The British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) has criticized the Labor government's ongoing consultation on a new 10-year drug strategy as a "missed opportunity" because the government created a consultation paper that was "self-congratulatory" and focused on trying to claim the current 10-year strategy is a success. A day later, the ACMD's head announced the council was recommending that doctors be allowed to prescribe controlled substances such as heroin and cocaine.
In its response to the consultation, the ACMD was decidedly undiplomatic in its overall comments: "It is unfortunate that the consultation paper's 'key facts and evidence' section appears to focus on trying to convince the reader of success and progress; rather than providing an objective review and presentation of the current evidence. The ACMD found the consultation paper self-congratulatory and generally disappointing," the council complained.
The ACMD also scolded the government for lacking a firm evidence base and failing to acknowledge it: "It is of concern that the evidence presented, and the interpretation given, are not based on rigorous scrutiny. It is not acknowledged that in many cases the information is uncertain and sometimes of poor quality. It is disappointing that the consultation paper makes no mention of needing to improve the evidence base of drug misuse and treatments nor makes use of international evidence, for informing and guiding policy," the council chided.
"We consider that an opportunity has been missed to address the public health problem relating to drug misuse and the balance with law enforcement and the criminal justice system. We would also have welcomed a statement of ambition for the drug treatment system," the council added.
The ACMD was created as part of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act and it is mandated to advise the Home Office on drug policy. One of its primary functions is to recommend which classification various drugs should go in. While the ACMD is critical of the government's drug policy consultation process, it itself has been criticized for a lack of scientific basis in the drug classification system, most thoroughly by the Science and Technology Select Committee's 2006 report, Drug Policy: Making A Hash of It?
The ACMD's caustic words for the process gave fuel to the political opposition, with the Liberal Democrats quick off the mark. "The failures of the government's drugs policy are laid bare for all to see when their own advisory committee condemns the Home Office as being misleading and self-congratulatory," said Liberal Democrat leadership contender Nick Clegg. "When will the government wake up and acknowledge something many members of the public know: we are losing the war on drugs?" Clegg asked.
It wasn't just political foes. Steve Rolles of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation had last month called the consultative process "a sham," saying the government had already made up its mind to continue the current strategy. "The consultation process behind the new strategy has been woeful," he said.
Then, last Saturday, ACMD chairman Sir Michael Rawlins announced during the group's first public meeting in its 36-year existence that he had sent a letter to the Home Office proposing that the drug law be changed to allow nurses and pharmacists prescribe heroin and cocaine to hard-core users and pain patients. He wrote a letter to Home Office minister Vernon Coker making the proposal in a bid to help patients manage pain better, he said.
That proposal prompted quick criticism, too, this time from political opponents on the right, who called it a "white flag" approach. "If Gordon Brown signs up to this, it would show yet again that Labour merely seek to manage drug addiction rather than end it," said Conservative shadow home secretary David Davis. "The Conservative approach is different. We would stop -- not swap -- drug addiction by focusing the drugs budget on expanding the use of abstinence-based drug rehabilitation programs. This method has proved far more successful at getting people off drugs than the Government's white flag approach."
And so it goes in the countdown to the new British drug strategy, which is due in the spring. Meanwhile, the ACMD is considering whether ecstasy should be down-scheduled and marijuana up-scheduled. The drug debate in Britain is going to stay lively for awhile.