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Differentiation is the Key

12/09/2011

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Each country engaged in the prohibition has a system of classifying and differentiating between illicit drugs. In the UK, for example, drugs are segregated into three classes—A, B, and C—that are intended to indicate the dangers of each drug, class A being the most harmful and class C the least. In the United States drugs are classified by whether they have potential medicinal applications, with schedule 1, the most heavily controlled category, being filled with drugs with supposedly “no medical potential.”

The classification of a drug has several consequences, in particular determining the legal penalties for importation, supply, and possession, as well as the degree of police effort targeted at restricting its use. The current individual classification systems around the world have evolved in an unsystematic manner from somewhat arbitrary foundations with little scientific basis. In the UK critics have argued that the classification of drugs has become a political tool, rather than the expression of evidence of harm. A more systematic and scientific approach to drug classification is needed. Evidence must be at the core of all messages, especially to young people.

The following graph demonstrates a scientifically evaluated alternative to the current classification system. The mean harm rating by Independent experts was assessed and published in the Lancet Journal of Medicine in 2007. It was based on talks given by Prof Colin Blakemore at the Beckley Foundation’s seminars in 2003 and 2004. The scale rates each substance based on the latest scientific knowledge about aspects of harm, broken down into 3 categories: physical harm, dependence and social harm. This scale gives the general public transparent and scientifically validated data about the actual/relative harms associated with a selection of both legal and illegal substances.

As can be seen from the wide distribution of Class A drugs across the axis of harm rankings highlights the haphazard and inflexible nature of the current classification system for illegal drugs, which often bears little relationship to the real harms of the different substances. Ecstasy, LSD and MTA are all class A drugs, but they have been judged by this scientific committee to be significantly less harmful than tobacco. Similarly, alcohol has been rated as more harmful than all Class C drugs, and yet it is not a controlled substance. These results show that the Scale of Harm does not back up the A/B/C drug classification system currently used in the UK.

It is also necessary to differentiate between substances and between patterns of use. The health risks of cannabis consumption are not the same as those related to injecting heroin or smoking crack cocaine. There is also a significant distinction between natural plants on the one hand and their concentrated derivatives on the other. Coca in its natural form can be beneficial for health, while the consumption of its alkaloid cocaine in concentrated form can lead to serious health problems. In addition, there is a substantial difference between recreational use of illegal drugs and more problematic, addictive patterns of drug use. Recognising that drug use can produce a gradient of outcomes in terms of health and societal harm, drug policy reforms should concentrate on reducing the most harmful usage as a matter of priority.

The Beckley Foundation’s Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform is facilitating the development of alternative approaches to drug control in order to create more humane, cost-effective and evidence-based policies. The Initiative will assist collaborative discussion between governments interested in drug policy reform. Whilst there is widespread agreement that the War on Drugs has failed, the Global Initiative is unique in offering amendments to the existing conventions that would allow signatory countries more freedom to develop policies better suited to their special needs.

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