Evidence and illegal drugs – a toxic mix

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Nick Clegg recently revealed a manifesto pledge to hand responsibility for drugs misuse policy from the Home Office to the Department of Health, calling the current policy idiotic because addiction should be treated as a health problem, not a criminal one. The aim is to bring policymaking closer to the evidence. Unfortunately, past experience in this area doesn’t bode well for his success.

In 2002, Labour reclassified cannabis from a class B to a class C drug, with David Blunkett explicitly citing his two sources of evidence as the home affairs committee and medical experts on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Faced with political pressure in the run up to the 2005 election, Tony Blair referred the decision back to the ACMD. Notably, Blair still justified this using emerging medical evidence on ‘skunk’, a more potent variety of cannabis. The ACMD reconsidered cannabis in the light of this evidence, but concluded in 2009 that cannabis should remain a class C drug.

This advice seemed to land on deaf ears. Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced that cannabis would be re-classified and from that point, the relationship with evidence became largely antagonistic. The ACMD’s then chair, Professor David Nutt, eventually resigned from the ACMD at the request of Alan Johnson, who said that he had confused the boundary between science and policy.

Scientists can assess the physical, mental and social harm caused by drugs, but politicians will have to get involved when it comes to assigning those considerations weight. I’d hope that a Minister for Health might do a better job of this, but far more significant changes will be needed in UK politics before we have a chance of reaching a truly evidence based approach to drugs misuse.