It’s like old times really. Exactly five years ago, new drug laws being were being pushed through amid the febrile and shadowy atmosphere of a Parliament readying itself for a General Election.
In 2005, I was a Home Office official witnessing the Drugs Act hurtle at an unseemly pace through both Houses. I am bound to say, despite the fanfare to the media at the time, precious little in the Drugs Act (2005) has had any measurable impact on drug availability, enforcement, or education.
This week we have had the unedifying spectacle of a rush to outlaw the synthetic amphetamine Mephedrone. A wealth of anecdotal evidence points to this drug having comparable harms to controlled drugs such as ‘speed’ and Ecstasy. The problem remains that much of the evidence is very ‘soft’ without any established scientific foundation. Nevertheless, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) has been pressured into providing suitable advice for controlling the drug before the dwindling lights of Parliament are extinguished.
It is certainly a tight timetable. After Easter, there will probably be three days for all Parliamentary stages to be passed before prorogation on 8 April. Police Minister for the Home Office, David Hanson, announced the coming-into-force date for the ‘Order’ as 16 April. The law requires formal agreement at a meeting of Privy Council by the sovereign as an ‘Order in Council’.
Hanson made his announcement of the legal timing in an Oral Statement on 30 March. The scattered collection of MPs present mostly assumed controlling the drug was the end in itself, as if that action would curtail all availability and associated harms. Many members’ contributions also indicated an appetite for a new drug classification where control would be rapid and the assessment of its relative harms by the Advisory Council’s would be subsequent.
If passed, this ‘Class Z’ would amount to drug law being initiated solely by politicians, their hasty decisions fuelled by an often hysterical media and naturally without significant influence from those pesky scientists. We should remind ourselves, of the many Mephedrone ‘deaths’ reported in the press which have largely prompted this legislation, not one has been confirmed by a toxicology test nor has any Coroner made such a verdict.
How did we get here? The Advisory Council was originally the ‘flagship’ of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the driver of policy. It has produced some outstanding reports on the wider impact of drug misuse, for example ‘Hidden Harm, Children of Problematic Drug Users’. This once highly respected body is being downgraded by successive Home Secretaries into some kind of ‘classification shop’.
Polly Taylor’s resignation from the ACMD last Monday, as the Council’s authority on veterinary medicine, highlighted the deep frustration of clinical professionals instructed to establish “mutual trust” with their political masters. It was the fifth resignation from ACMD since Prof. David Nutt’s sacking in November. Drug scientists wishing ‘to speak truth to power’ now find themselves in the guise of Galileo advocating heliocentrism to the Pope.
There is was a more profound significance to Dr Taylor’s departure; her profession’s position on the Council is statutory. The Schedule of the Act also stipulates a GP, pharmacist, chemist, dentist, and an expert on pharmaceutical industry must be represented. The ACMD Chair, Prof. Les Iversen, warned the Home Secretary in December, “Our statutory membership requirements need to be fulfilled before providing formal advice.”
But, despite the Government acting on ACMD’s Mephedrone report, it seems two or three of the statutory posts are still vacant. Dr Evan Harris MP, Liberal Democrat spokesman on science asked the Minister for an assurance the advisory body was “legally constituted,” so the legal change when it comes, “cannot be challenged.”
David Hanson replied a vet had no meaningful contribution to the subject so it “had no material affect” on the decision to classify and was irrelevant to the legal process.
That, I fear, is not the point.
At the time of writing, the ACMD report has not been published and the Council’s membership as a public body remains officially unknown. For Ministers, backbenchers and a rapacious media, these may be obscure and irritating details but there remains a doubt about the integrity of this legislation.
The downside to a casual interpretation of the legal position of the ACMD is potentially calamitous. At least one Home Officer lawyer must have woken up sweating at the prospect of a successful appeal by a Mephedrone dealer and all previous convictions for supply and possession overturned.
We should not be expecting too much for our Ministers to be precise and candid about the advice which legally underpins our drug laws.
Jeremy Sare is a freelance journalist and government consultant. He is a former secretary to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and head of drug legislation at the Home Office.