the number of users and thus the “impracticality” of doing so? Such a consideration is not one normally applied to the application of the criminal law of course and on several occasions politicians have refused to consider drugs law reform simply because large numbers of people refused to obey the law. Yet here we see the government giving precisely that reason for not applying prohibition to alcohol.
Cannabis, of course, is “widely available” and is certainly not subject to any form of control.
6.9 In terms of death, illegal drugs amounted to 1388 in 2003 compared to 20,000 for alcohol and 100,000 for tobacco.
So clearly the imposition of prohibition of some drugs – ie their inclusion within the MoD act is not based on the harm caused by specific drugs but by a perception of their “cultural acceptance”. This of course is not actually a distinction the MoD act makes and seems to have been invented by politicians to justify the present situation.
So there you have it, we might get more depending on the outcome of the appeal but if the Home Office wins we won’t be told why. Those tiny snippets of information came from a 40 page report so there is clearly a lot there they really don’t want anyone to see and that alone points to there being a huge problem at the heart of the government’s drug policy; they dare not allow the facts of the debate into the public arena because they would seriously undermine the government’s position. This is not how criminal law should be framed in this country and we can only hope that the incoming government of whatever hue it finally adopts will be more open and honest than the last lot. But don’t hold your breath.