A report from the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) that recommended the decriminalisation of drugs will remain the only one in the council’s history not to be released to the public.
The three-year freedom of information (FOI) campaign to have the 2016 report released, spearheaded by journalist Mattha Busby, has ultimately been shot down by the government following a recent tribunal.
According to reporting from The Times, the tribunal concluded that the report should remain under wraps because the policies discussed in the paper remained under consideration and there was, therefore, no obligation for them to be made public under FOI law.
While this may suggest the government is actively considering decriminalisation of drugs in the UK, experts suggest this is ‘just further evidence’ of the government ignoring evidence-based policy suggestions when it comes to drugs as well as aiming to shut down the debate altogether.
The government’s recent victory in ensuring the report from its own expert advisory group remains suppressed is just the latest chapter in a story that has been developing for years.
In late 2016, the ACMD submitted a report into the ‘Interaction and relationship between the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016’ to the then recently instated Home Secretary, Amber Rudd.
The report suggested amending part of the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) which makes it a criminal offence to possess controlled drugs, creating a policy more in line with the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA), which doesn’t criminalise possession.
It argued that if there were grounds to consider that the possession of controlled substances was not an offence under the PSA, then those grounds should also apply to the MDA. It went on to suggest that, by diverting drug users away from the criminal justice system, harm related to drug use could be significantly reduced.
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Three years later, senior member of the ACMD Professor Alex Stevens, who helped write the 2016 report, resigned from the council amid allegations of the ‘political vetting’ of panel members by the government.
It is understood that his resignation was in reaction to the appointment of Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director of Release, being vetoed by the government over previous criticisms of government policy.
Ms Eastwood told Business of Cannabis: “The fact the Home Office tried to prevent the release of this report is proof that they know the current framework for drugs is not working.
“We keep hearing that the UK drug policy is based on evidence, but when the ACMD, several Select Committees, numerous health bodies, and the United Nations all endorse decriminalisation of possession offences then we know that is simply untrue.”
Following his resignation, Prof. Stevens leaked information of the previously well-hidden report to Mr Busby, before also referencing the report in last year’s Home Affairs Select Committee on Drugs, stating: “This report remains unpublished, despite the ACMD’s code of practice including a presumption of openness (ACMD 2008b).”
After launching an FOI request in 2020 after being informed of the report by Prof. Stevens, Mr Busby published an exclusive article in Vice in 2021, laying bare not only the government’s apparent dismissal of the report, but also its efforts to prevent it from being released.
According to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) report regarding the FOI request, the government repeatedly failed to disclose the requested information regarding both the report and the reasons behind it not being published over an 18-month period and, according to the commissioner, breached a number of codes of the Freedom of Information Act.
The Home Office responded at the time, stating: “The ACMD does routinely publish its advice to government. However, this report is a rare occasion of a piece of advice from the ACMD to Ministers which was explicitly described by the ACMD as confidential and was not intended to be released into the public domain at any point. It was not advice which was commissioned by the Department and it was intended by the ACMD Chair at that time to be a private sharing of views on a very controversial topic.”
Business of Cannabis has contacted the Home Office for clarification on whether it was actively considering the policy suggestions raised in this paper, the reason it gave for not publishing the data under the FOIA.
While we are yet to receive a response, it said in its 2021 response to the FOI request: “It is very difficult to identify a point at which formulation or development of these policies is complete, given that they are subject to continual development.”
‘Gulf’ between evidence and policy
Ms Eastwood suggested that the reason behind the government’s – and the Labour Party’s – reluctance to have this paper published, is ‘an ideological one, based on the notion that a “tough on drugs” rhetoric is a vote winner’.
“This is leading to the criminalisation of tens of thousands of people, mainly young people, every year, resulting in untold damage to employment and educational opportunities, and creating an environment whereby people are afraid to come forward for help if they need it.”
Independent research and advocacy organisation Volteface’s Director Paul North echoed this, suggesting that any intervention from the ACMD, regardless of whether it was made public or not, was unlikely to shift the dial on government policy.
“I am obviously disappointed that the government seeks to hide, suppress, ignore, or just outright dismiss evidence-based policy reform, particularly in the fields of drug use, cannabis, decriminalisation, etc.,” he explained.
Sadly, the @HouseofCommons mic never picked up the beginning of my question to the Home Office. However, I'm glad the Minister @CPhilpOfficial has agreed to sit down with me and industry representatives to discuss licensing of hemp. pic.twitter.com/w3Xi4xHcwa— Ronnie Cowan MP (@ronniecowan) March 20, 2023
“It doesn’t come as a surprise… there are years and years of the government just not paying any attention to the ACMD, and this story with decriminalisation is just further evidence.
“I honestly see a lot of this system as fairly pointless because this government is not going to do anything progressive on drugs through reports that are submitted through any advisory council or group.
“No Think Tank, no Advisory Council, no academic is ever going to be able to convince this government or Labour, because the policymakers are obsessed with polling in the media, that’s all they care about. They don’t care about the effectiveness of the policy.”
The Cannabis Industry Council (CIC) has taken a more positive view of the role of the ACMD, and has now issued an open letter to ACMD urging it to formally recommend to the Home Office that cannabis be rescheduled for research purposes.
It comes as the ACMD is conducting a review of ‘barriers to research’ for schedule 1 drugs, following a request from Home Office Minister Chris Philp MP in late 2022.
During a recent parliamentary debate, Mr Philp said the current situation for drugs research was a ‘Catch-22’ scenario, adding that there was ‘clearly a commercial as well as an academic benefit’ to conduct research of ‘all drugs’.
The CIC said: “In effect, cannabis used in a clinical trial still remains a Schedule 1 Drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act, which necessitates extensive Home Office applications and clearances…
“The Cannabis Industry Council therefore supports the adjustment of the scheduling of cannabis for research and strongly urges the ACMD to make such a recommendation in your response to the Home Office.”