U-turn on cannabis highlights lack of logic in ‘war on drugs’

In an early posture of toughness, new Prime Minister Gordon Brown has proposed that the downgrading of cannabis to a lower class of dangerousness three years ago should be reviewed. This attempt to display a hard line on drugs has succeeded only in drawing attention once again to the absurdity of the current system of classification of diverse illicit substances.

In 2004, Tony Blair approved the relegation of cannabis from class B to class C. This was a liberalising gesture of a piece with New Labour’s ill-fated approval of 24-hour drinking and super-casinos. Cannabis was shifted from its historic association with amphetamines and barbiturates, with which it emerged from the drug culture of the 1960s (the current classification was introduced in 1971).

Cannabis is now grouped with anabolic steroids – used by bodybuilders and athletes – and ketamine and GHB, favoured by the rave/club scene since the 1980s.

Many authorities have drawn attention to the lack of scientific basis of the classification system. Although ketamine is officially ranked in the lowest-risk category, in a rating of 20 drugs according to dangerousness drawn up by the Academy of Medical Sciences, it ranks sixth – behind heroin, cocaine, barbiturates, methadone and alcohol.

If the classification system seeks “to send a message to young people” about the risks associated with drugs, this means of sending it is ineffective. There is no evidence that cannabis consumption has increased because of its downgrading. More importantly, including a drug in class A has no effect in deterring its use.

Ecstasy, ranked alongside heroin and cocaine in the top class of dangerousness, has been used by many clubbers over the past 10 years. Magic mushrooms are also in class A, though it is doubtful whether they ever cause more than a bellyache. Amphetamines, ranked eighth in the risk-of-harm league table, remain in class B. Methylphenidate (Ritalin), a 1960s street drug now prescribed to hyperactive children, is also included in class B.

In the Academy of Medical Sciences league table of dangerous substances, alcohol comes in fifth and tobacco ninth. While recognising the cost to individuals and to society of our relationship with drink and cigarettes, I believe that we have to learn to live with other “substances” too, without resorting to criminal legislation. This means scrapping the current classification system and abandoning the counterproductive “war on drugs”.

As well as his call to review the classification of cannabis, Brown has endorsed the fashionable “drugs education”, particularly favouring its extension to primary schools. Here is another policy immune to the evidence of failure. Never mind that the spread of drugs education appears to coincide with a dramatic increase in drug-taking by school students – the government believes that we need more of the same, extended to ever younger children. Why not instead teach children something interesting and inspiring, that might give them the truly radical idea that culture and society have more to offer than drug-induced oblivion?

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is a GP in the London Borough of Hackney

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