MPs Savage Government’s ‘Ad Hoc’ Drug Policy

MPs have mounted a savage attack on the government’s drugs policy, denouncing it as “based on ad hockery”, “riddled with anomalies” and “not fit for purpose”. They have also challenged the basis for the ABC classification system, saying that the harm caused by drugs should be separated from criminal penalties.

The criticisms come in a report from the parliamentary science and technology select committee published today as part of an inquiry into how the government uses scientific evidence in policy making. It describes as “dereliction of duty” the failure of the government’s expert committee, the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), to alert the Home Office to serious doubts about the effectiveness of the system. “If the government wants to hand out messages through the criminal justice system then let it do so, but let’s not pretend to do it on the back of scientific levels of harm from drugs because clearly that isn’t the case,” said Phil Willis, chair of the science and technology committee. “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.”

The investigation – entitled Drug Classification: Making a Hash of it? – found no evidence that the sliding scale of classification deters users from taking the more harmful drugs. “We have more drug addicts today than we’ve ever had and we have more people using class A drugs than ever … the classification system as a device to reduce harm to individuals and society has failed,” Mr Willis said.

Even the police regarded the system as of “minor importance”, he said. When asked by the committee about anomalies in the system, Andy Hayman, the chair of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ drugs committee, said the system was “pretty crude” but this was not a problem because police could use their discretion.

The ABC system attaches higher penalties to more dangerous class A drugs such as cocaine than to less dangerous drugs such as cannabis, which is in class C.

Steve Rolles of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, who gave evidence to the inquiry, welcomed the report. “It’s all very well to have good science at one end of this equation, but if there’s no evaluation and review of the impact of the classification on key indicators the whole thing then becomes a joke, really.”

The report does not offer a detailed alternative to the current arrangements but says criminal sanctions could be better linked to the level of criminality surrounding particular drugs, and that penalties could make a clearer distinction between individual use and dealing. The report falls short of calling for personal drug use to be decriminalised.

It denounces the ACMD’s use of political and social criteria in its recommendations to the government. One example, according to the MPs, was methamphetamine or “crystal meth”. In November 2005 the committee reviewed its class B status and concluded that although medical arguments warranted raising it to class A with heroin and cocaine, this might make it more desirable on the street.

“It is highly regrettable that the ACMD took it upon itself to make what should have been a political judgment,” says the report. “Invoking this non-scientific judgment call as the primary justification for its position has muddied the water with respect to its role.” In May the ACMD reconsidered its position and recommended moving the drug into class A.

The MPs also criticised the government’s “opaque” approach to changes in the system and the way in which the changes often appear to be a “knee-jerk response to media storms”. Neither the Home Office nor ACMD chairman Sir Michael Rawlins was available to comment.


  • Methamphetamine: The decision to keep crystal meth in class B in 2005 was criticised as “political” and the subsequent reversal looked “like the council either realised it had made a mistake, or had succumbed to outside pressure”.

  • Ecstasy: MPs critical of failure to review evidence for class A status, given its profile and widespread use.

  • Magic mushrooms: The council’s failure to speak out on government’s decision to put fresh magic mushrooms in class A in July 2005 “undermined its credibility”.

  • Cannabis:The timing of the second review of cannabis classification in March 2005 gave the impression that a media outcry was enough to prompt a review.

  • Alcohol and tobacco: Should be included in a more scientific scale of drug-induced harm.