Drugs classification system ‘not fit for purpose’

The ABC system of classifying drugs should be scrapped and replaced with one that is clearer about its aims and more firmly based on the evidence, MPs warn today.

In a highly critical report, the science and technology committee says decisions on how to classify illegal drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy are taken on a “disconcertingly ad hoc” basis, without coherent criteria and devoid of proper scientific evidence.

It warns the government’s use of the classification system as a means of “sending out signals” to potential users is at odds with the stated objectives of classifying drugs on the basis of harm.

The committee argues this policy-making approach is not backed up by any solid evidence, despite it defining how much of the resources in this area are spent.

The MPs also warn that the police do not consider the classification system of major importance in tackling drugs crime, which suggests that its use as deterrent or as a means of deciding penalties for possession or dealing is seriously limited.

The committee recommends the issues of criminality and how much harm a drug causes be completely separated, with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs(ACMD), which advises ministers on classification, focusing primarily on its clinical and social effects.

Former home secretary Charles Clarke announced in January that he would be reviewing the ABC system, but the promised consultation was never published. Today the MPs urge his successor, John Reid, to urgently press ahead with this review.

In the meantime, they warn the ACMD must be more transparent about how it takes decisions, and welcomes attempts to introduce clear criteria for assessing harm.

One of the problems facing the council is the “woefully inadequate” investment in drug addiction research in the UK, something the MPs warn must be immediately addressed.

The Home Office today refused to confirm whether or not Mr Clarke’s review of the classification system would go ahead, only that the new home secretary would consider the recommendations of the committee very carefully.

A spokesman stressed that the government’s strategy on crime “is making a difference”, telling politics.co.uk that the number of people entering and staying in treatment was higher than ever before, and insisting drug-related crime was falling.

The report holds up the recent decisions to upgrade methylamphetamine as an example of the confusion in the drugs classification system.

The ACMD first decided not to reclassify methylamphetamine as class A, on the basis that it might have had the “unintended effect” of raising interest in the drug and thereby increasing its use.

Today’s report says this was a political judgment, not a scientific one, and warns this muddying of the water in what the council’s aims are is a “serious cause for concern”.

Six months later, however the council decided to go against its original decision and classify methylamphetamine as a class A drug – something the committee warns proves its lack of coherent criteria, and shows a tendency to respond to media concern.