March 23, 2007 / 12:10 AM / in 13 years

Illegal drugs ratings criticised

LONDON (Reuters) - Leading medical experts on Friday said Britain’s classification of dangerous drugs was arbitrary and should include alcohol and tobacco, in the second report in a month criticising UK drugs policy.

An unidentified man smokes cannabis at the Dutch Experience Cafe in Stockport, Greater Manchester, January 25, 2002. Leading medical experts on Friday said Britain's classification of dangerous drugs was arbitrary and should include alcohol and tobacco, in the second report in a month criticising UK drugs policy. REUTERS/Ian Hodgson

But the government said it had no intention of reviewing its drugs classification system, which divides illegal substances into three classes with increasing penalties for possession or distribution.

In a study published in the medical weekly the Lancet, the experts said the split of drugs into classes A, B or C was based on “prejudice and assumptions” and did not match the harm the substances cause.

The authors, led by Bristol University Professor of Psychopharmacology David Nutt, said tobacco and alcohol together accounted for 90 percent of all drug-related deaths in the UK.

“Our results ... emphasise that the exclusion of alcohol and tobacco from the Misuse of Drugs Act is, from a scientific perspective, arbitrary,” they wrote.

They said if the three-category classification was retained, alcohol should be ranked with heroin and cocaine in a revised class A — the most serious category.

Tobacco would be a class B drug, while cannabis would remain in the lowest class C category, alongside LSD and ecstasy — both currently ranked as class A narcotics.

In their study the authors asked two panels of drugs and addiction experts to rank 14 drugs by their physical harm to the user, the dependence they caused and the wider social damage they created.

The panels agreed that heroin and cocaine — both in the government’s most serious class A category — were the most harmful, but there was little agreement with the rest of the UK scale.

Alcohol, tobacco and solvents, all presently unclassified, were ranked as more harmful than class A drugs LSD, ecstasy and its variant 4-MTA.

“The fact that the two most widely used legal drugs lie in the upper half of the ranking of harm is surely important information that should be taken into account in public debate on illegal drug use,” the Lancet study authors wrote.

“Discussions based on a formal assessment of harm rather than on prejudice and assumptions might help society to engage in a more rational debate about the relative risks and harms of drugs,” they added.

The other authors of the Lancet study were Medical Research Council Chief Executive Colin Blakemore, Leslie King of the Forensic Science Service and William Saulsbury of the Police Foundation.

Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker said the government’s drugs priority was harm reduction, cutting drug misuse by 21 percent over the past nine years with a 7.5 billion pound programme of enforcement, education and treatment.

“We have no intention of reviewing the drug classification system,” he said.

Earlier this month a study by the Royal Society of Arts said Britain’s drugs laws were driven by “moral panic” and should be replaced by a more flexible system.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke promised a review of the drugs classification scheme in January last year, but was sacked shortly afterwards in a row over foreign prisoners.

By October the Home Office said it had concluded that controlling the supply of drugs was more important than changing their classification.

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