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October 25, 2006 - Western Mail (UK)

Legalising Drugs Is An Option The World Is Now Considering

By Dr. Paul Walker (Dr.Walker is chairman of PHA Cymru, the Welsh Public Health Association)

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The other day I found myself chairing a meeting on the topic of legalising drug use.

Reading the runes, it would seem that there is an international movement growing in opposition to the current United Nations-led universal policy of prohibition and, that by the year 2020, regulated use and supply will replace prohibition in many UN member states.

But the year 2020 is a long way away.

So can we expect any change in the present policy in the nearer future?

Interestingly, the Parliamentary Science and Technology Select Committee has recently produced a report, Drug Classification: Making A Hash Of It? (PDF Format) which calls for a major overhaul of the existing system.

The way drugs are currently categorised into Class A, B and C is done on the basis of the penalties they attract under the criminal justice system rather than on the harm that they do.

Common sense suggests that the penalties should be proportional to the harm done.

The Select Committee proposes that any classification system based on harm done must include tobacco and alcohol which together cause about 40 times the total number of deaths from all illegal drugs combined.

Applying a new categorisation system based on harm done proposed by the committee, alcohol would probably be listed as a class A drug, the fifth most harmful of all, and tobacco as a class B one, the ninth most harmful.

This report shows how illogical the whole system is and how confusing to the public.

On the basis of the current system, where drugs such as ecstasy and LSD are categorised as harmful class A drugs and alcohol and tobacco are not classified at all and are freely available, the public might reach the conclusion that alcohol and tobacco are not harmful.

This, of course, is not true and the proposed new classification system would make this apparent.

It is time for a mature debate about our attitude to mind altering drugs.

Alcohol use is legal but is increasingly problematic. Drugs such as cannabis, heroin and cocaine are illegal and, while undoubtedly they can cause problems, these are on nothing like the scale of those caused by alcohol and tobacco.

So why are they illegal when by being so a huge global criminal industry is given a licence to print money?

It is worth remembering that the United States tried alcohol prohibition and lived to regret it and repealed it.

In this country the equivalent of prohibition was introduced with the enactment of the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971.

It is time to reconsider this and see whether it is not time to go back to the pre-prohibition condition that existed in the UK before 1971.

At the very least we should initiate a mature debate on the topic and perhaps not have to wait until 2020 for a change in policy. Which is what my meeting was about.

Talking of alcohol and smoking, I was disappointed to learn at the same meeting that the biggest drinks and tobacco companies in the world are British.

It seems paradoxical that a nation that is so pre-eminent in public health research and scholarship is also pre-eminent in profiteering from harmful products like alcohol and tobacco.

And on a slightly lighter note, I also learned that the pint glass was introduced by the brewers in the 1930s to boost the sales of beer.

Apparently, until then half pint glasses were the norm.

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