I resigned from the ACMD yesterday as a result of my grave concerns and misgivings about the processes we went through at our meeting this week and more generally about the lack of logic and sometimes morality in what we’re required to do. I originally put myself forward as a member of the ACMD because I thought my substantial experience working in the drugs field would be useful. I believed that I might help influence the Council to think more broadly about its remit, so as to make public policy more effective in understanding the reasons why young people are increasingly attracted to drugs and to support the development of effective interventions to prevent and reduce harm.
My main interest and competence is in the field of prevention and early intervention with young people. I have grown increasingly disillusioned not only with the lack of attention paid to this generally by politicians and media but also by the ACMD’s apparent lack of interest in the subject (with a few individual exceptions). Since joining ACMD, I have played an active part in the ‘Pathways to Problems’ review process and enabled engagement of young people. I also spent a significant amount of time in helping to draft the recent response to the DCSF’s new draft guidance on Drugs Education in Schools. However, it is clear that ACMD is far more interested in analysing the chemistry of one drug as opposed to another and making decisions in relation to the potential pharmaceutical harms of one drug compared to another, rather than helping to improve our understanding of why young people use drugs and how we might intervene to prevent and/or reduce harm. This was evident by the lack of attention paid this week by ACMD members to the report on ‘Pathways to Problems’ and also by the decision-making process we went through to make Mephedrone the latest banned substance.
The latter process has left me deeply concerned, intellectually insulted and morally compromised. I contributed little to the discussion on Monday, confused and disillusioned that our focus was not on what we should recommend to understand and influence young people’s behaviour so as to prevent and/or reduce harm. Rather, we made a decision to ban this, the currently most publicly demonised drug, based mainly on its chemical similarities to other Class B substances. If that was the main criterion, how could one not agree with the decision? The problem is that the context of and rationale for our decision-making is a nonsense. What next? How many more new drugs are we going to ban, without an adequate evidence base about the impact of banning on young people’s behaviour re-use of drugs? Do we just keep on going? Rather than banning each new drug that comes along, we need to shift resources into social research about young people’s behaviours, how to influence them and investment in interventions to support demand reduction. In terms of research, the Home Office Blueprint project was intended to help but ended in farce, vagueness and obfuscation, costing, I believe £6-7 million in the process; I don’t think the final cost was publicised. They were, never, however, held to account by ACMD as the subject fell off our agenda as a result of the David Nutt sacking issue. And then the banning of Mephedrone took precedence…
I’ve just been working with some young people who, honestly and seriously, told me that Cannabis, with all its risks, made them feel better about themselves, more able to assess their personal agency, manage their lives and feel more hopeful about the future. My current feeling is that the ACMD, with our focus on chemistry and legality, doesn’t contribute anything towards reducing the countless harms young people like these experience on a daily basis, including though not limited to harms from drug use. Moreover, we are colluding in the sustenance of a system which may in fact disadvantage even further some of the most disadvantaged people in our society.
When, as Home Secretary, Charles Clarke announced his intention to review the entire drugs classification system, I welcomed it and was disappointed when the idea was subsequently shelved. I believe this needs to be revisited. We need to refocus on drugs as a Public Health issue, rather than a Criminal Justice issue. We need to review our entire approach, dumping the idea that legally-sanctioned punishments for drug users should constitute a main part of the armoury in helping to solve our society’s drug problems. We also need to stop causing the harms we have undoubtedly caused to many who have needed help and support rather than punishment. I do not underestimate the risks and complexity associated with such a radical change but this does not make it any less urgent or necessary.
At the end of last year, I decided not to resign over the David Nutt affair, preferring instead to see how things panned out and to hope that the ACMD could develop a work programme which would help prevent and reduce harm. However, I have now decided that I cannot continue to sit on a committee which is complicit in taking part in processes which are not only illogical in many ways but which also, by enabling the criminalisation of ever greater numbers of young people who require support rather than punishment, may even do more harm than good.