Select Committee on Science and Technology

No.56 of Session 2005-06 31 July 2006



The Science and Technology Committee said today that the current drugs classification system is not fit for purpose. In its report, Drug Classification: making a hash of it?, the Committee argued that there was a lack of consistency in the way some drugs were classified in the A,B,C system and no solid evidence to back-up the view that classification had a deterrent effect. The Committee was also critical of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the key scientific advisory body on drugs policy, calling its failure to alert the Home Secretary to the serious flaws in the classification system a "dereliction of its duty".

According to the Committee, the Government's current approach is "opaque" and gives the impression that reviews are being launched "as knee-jerk responses to media storms". The Committee said it was highly unsatisfactory that there is so little knowledge about the classification system's effectiveness and criticised the Government for failing to invest in addiction research.

The Committee pointed to the fact that the classification system is seen as of minor importance to the police as evidence that it is not achieving what it set out to do; namely to make criminal penalties proportional to the harm that drugs do. The Committee wants a decoupling of the penalties and the harm ranking of drugs. This would allow a more sophisticated and scientific approach to assessing harm, and the development of a scale which could be highly responsive to changes when new evidence about the risks of particular substances is brought to light.

Alcohol and tobacco should also be included in a more scientific scale, no longer linked to penalties, as this would give the public a better sense of the relative harms involved.

Cannabis: On the recent debate about the reclassification of cannabis, the Committee concluded that, although the Home Secretary did follow the proper procedures, the timing of the second review against a backdrop of intense media hype, and so soon after the change in cannabis classification had come into effect, gave the impression that a media outcry was enough to prompt a review.

Magic Mushrooms: The Government's decision to use a clarification of the law to put fresh magic mushrooms in Class A, bypassing the need to consult the ACMD, contravened the spirit of the Misuse of Drugs Act and did not give the ACMD the chance to consider the evidence properly. However, the Committee was also critical of the ACMD for not speaking out on this issue, saying its failure to do so has underpinned its credibility.

Ecstasy: The Committee expressed surprise and disappointment that the ACMD has never chosen to review the evidence for ecstasy's Class A status, which it felt highlighted the confusion regarding the way the ACMD decides its work programme.

Amphetamines: The Committee found there was logic to having different classifications for amphetamines depending on the form in which they are administered. However, a consistent policy is needed for other drugs.

Methylamphetamine: The Committee was critical of the fact that the ACMD had made "a political judgement", rather than relying on the science, in its original recommendation to keep methylamphetamine in Class B. It said that the ACMD's subsequent change of heart about the classification of methylamphetamine made it "look like the Council either realised it had made a mistake, or had succumbed to outside pressure".

Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee Phil Willis said: "The current classification system is riddled with anomalies and clearly not fit for purpose. From what we have seen, the Home Office and ACMD approach to classification seems to have been based on ad hockery and conservatism.

"It's obvious that there is an urgent need for a root and branch review of the classification system, as promised by the previous Home Secretary. We all know that the current Home Secretary has other things on his mind but that's not an excuse for trying to kick this issue into the long grass.

"The only way to get an accurate and up to date classification system is to remove the link with penalties and just focus on harm. That must be harm not only to the user but harm defined by the social consequences as well.

"It's time to bring in a more systematic and scientific approach to drug classification - how can we get the message across to young people if what we are saying is not based on evidence?"

For media inquiries please call Laura Kibby on 020 7219 0718. For any other information please call Ana Ferreira, on 020 7219 279.

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Notes to editors:

€ Under the terms of Standing Order No. 152 the Science and Technology Committee is empowered to examine the "expenditure, policy and administration of the Office of Science and Technology and its associated public bodies". The Committee was appointed on 19 July 2005.

€ This inquiry was announced on 9 November 2005 in Press Notice No 9 of session 2005-06.

€ Evidence sessions were held on Wednesday: 1 March when evidence was heard from the ACMD; on 26 April when evidence was heard from Experts and Lobby Groups; and on 14 June when evidence was heard from Home Office Ministers.

€ Copies of the Reports can be obtained from TSO outlets and from the Parliamentary Bookshop , 12 Bridge Street, Parliament Square, London SW1A 2JX (020 7219 3890) by quoting the appropriate HC number, [HC 1031], from the day of publication.

€ The text of the Reports will be available via the Committee's website

Membership of the Committee

Mr Phil Willis (Lib Dem, Harrogate and Knaresborough)(Chairman)
Adam Afriyie (Con, Windsor)
Mr Robert Flello (Lab, Stoke-on-Trent South)
Mr Jim Devine (Lab, Livingston)
Dr Evan Harris (Lib Dem, Oxford West & Abingdon)
Dr Brian Iddon (Lab, Bolton South East)
Margaret Moran (Lab, Luton South)
Mr Brooks Newmark (Con, Braintree)
Anne Snelgrove (Lab/Co-op, South Swindon)
Bob Spink (Con, Castle Point)
Dr Desmond Turner (Lab, Brighton Kemptown)