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Tension at heart of drug classification

Mark Easton | 11:49 UK time, Monday, 12 July 2010

The Home Office has fought for three years to keep details of its review of the drug classification system secret. Now the campaigners who forced its publication think they know why: the document, they say, exposes the illogicality that undermines government drugs policy.

You will remember what happened to Professor David Nutt, the former head of the body which oversees the drug classification system, when he argued official policy should recognise that ecstasy and cannabis were less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. His controversial views cost him his job on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. But, years earlier, the Home Office had come to the same conclusion.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, this weekend the pressure group Drug Equality Alliance finally got to see the 2006 advice given to ministers [361KB PDF] ahead of a planned public consultation into the legal controls on illicit drugs, a report initiated by the former Home Secretary Charles Clarke.

One section of the paper focuses on the dangers of treating cigarettes and booze differently from ecstasy and cannabis. The authors point out that "alcohol and tobacco account for more health problems and deaths than illicit drugs". They quote figures which suggest that "in terms of death, illegal drugs amounted to 1,388 in 2003 compared to about 20,000 for alcohol and 100,000 for tobacco."

So far, so familiar.

What makes this hitherto secret report such dynamite is the implication that this inconsistency in the way society treats "substances that alter mental functioning" might be making Britain's drugs crisis worse.

Screengrab of Home Office drug documents

Screengrab of Home Office drug documents

In other words, treating malt whisky differently from mephedrone makes it more likely young people will ignore the official advice.

The report appears to support the idea that alcohol and tobacco might be included in the classification system, although "in a way which would stop short of imposing comparable controls".

The tension at the heart of this debate is clear when the report goes on to point out that:

Screengrab of Home Office drug documents

However, the suggestion that "tradition and tolerance" should guide the legal framework surrounding recreational drugs will be seized upon by those who argue that the answer to the drugs dilemma is to end the "un-British" policy of prohibition and regulate all substances based on the harm they cause.


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