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Feature: British Parliamentary Committee Slams Drug Classification Scheme, Calls for Evidence-Based System

Submitted by Phillip Smith on
Consequences of Prohibition
Politics & Advocacy

The British Parliament's Science and Technology Committee released a report Monday that rips into Britain's current drug classification scheme as "opaque" and urges that it be replaced with a system that is based on scientific evidence and accurately reflects actual harm to drug users and society. The current system is "not fit for its purpose," the scorching report found.

Under the current system, drugs are classified as Class A (heroin, cocaine), B (methamphetamine), or C (marijuana, anabolic steroids), with the Class A drugs considered most harmful and Class C drugs considered least harmful. Class A drugs carry a seven-year prison sentence for possession, Class B five years, and Class C two years. Sales of Class A drugs can earn up to a life sentence, while sales of Class B and C drugs can earn up to 14 years. The British Home Secretary is charged with deciding which drug goes where in the classification scheme based on evidence provided by advisors, who are supposed to weigh the problems caused by various drugs and classify them accordingly.

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It hasn’t worked out that way, the committee concluded in its report, aptly titled "Drug Classification: Making a Hash Of It? "There was a lack of consistency in the way some drugs were classified in the A,B,C system and no solid evidence to back-up the view that classification had a deterrent effect," the committee noted dryly as it released its findings. "The Committee was also critical of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the key scientific advisory body on drugs policy, calling its failure to alert the Home Secretary to the serious flaws in the classification system a 'dereliction of its duty.'"

Pointing to the recent review of the 2004 down-classification of marijuana from Class B to Class C against a steady drumbeat of tabloid hyperventilation over its alleged dangers, the committee complained that such reviews gave the impression they were “knee-jerk responses to media storms." The committee also scored the Home Office and ACMD for failing to demonstrate that the current classification system is effective and for failing to invest in research on addiction.

“The current classification system is riddled with anomalies and clearly not fit for its purpose," committee chair MP Phil Willis said in a statement accompanying the report's release. "From what we have seen, the Home Office and ACMD approach to classification seems to have been based on ad hockery and conservatism. It’s obvious that there is an urgent need for a root and branch review of the classification system, as promised by the previous Home Secretary. We all know that the current Home Secretary has other things on his mind, but that’s not an excuse for trying to kick this issue into the long grass."

If Britain wants a rational drug classification system that works, said Willis, it should forget about using it to punish people for taking drugs the government doesn’t like. "The only way to get an accurate and up to date classification system is to remove the link with penalties and just focus on harm. That must be harm not only to the user but harm defined by the social consequences as well," the committee head explained. "It's time to bring in a more systematic and scientific approach to drug classification – how can we get the message across to young people if what we are saying is not based on evidence?"

The report also calls for including alcohol and tobacco in any new drug classification scheme, and suggests they should be classified as more dangerous than ecstasy. It also attacked the government's classification of several drugs. With psychedelic mushrooms, the government reclassified them administratively as dangerous Class A drugs, thus avoiding consultation with the ACMD. That move "contravened the spirit of the Misuse of Drugs Act and did not give the ACMD the chance to consider the evidence properly."

The committee report criticized the ACMD for not speaking out on the mushroom issue, saying its failure to do speak has "undermined its credibility." The report also scolded the ACMD for never getting around to reviewing ecstasy status, which currently mis-classifies it along with the most dangerous and harmful drugs.

Drugscope, a leading British drug policy thinktank, welcomed the committee's call for an overhaul of the classification system. "The Misuse of Drugs Act is over 30 years old and the drug scene in the UK has changed out of all recognition since then," said Drugscope head Marvin Barnes in a statement greeting the report's release. "It also true that some of the decisions about placing certain drugs within the Act, such as ecstasy and fresh magic mushrooms, do not bear much scientific scrutiny. It is important that the Act more accurately matches legal penalties to the overall risk of drugs to society. Such a review was promised by the Home Office in January, but we have heard nothing about it since," Barnes chided.

But Drugscope rejected some of the criticisms leveled against the ACMD in the report. "It may be that the ACMD could have been more proactive regarding drug classification, but their many reports have helped shape the drug treatment system in the UK," Barnes said. "In particular, their recommendation about supplying needles and syringes to heroin users in the 1980s may have saved the UK from a major HIV/AIDS epidemic."

A leading mental health nonprofit, Rethink, used the report's release to clamor for more information about the links between marijuana and mental illness. Rethink’s Director of Public Affairs Paul Corry said: "In any debate about the classification of cannabis, Rethink’s main concern is that the government delivers on its promise to educate the public about the mental health risks of cannabis use," said Rethink public affairs director Paul Corry in a statement Monday. "Rethink is concerned by the lack of progress concerning this critical public health issue. We know that early-age users, long-term users and people with a family history of mental illness are at a high risk of developing psychosis from smoking cannabis – the problem is that they don’t know it because the government has failed to act on its promise," Corry argued.

The British reform group the Transform Drug Policy Foundation also issued a statement welcoming the report. "Transform welcomes the fact that the committee has taken on board the broader critique of the classification system rather than getting bogged down in a pointless debate about why each drug is in a particular class," said Transform information officer Steve Rolles. "The bigger issue at stake here is that the entire classification system is based on drug war ideology, has no scientific basis whatsoever, and does the exact opposite of what it is intended to do. We would like to see this is a prelude to a more significant inquiry into the evidence base for the criminalization of drugs per se.”

Rollins also echoed calls for the Home Secretary to act. "We also hope that the Home Office will now resume the drug classification consultation announced by the then Home Secretary Charles Clarke earlier this year, as specifically recommended by the committee," he said. "The consultation document was ready to be published but seems to have been kicked into the long grass by the new Home Secretary. The Select Committee’s withering critique makes this promised Home Office consultation all the more urgent"

The Tories are using the report to hammer Labor's drug policy and take up the "dangerous marijuana" banner. Shadow Home Secretary Edward Garnier quickly released a statement seeking political advantage. "We will study the Select Committee Report in detail, but what is and has been apparent for some time is the lack of clarity in this government's policy on illegal drugs," Garnier charged. "The downgrading of cannabis sent out the message that it was pretty harmless and will have encouraged youngsters to take it up. It is vital that we have strong and effective measures warning children of the dangers of drugs devoid of any confusion."

Labor so far has been quiet, but Labor MP Paul Flynn told DRCNet he found the committee report a useful palliative for the politicization of drug policy. "Categorizing drugs in 1971 was to be the silver bullet to cut drug use. Then there were 1,000 addicts; now there are 280,000," he noted. "Yet all political parties still cling to this duff bullet by voting in 2005 for the insanity that classified magic mushrooms with heroin and left alcohol and nicotine unclassified. Thanks to the science committee for a whiff of sanity."

With the publication of the committee report, Britain is one step closer to rational, evidence-based drug classification system. The US drug classification system is similarly irrational, placing, for instance, marijuana and LSD in the same category as heroin, but there is no sign of any such scientifically-guided approach here.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.

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