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August 1, 2006 - The Guardian (UK)

Editorial: Class Matters

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The war on drugs has never been winnable, and now the campaign being waged is revealed as so incoherent that it could have been designed by a general who was himself under the influence.

Controlled substances are banded into classes A, B and C, supposedly on the basis of risk, and this settles the punishments that they carry. But a report yesterday from the Commons select committee on science showed that classifications are often arbitrary.

The anomalies are staggering. Last year, for example, fresh magic mushrooms were criminalised and put in the most serious class A. Yet the drug is not addictive and not linked to crime.

Indeed, the government's drugs adviser, Sir Michael Rawlins, could give no explanation at all: the drug was in class A, he commented, "because it is there".

The law distinguishes amphetamine pills from (more harmful) preparations of the same drug for injection; yet it treats all forms of cocaine alike - from mild coca leaves, chewed and brewed across South America, to highly addictive crack.

And while the government listened to the experts on cannabis, it continues to resist their calls to downgrade ecstacy from class A.

Sir Michael said of one unjustifiable ranking that "it was not a big issue". But that is not how it will seem to anyone found in possession, as with class A status comes a jail term of up to 14 years -- as many youngsters have found to their cost.

A brutalising spell inside can snuff out a bright future just as surely as any drug, and the adverse effects go beyond the unfortunate individuals caught: the misclassifications fuel a bulging prison population, which is costly for taxpayers and detrimental to the hope of reforming dangerous criminals.

The futility of the current regime was seen last year when it was decided not to put ice (crystal meth) in class A in spite of alarming evidence, for fear that this would "increase interest" in it.

The report suggests a new scientific scale of harm, decoupled from penalties, and extended to cover alcohol and tobacco. Publicising the real risks of drugs is imperative. The government, though, may prove resistant as this more rational approach as it would raise some deeper questions.

Clear exposition of the risks of heroin would expose how medicalisation could reduce harm better than criminalisation. And including legal drugs would raise the issue of why alcohol can be aggressively marketed when people are punished for using other substances of similar danger. So for all the committee's good work, a rational drugs policy is likely to remain a pipe dream.

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