Drug Classification: Why David Nutt and the Government are Both Wrong

The government is clearly in the wrong because it appoints scientists to look at evidence and then ignores the evidence when it doesn't suit; in this case then shooting the messenger for good measure.

But David Nutt is wrong too. He apparently endorses the notion that there is or should be (the distinction is no always made clear) a sliding scale of criminal penalties according to the harmfulness of drugs. His only gripe with the government seems to be on the question of where certain drugs should be on this scale and the government's insistence on relying on prejudice rather than science in assessing this.

This question is discussed regularly in the media. The question of whether the sliding scale makes any sense seems never to be discussed at all.

First of all, is there currently a sliding scale of penalties corresponding to the harmfulness of drugs? No! Not in any meaningful sense.

Heroin is a class A drug (most severe penalties). Which health problems does heroin cause? Constipation! That's about it. Heroin is, of course, addictive but that does not mean that it damages the health of people who keep taking it. Street heroin does cause all sorts of health of problems, from infections to death by overdose, but these problems occur, by and large, precisely because heroin incurs criminal penalties and arrives in unknown strengths mixed with unknown substances in dirty syringes.

At the other end of the scale, solvents, which can cause all sorts of health problems (eg liver damage) are perfectly legal.

Just up into the scale at "C" are various tranquillisers and sleeping pills which, like heroin are addictive and like heroin have a high overdose potential.

The drugs that cause the most health problems of all - alcohol and tobacco - are, like solvents, not on the scale at all.

So should there be a sliding scale of penalties corresponding to the harmfulness of drugs? Could the scale be adjusted and made coherent?

I submit not.

Part of the problem is that the harms caused by drugs are simply too complex to represent meaningfully on an ABC scale. Some drugs, eg tobacco and cannabis (when smoked), have long term cumulative health effects on the respiratory system. Others, eg alcohol and heroin can easily cause the very short term health effect of sudden death by overdose. Despite this, and the fact that alcohol also causes lots of other long term health problems, moderate social drinking can be a life long pursuit for most people without them coming to very much grief. Cannabis (assuming some of the more worrying research turns out to be indicative of real effects) may be a particular danger for young people whose brains are still developing and less of a problem for older people. The question of how drugs are taken is also highly relevant. If you obtain your nicotine high from smoking cigarettes you stand a significant chance of contracting lung cancer. If you obtain your nicotine high from chewing gum. you don't.

But a more fundamental objection here concerns the very principle that criminal law should be used to inflict criminal penalties on people who do things that may cause them harm. We all know that drinking bleach and standing too near the edges of cliffs are extremely hazardous, but we don't feel that it is necessary or appropriate to make such activities illegal. It would be very foolish of me to begin smoking cigarettes or injecting myself with heroin every day, and I accept that it is quite appropriate for the state to discourage me from such pursuing such activities. In the end, however, it should be up to me - providing I don't inflict my smoke on others or sell my spare heroin to minors or whatever.

The only argument for making drugs illegal that seems to hold any (a priori) merit whatsoever, is the argument that illegality is likely to discourage use. The evidence for this contention is, however, thinner than a Rizla paper. Cannabis use is higher in the UK than it is in the Netherlands where users and retailers of the drug incur no criminal penalties and when the classification of cannabis was lowered from B to C here in the UK, use actually declined. The 30 odd year long war on drugs in the USA has seen an unremitting growth in the availability and use of all types of drugs whereas experiments with decriminalization in many countries have not led to explosions in use. Even if legalization led to a slight growth in consumption (which I doubt would be the case) there is still a strong argument in favour of legalization if this massively reduces the harm cased be drugs overall.

So, what should be done?

Nobody is suggesting that we put crack on the supermarket shelves. A well thought through programme of legalization would see clean drugs with regulated potency supplied in a controlled fashion to adults and an end to the black market and the huge international criminal enterprise it supports.

Meanwhile, we should increase the supply of accurate and believable information about the health (and other drawbacks) of all drugs - including the ones which are currently legal.

We have been remarkably successful at reducing the incidence and social acceptability of tobacco smoking in this country and we have achieved this without imprisoning a single smoker or tobacconist.

There has to be a lesson in that experience somewhere.

1 comment:

  1. I think a lot of the drug classifications make more sense when you think about it historically. Opium was the first drug to be considered a major social evil in the West, back in the 19th century. At the time it was unprecedented because there had been no "new" drugs since people invented alcohol, except for tobacco and coffee which are obviously much milder. I think that's why opiates are class A.


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