Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Let me reclassify that....

Please allow me to get all political on your ass.

In the UK, the Chief Scientific Adviser is responsible to the Prime Minister and Cabinet for the quality of scientific advice to them on scientific and science policy issues. The Government Office for Science is located within the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

The current Chief Scientific Adviser is Professor John Beddington FRS, who has a pretty impressive CV, by all accounts.

So how come cannabis is being reclassified to a Class B drug next week (Mon 26th Jan 2009), when the evidence from Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) said it should remain a class C? (The AMCD is an external, independent panel of experts that advises the Government on drug-related issues).

It's generally considered not very clever to ask your expert advisers for their advice and then reject the evidence because it doesn't suit your agenda - I believe it's called Policy-based Evidence, and was enjoyably discussed on BBC Radio 4's More or Less program this week with Tim Harford - still available as a podcast.

The Guardian reported yesterday that the Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee berated Prof Beddington for not doing his job as Chief Scientific Adviser, by not holding the Government to account in terms of the reclassification of cannabis and for defending the Government's position on alternative medicines, despite there being no evidence for either. [A cynic would say the Daily Mail reader's vote is being bought with the first one, and Prince of Quackness Charles Windsor is ensuring no change on the second, and that Prof Beddington has no choice].

So how accurate is the charge "The government is ignoring its own Scientific Advisers" and how is the Government currently relaying this rebuff?
In July 2007 the Home Secretary requested, in the light of “real public concern about the potential mental health effects of cannabis use, in particular the use of stronger forms of the drug, commonly known as skunk”, that the Council re-assess the classification of cannabis.
This is from the ACMD: Cannabis Re-classification website. The full report is also on this site.

The ACMD came back with 21 recommendations of which the Government promised to implement 20 - guess which one they decided not to implement? Correct - the one they originally asked the ACMD to report back on:

Recommendation 3: Cannabis should remain a Class C drug

A similar-minded cynic to that above might suggest that the Home Secretary had already decided to reclassify cannabis to a B and was hoping for some support from the ACMD - a textbook case of "Policy-based evidence".

Needless to say, the Government is making a big deal of saying that it is implementing 20 of the 21 recommendations, and not a whole lot about the one they actually wanted information on:
The decision follows a review of cannabis classification which was carried out by the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs, at the request of the Prime Minister [...]
The government accepted 20 of the 21 recommendations from the ACMD report. The government’s response to the ACMD report explains its decision in detail.

Very disingenuous towards the ACMD, to suggest the decision 'follows' the review - 'follows' chronologically, but not by content.

But what of Prof John Beddington FRS, chief Scientific adviser to the Government, the voice of evidence-based policy in the scientific arena - surely, he had something to say? Indeed he did (via a spokesman):
There will of course be times when contradictions exist between scientific advice and other policy imperatives [...]

Or to translate:
The government will use evidence-based policy when it happens to coincide with their plans or if there is a block-vote at stake.

How very.....democratic.



  1. Ye-es. The problem is, of course, that it IS arguably democratic. When scientific evidence comes into conflict with policy demands which have a political (i.e. votewinning) motivation, which should win? Given a democratic system, what motivation does a government have to go with evidence-based policy rather than popular policy?

  2. hmm, fair point Toby, but basing public health policy on positions that are votewinners is dangerous and irresponsible - particularly if the chief scientific officer and the ACMD etc are going to be consulted beforehand to lent the decision a veneer of authenticity. better to stop the pretence and declare that the govt will from now on do whatever it pleases, whether there'e evidence that it's for the best or not.

    of course the reason why "cannabis as a class B" is a votewinner is our ludicrous first-past-the-post system where about 17 Daily Fail readers in Middle England decide the outcome of every election, so you're right, given a choice between doing the right thing and pandering to those 17 voters, there's no choice really. shame that...

  3. Good post Dr* T. I sometimes read the TDPF blog and you've just reminded me that I should read it more often. The Government policy seems to be to bend to public opinion [i.e., the Daily Fail] on "skunkabis". I've whinged before about the gubmint ignoring its own expert committee and I'm pleased to see it being covered on your blog.

    Nice work.

  4. I'm happy as long as they don't reclassify alcohohol.