This blog followed controversy about the relationship between Ministers and the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs. It was published on Monday, November 2nd 2009.
Cannabis Sound and Fury
There's plenty of sound and fury in the weekend's exchanges about cannabis and the Advisory Committee on Misuse of Drugs, but so far not much substance.
The Advisory Committee was set up under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act because Ministers of the day wanted independent advice about one of the most vexed questions of the day. Drug use was a very hot topic then (as it is now) and some level of objectivity was needed in a world where the tabloid media was setting the agenda (as it tries to now).
Politicians were (and are) concerned about the signals sent by decisions in this field, and the extent to which they influence the behaviour of potential drug users.
The Committee is not in fact a purely scientific committee. It certainly includes distinguished scientists and other academics, but also senior professionals who work with drug users, such as police, social workers, doctors and psychologists, as well as people from charities, local government and the health service.
It attempts to reach a consensus view from this range of different experience and then to advise the government of the day. It decides what to look at and Home Secretaries can invite it to address particular problems.
It has always been accepted that Ministers have the right to reject their advice, though they know that if they do reject it they will have to explain themselves. It has also always been accepted that the Committee members have the right to express their own views on these matters as long as they do not purport to speak for the Government. However senior members of the Committee normally felt that their role would be stronger and their advice clearer if they did not themselves attempt to influence the debate.
The recommendations of the Committee were never clearcut. They had to consider both the pure medical harms of particular drugs and the wider social harm which they could create, for example if drug abuse were widespread. At the same time they knew that their recommendations, and the consequent decisions, would be taken as a significant signal which might well influence peoples' consumption of a particular drug, albeit that any consumption was illegal since their recommendations related only to illegal drugs, and not legal ones such as alcohol and tobacco.
This was the context in which David Blunkett in 2002 decided, following a recommendation of the Advisory Committee, to reclassify cannabis to a less serious category of harm. It was a controversial decision which many (including myself) thought misguided and risked increasing cannabis consumption.
When I became Home Secretary in December 2004 I decided to refer the matter again to the Advisory Committee. There was increasing evidence that for some people cannabis increased significantly the dangers of mental illness and I hoped and expected that the Committee would reconsider its recommendation. The reference also had the political advantage of reducing the salience of the issue in the 2005 General Election.
When the Committee reported again, the recommendation was not to change the classification again. I had personally discussed the matter with the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and he was clear that despite his own inclination to reclassify cannabis to its earlier status the decision was for me on the basis of the Advisory Committee's recommendation. He would back what I decided, which indeed he did.
After some consideration I decided, against my original instincts, to accept the advice of the Committee and to leave the classification unchanged. For me the decisive piece of evidence was that, contrary to my expectations, cannabis consumption had fallen, not risen, following David Blunkett's reclassification. I made a Statement to Parliament on January 19th 2006.
I did remain concerned about the messages sent by a decision not to reclassify and so I decided that we should send more explicit messages warning against consuming cannabis. This was to be done by better education in schools, better medical and protection services, clearer sentencing of those involved in cannabis abuse and better police targeting of those who deal in cannabis with more coherent attacks on the cannabis dealing network.
I also felt that the classification system for drugs was too simplistic. One classification, A, B or C, was being asked to include assessments of medical harms, social harms and to send fairly unequivocal messages to potential drug users. The classification system was not strong enough to carry all these loads, particularly in the heightened political and media environment. Moreover the debate about drug abuse increasingly encompassed both legal and illegal drugs and I thought that any classification system should try and deal with that.
I therefore asked the Advisory Committee to do a substantial piece of work which would recommend a better system of classification. Unfortunately my successor John Reid decided not to proceed with this wider review so that the current incoherent system remains to generate confusion and controversy.
In this spirit Gordon Brown let it be known when he became Prime Minister in 2007 that he intended to overturn the process which had taken place in 2005/6 and to return the classification of cannabis to the position before Blunkett's decision in 2002, irrespective of the view of the Advisory Committee. The incoming Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith asked the Advisory Committee to consider the issue yet again, as she was required to under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, and then overruled their recommendation.
This decision (together with the ill-considered and ill-fated decision to revisit 42 day pre-charge detention in certain counter-terrorism cases) fulfilled Gordon Brown's ambition to appear "tougher" than Tony Blair.
This rather complicated history is the source of the current disputes around the dismissal of Professor Nutt and the resignations of a number of members of the Advisory Committee. I am doubtful whether Professor Nutt's lectures and remarks added up to the "campaigning" which would justify Alan Johnson dismissing him, whether or not under pressure from 10 Downing Street.
But more importantly I do understand that members of Advisory Committees, whether or not scientific in nature, need to be confident that they can continue to discuss their policy areas openly as long as they do not pretend to be representing Government policy. And they need to be confident that their recommendations will be seriously considered before Ministers take decisions. They should not be pre-judged nor regarded just as an adornment to cover the backs of Ministers.
All of these reasonable expectations were confounded in the case of the Advisory Committee by the Prime Minister"s decision in 2007 to revisit the previous decisions on cannabis classification and to impose his own will whatever the view of the Committee.
So what is now to be done? I would suggest the following:
The Advisory Committee, reconstituted as necessary, should be asked to look again at the whole drugs classification regime and make recommendations as to a new framework to inform educational, health and criminal justice policy and to take account of the "messages" which any such system sends to the citizen.
The Cabinet Office should reissue the appropriate guidance, amended if necessary (though I doubt it is in fact necessary) as to the conduct of Advisory Committees etc. The Prime Minister should confirm that all Ministers will act in accordance with it.
Some clarity as to government ambitions in relation to the consumption of both legal and illegal drugs should be offered. My own suggestion is that all policy decisions in this area, including on criminal justice, policing, taxation, advertising etc should be based on seeking to reduce overall consumption of the drug in question, in particular where it is excessive. That is the measure against which policies in this area should be tested.
Charles Clarke MP