Code of Practise for Scientific Committees

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The Code of Practise for Scientific Committees

The Code of Practise for Scientific Committees applies to the ACMD

 

Our summary, comments in italics.

Remit:

11. The terms of reference for most scientific advisory committees are set by Government. It is Government’s responsibility to ensure that a committee’s remit is clear, and it is the committee’s responsibility to raise concerns if they believe there are ambiguities. As a general principle, any required clarification of a committee’s role should take place before a committee begins its work. A committee’s formal terms of reference may well have been set in statute or be otherwise difficult to change, or be so broad as to leave scope for interpretation. Committees should create periodic opportunities for members to discuss the committee’s role, activities and resources, and review these for consistency with the formal terms of reference. Any necessary revisions should then be considered with sponsoring departments.

ACMD's statutory remit in the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) concerns risk assessments and regulatory options evaluation of drugs that are misused; misuse is harmful consumption – there is no requirement to advise prohibition of possession, supply and production; drugs refers to all drugs - illegal drugs are referred to as ‘controlled drugs’; there is no exclusion of traditional drugs alcohol and tobacco. ACMD interpretation of their statutory remit appears inconsistent with the text of the MDA concerning their statutory remit. ACMD provide no transparent explanation for the apparent inconsistencies. [see MDA for more]

13. Where a committee is required to offer advice on social, ethical and economic considerations which bear on the scientific advice, it should be made explicit to the committee that this role is being taken on. In putting forward its advice, the committee should make clear any limitations on its expertise to address such wider considerations.

ACMD reports suggest their advice is based only on scientific evidence – there is no mention of social, ethical or economic factors [see cannabis reclassification report]. ACMD do not have expertise in non-scientific areas – the MDA only requires they have scientific expertise. They have no expertise in risk assessment and regulatory options evaluation but do not make this clear. [see MDA for more]

Responsibilities of chairs

22. Chairs of advisory committees have responsibility for:

- ensuring that the full range of scientific opinion, including unorthodox and contrary scientific views are appropriately taken into account;

ACMD do not seem to take account of the views of Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council, and the Beckley Foundation. These scientists believe drug regulations for traditional and non-traditional drugs should be consistent, targeted at harmful use and proportionate to harmfulness.

- ensuring that the secretariat accurately documents the proceedings of the committee so that there is a clear audit trail showing how the committee reached its decisions.

There does not appear to be a clear audit trail showing how decisions were made. The Chairman has stated this referring to the origins of the classification system used in the MDA [more].

- ensuring that any significant diversity of opinion among the members of the panel is fully explored and discussed and if it cannot be reconciled is accurately reflected in the report and in any other communications with sponsoring departments;

ACMD reports indicate no diversity of opinion though many members’ professions involve traditional and non-traditional drugs equally.

- ensuring that the committee acts in accordance with this Code.

ACMD do not appear to comply with the Code - e.g. Home Office drugs minister Caroline Flint, replying to a parliamentary question on 24 June 2004, said "The ACMD's minutes and agendas are not public documents".

Members’ rights and responsibilities

25. Members of the committee should ensure they understand why they are being appointed and in what capacity, and the role they are expected to play on the committee. Members should understand the nature of any expertise that they are asked to bring. Members with a particular expertise have a responsibility to make the committee aware of the full range of opinion within the discipline.

Many members’ professions involve traditional and non-traditional drugs equally, suggesting they believe both categories to be harmful drugs. Members should be concerned about the omission of traditional drugs from ACMD advice. Members should also note the views of scientists associated with the Beckley Foundation.

27. ... members of committees … have a duty to act in the public interest.

Identification of alcohol and tobacco as harmful drugs is in the public interest. Tolerating reasonably safe drug use and ensuring consumer protection are also in the public interest.

28. If additional clarification of members’ roles is required, this can most usefully be done after they are appointed, but before they begin work.

Has this ever occured?

29. Members should regard themselves as free to question and comment on the information provided or the views expressed by any of the other members, notwithstanding that the views or information do not relate to their own area of expertise. If members believe the committee’s method of working is not rigorous or thorough enough they should have the right to ask that any remaining concerns they have be put on the record.

Members have a right and responsibility to fully understood the decision-making process required under the ACMD's statutory duty. This includes the methodology for harmful drug identification, risk assessment and regulatory options evaluation.

30. All members and secretariats should regard it as part of their role to:

- consider whether the questions on which the committee offers advice are those which are of interest to the public and other interested parties outside the scientific community;

Identification of alcohol and tobacco as harmful drugs is in the public interest. It is also in the public interest for ACMD to distinguish between reasonably safe drug use, use harmful to the consumer and use harmful to others. Consumer, trade and human rights are of concern as is consumer protection.

- examine and challenge if necessary the assumptions on which scientific advice is formulated and ask for explanations of any scientific terms and concepts which are not clear;

Members should challenge assumptions that the ACMD remit does not apply to traditional drugs and that ACMD must advise prohibition rather than licensing for non-traditional drugs. Are members clear what the words 'drugs' and 'misuse' refer to in the Misuse of Drugs Act?

- ensure that the committee has the opportunity to consider contrary scientific views and where appropriate the concerns and values of stakeholders before a decision is taken;

ACMD do not seem to take account of the views of Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council, and the Beckley Foundation. These scientists believe drug regulations for traditional and non-traditional drugs should be consistent, targeted at harmful use only and proportionate to harmfulness. Concerns and values of stakeholders, especially those severely affected by ACMD decisions, are not considered.

- ensure that the committee's advice is comprehensible from the point of view of a lay person.

No explanation is given why ACMD advises that non-traditional drugs which are not harmless should be prohibited while more harmful traditional drugs are legally available. Why advise prohibition of cannabis when ACMD evidence suggests it is a safer intoxicant than alcohol?

31. All members should share in the general responsibility to consider the wider context in which their expertise is employed.

ACMD do not seem to have assessed the regulatory option of licensing though there is considerable debate about such an option throughout society.

32. Members joining committees should undergo an induction process. This should cover the following issues (notwithstanding that some of these may have been dealt with by the sponsoring department during the appointment process):

Explanation of the committee’s official remit
The committee’s authority and powers
Who sets the committee’s agenda
On what basis decisions are made
The committee’s current work and its future agenda
The role of the secretariat and other officials
Whether meetings are open to the public
How the public can find out what is discussed
Rights and responsibilities of members
What capacity they are serving in (as individuals as opposed to being a delegate of an organisation)
Whether any proceedings or papers are confidential

Do ACMD members receive such induction? If so, what are they told?

Role of the secretariat

38. The secretariat should include, or have access to, people with relevant technical/scientific expertise.

ACMD must assess risks and advise about regulatory options but members have no expertise in these areas [see 13 above]. The Secretariat should ensure such expert advice is provided to ACMD.

39. The secretariat should be an impartial and disinterested reporter. It should at all times respect the committee's independent role. It should guard against introducing bias during the preparation of papers, during meetings, or in the reporting of the committee’s deliberations.

It is not clear if the Secretariat biases new members of the ACMD in favour of traditional drugs and against non-traditional drugs. The Secretariat may encourage new members to believe the ACMD remit excludes traditional drugs and requires prohibitory advice for non-traditional drugs. The ACMD Secretariat has said, in relation to the exclusion of traditional drugs from their advice, that ACMD, though independent, has decided its advice should depend on Government policy.

40. The secretariat should ensure that the proceedings of the committee are properly documented so that there is a clear audit trail showing how the committee reached its decisions.

ACMD Secretariat has not replied to requests for further information about the decision to base ACMD advice on Government policy to exclude traditional drugs from their advice.

43. The secretariat should draw up appropriate procedures, approved by the committee, … ensuring that material is only withheld from public release for confidentiality reasons when there are justifiable reasons for doing so.

ACMD Secretariat has not explained the reasoning behind ACMD decisions: to not identify and refer to traditional drugs as drugs; to exclude traditional drugs from their advice in line with Government policy rather than scientifiuc evidence of harmfulness; to target all use of non-traditional drugs rather than harmful use only; to advise prohibition of drugs that are not harmless, an unreasonably harsh criteria; to limit their statutory duty by excluding traditional drugs and by not considering licensing of non-traditional drugs.

Working practices

46. Committees should operate from a presumption of openness. The proceedings of the committee should be as open as is compatible with the requirements of confidentiality (see also below under "Dealing with confidential information"). The committee should maintain high levels of transparency during routine business.

ACMD Secretariat has not explained the reasoning behind many ACMD decisions – see 43 above.

Reporting of risk and uncertainty

55. Committees should aim at having a transparent and structured framework to examine, debate and explain the nature of the risk. It is for committees to decide what form their risk assessments should take, but whatever procedure is used, it should be a systematic one. Whenever their work involves an assessment of risk, committees should consider carefully, taking into account the nature and scale of the problem, what precision of estimates is appropriate or realistic, in terms of costs, resources and time. Where a committee is asked to provide risk management options, it will normally be helpful for it to follow a formal structure based on recognised principles of risk assessment.

ACMD reviewed their risk assessment framework in 2001 but it remains unpublished. The ACMD reports on cannabis reclassification in 2002 and the Ketamine report of 2004 show no evidence of assessing risk consistent with recognised principles of risk assessment, nor with Government guidelines on managing risks to the public.

56. Whenever the committee’s work is likely to involve an assessment of risk or where the scientific evidence is expected to be subject to appreciable uncertainty, if not already available within its membership, advice should be taken from individuals or groups with relevant expertise and/or guidance.

ACMD members do not have expertise in risk assessment or management. They do not seem to seek expertise elsewhere [see 13 above].

59. Within the context of the remit given to them, committees should use the most appropriate method of reporting outcomes that takes account of the level and type of uncertainty involved. Where practical and verifiable, risk should be reported in terms of the likelihood and consequences of the event. Sources of data should be quoted and any degree of auditing described. Where a range of policy options are considered, risks should be reported for each and reasons for choosing a preferred option should be made clear.

ACMD reports do not estimate risk likelihood and impact. No comparison of regulatory options is made.

60. When communicating risks to the public, committees should take note of written guidance and other sources of advice available on the communication of risk and when necessary seek advice from individuals or groups with relevant expertise on risk communication.

ACMD do not follow any Government guidance on risk communication. They may feel they only provide advice to the Home Office and then HO communicates risk to the public.

Procedures for arriving at conclusions

63. Whatever mechanism is used for agreeing the advice a committee should offer, it is essential that the minutes of the meeting should clearly set out what was the result of the discussion.

ACMD meeting minutes are not public documents. Home Office drugs minister Caroline Flint, replying to a parliamentary question on 24 June 2004, said "The ACMD's minutes and agendas are not public documents".

Dealing with dissenting views

64. … any significant diversity of opinion among the members of the committee should be accurately reflected in the report.

ACMD reports indicate no diversity of opinion, unlike great diversity in public and MPs opinion.

Publication of documents - general

65. The committee should establish a policy on what documents are to be published based on principles of openness and transparency. All committees are expected to publish, as a minimum, programmes of work, meeting agenda, minutes, final advice and an annual report. Unless there are particular reasons to the contrary they should also routinely publish supporting papers. Openness from the outset about risks and concerns can sometimes prevent difficult situations arising later on in a committee’s work.

ACMD meeting agenda and minutes are not public documents. Home Office drugs minister Caroline Flint, replying to a parliamentary question on 24 June 2004, said "The ACMD's minutes and agendas are not public documents".

Dealing with confidential information

68. Committees should abide by the principles contained in the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information [now the Freedom of Information Act].

ACMD Secretariat has not replied to several letters. Those letters replied to have not been fully answered. See Correspondence with Government.

70. Committees should be prepared to explain publicly why information is being withheld.

ACMD have not explained why any fundamental information is not disclosed to the public – e.g. the failure to identify traditional drugs as drugs and the consequent discrimination between drugs based on tradition rather than harmfulness.

Meeting agenda

72. Committees should make the agenda available prior to meetings. As a minimum this should be published on their website and a paper copy available on request.

ACMD meeting agendas are not published on their website. Home Office drugs minister Caroline Flint, replying to a parliamentary question on 24 June 2004, said "The ACMD's minutes and agendas are not public documents".

Publication of minutes

73. The committee should publish minutes of its meetings.

ACMD meeting minutes are not public documents. Home Office drugs minister Caroline Flint, replying to a parliamentary question on 24 June 2004, said "The ACMD's minutes and agendas are not public documents".

Submitting and publishing a committee’s advice

76. A committee’s advice should be in writing, and should be seen as independent of government.

ACMD Secretariat has explained that the ACMD’s advice is not independent of Government but depends on Government policy. The ACMD’s decision to exclude traditional drugs from their advice is based on following Government policy rather than evidence of harmfulness.

77. Advice should be in terms that can be understood by a layperson. It should explain the reasoning on which the advice is based; make clear what principles, if any, of risk management are being applied, any assumptions underlying the advice and identify the nature and extent of any uncertainty.

Principles of risk management and assumptions underlying the advice have not been made clear. It seems there is an assumption that ACMD methodology should follow that of United Nations drug Conventions.

78. In situations of uncertainty, committees could offer a range of options or interpretations to their departments rather than just one. In so doing they should distinguish between options which are alternative interpretations of the scientific evidence, and options which involve other factors including social, ethical or economic considerations.

ACMD do not appear to consider any options other than the prohibition of possession, supply and production of non-traditional drugs. They claim the regulatory option of prohibition is justified by scientific evidence that a drug is not harmless rather than by social, ethical or economic considerations. The concept of a harmless drug is not scientific. No mention is made of public opinion (public risk tolerance) or UN drug Conventions as relevant factors.

Publication of background documentation

85. In order to help provide a full appreciation of its advice and decisions, the committee should, where appropriate, facilitate public access to documents or information that have contributed to the formulation of its advice. This would enable third parties to better understand the conclusions reached and decisions taken.

ACMD do not publish any background documents, e.g. explanations of their interpretation of their statutory remit, their risk assessments and regulatory options evaluation.

Communication with the public

91. Committees should develop a policy for the communication of their work to the public and other interested parties and for receiving feedback. There is a range of mechanisms that can be used such as: open meetings, public consultation, dialogue with interested parties and the calling of outside experts to attend meetings.

ACMD seem reluctant to communicate with the public (see 60 above).

92. Committees should identify interested parties and consider maintaining an open register of relevant stakeholders. They should consult on issues that generate widespread public concern or raise significant ethical questions. Particular attention should be paid to the communication of risk assessments.

ACMD do not identify and communicate with relevant stakeholders, non-traditional drug consumers, nor consult this group who are severely affected by ACMD decisions that deny them equal rights with traditional drug consumers.

Public consultation

96. The general principle of consultation is that there should be transparency, which means that the public should be able to understand the procedures by which the committee arrived at its decisions. There should also be openness, in the sense that the public should have sufficient information available to be able to understand the chain of reasoning underlying a committee’s advice, and have access to the information on which the committee based its assessments.

ACMD do not consult the public (see 60 & 91 above).

Information exchange

99. Committees should be told of the existence of any other relevant committees and have opportunities to exchange information with them. This might involve giving other committees advance notice of significant announcements, copying relevant documents or sharing best practice through joint meetings. Where appropriate committees should develop contacts with relevant European Union and international committees.

ACMD should work closely with the World Health Organisation who provide the United Nations with scientific advice about harmful drugs just as ACMD does to the UK Government. The Chairman of ACMD also holds a post at WHO. WHO’s European Alcohol Action Plan 2000–2005 says "WHO has always advocated a combined approach to reduce the harm resulting from the use of alcohol, drugs and tobacco".

100. Where a committee’s work is closely related to that of another advisory committee, they need to be clear who has responsibility for what. This should be recorded in writing. They should consider setting up a system of cross-representation so that each committee includes a member of the other, or asking the bodies responsible for appointments to consider doing so. This should have the effect of forging close links between them and avoiding inconsistencies of approach in related fields.

Other advisory committees provide advice about alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. ACMD risk assessments and regulatory options evaluations are inconsistent with these scientific committees.