Is the Home Office attempting to 'body-swerve' official drugs advisers?

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Home Secretary Theresa May and her statutory advisers on drug policy look to be heading for a showdown over government plans to deal with so-called "legal highs".

Some members of The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) are understood to be furious that they were not consulted on proposed legislation for a blanket ban on psychoactive substances.

The relationship between the ACMD and ministers in various governments has long been strained. There have been sackings and mass resignations in the last few years, amid claims that expert scientists were being bullied and ignored because their advice didn't coincide with government policy.

Questions are now being asked as to whether the ACMD is being edged out of the drugs debate - 44 years after a Conservative government set it up to ensure science rather than politics dictated policy.

In the House of Lords yesterday, a number of peers demanded to know why ministers had not asked the ACMD's opinion before drawing up the controversial Psychoactive Substances Bill.

"It is actually a legal requirement set out in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 that the ACMD must be consulted before alterations to the Act or new legislation is brought in," Labour peer Lord Rea told the House.

"Instead, a specially appointed expert panel was set up by the Home Office. I can only suggest that this was done because the opinion of the ACMD is often not exactly welcomed by the Home Office".

It had been assumed that proposals to deal with the threat from new psychoactive substances (NPS) would have been sent to the ACMD. The council had set up a NPS committee specifically "to monitor the prevalence and harms of NPS and where appropriate provide advice on this to government".

However, the Home Office hand-picked an expert committee to consider "how the legislative framework for responding to these new drugs could be enhanced".

"If there is any suggestion that they were deliberately body-swerved in order to get a political outcome by resorting to an expert committee, that would leave some of us of a more sceptical disposition more worried than we might need to be," Lib Dem peer Lord Kirkwood said.

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The expert panel was recruited last year by the then Home Office minister Norman Baker who, I understand, had thought the ACMD would be "too busy" to take on the extra responsibility.

Unlike the Misuse of Drugs Act which states the home secretary cannot ban drugs "except after consultation with or on the recommendation of the Advisory Council", the Psychoactive Substances Bill leaves ministers free to ask advice from anyone they wish.

"The Secretary of State must consult such persons as she or he considers appropriate before making any such regulations," the Bill states.

It is worth remembering why the ACMD was given its statutory role in the first place. The demand that home secretaries must consult with an expert committee on matters of drug policy was introduced by Edward Heath's Conservative government as part of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Giving the ACMD statutory powers was actually added in by the Tories, the only significant change from a Labour bill drawn up by the previous Wilson government.

In the House of Lords in 1971, Conservative Home Office minister Lord Windlesham explained why it was important to put a check on the activities of politicians. "Anyone who studies the complex problem of drugs misuse quickly comes to appreciate the limited contribution that can be made by laws and their enforcement," he explained.

"We are concerned here with human behaviour, with the exercise of free will, with the desire to experiment, and often with the rejection of conventional standards. Many young drug takers, especially, have a sense of belonging to a culture of their own; and one that is opposed to the world they see outside.

"The first clause in the Bill recognises this and places a number of specific duties on the Advisory Council," Lord Windlesham continued. "Persons affected by the misuse of drugs must be helped to obtain proper advice, and there must be facilities for treatment, rehabilitation and aftercare."

The principle which underpinned the drugs debate in the UK at that time was the longstanding and broadly accepted view that addicts were ill and required treatment rather than punishment. Known as the "British system", ministers felt a medical science-led approach was preferable to US-style prohibition.

Roll the clock forward four decades and the government view seems to have turned around entirely in responding to the threat from so-called "legal highs". The bill to outlaw NPS prohibits everything "capable of producing a psychoactive effect" unless it is specifically exempted - and there are concerns that the proposals are being introduced without proper consultation with health experts.

"Have we taken advice from the Department of Health?" asked Lord Patel, a Labour peer and former ACMD member. "What are its views, and what is the view of Public Health England on the implementation of this Bill?"

Replying for the government, Home Office minister Lord Bates described the bill as "the stick" to deal with legal highs rather than "the carrot" of health-based proposals. "The health elements must be equally as strong and robust," he said. "I have not dwelt on them as much because that is not the subject of the Bill."

The chairman of the ACMD, Professor Les Iversen has told me the council "is not involved in the implementation of the Psychoactive Substances Bill and I cannot discuss the Bill until I have had a chance to gather the views of ACMD members - which I am currently doing."

It is likely that some of the members of the council will have very strong views indeed.