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UK: We all need to grow up a bit when it comes to drugs


i wanna be cool too!
Oct 22, 2005
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In attacking the ABC classification system for controlled drugs, as it
has in its report subtitled Making a Hash of It?, the Commons select
committee on science and technology has shot a sitting duck. The
shortcomings of an arrangement that dates back to James Callaghan's
spell as home secretary have long been evident, and in recent years the
classifications have sunk from disrepute into ridicule.
Only in Whitehall could magic mushrooms, responsible for one death
between 1993 and 2000, occupy the same category as heroin, which was
responsible for 5,737 deaths in the same period. Only in Whitehall could
chewing coca leaves also rank alongside injecting heroin, a notion which
begs the question why Bolivians are not keeling over and dying en masse.
And surely only in Whitehall could a drug be moved from one class to
another, as was the case with "crystal meth", primarily on the grounds
that it was being talked about in the papers and on television.
The terminal judgement on the uselessness or worse of the ABC system was
probably delivered by the expert witness who informed the committee: "We
do not even know if the public see that if a drug is in class A, is that
more of a deterrent or is it actually an attraction." If you are an
18-year-old who has just got straight As in your A-levels, in other
words, you might be forgiven for thinking that only a class A drug would
do for the celebrations.
The committee was more than critical of this; it was contemptuous and
vituperative. Rightly so, on the whole: much - including many human
lives - is at stake here, and an indefensible shambles has been
tolerated for far too long. Yet ministers and their advisers are
entitled to some sympathy, for this is a matter that brings out the
worst not only in politicians, but also in the media, which have an
important role, and in the general public.
The whole apparatus would not be necessary, after all, if large numbers
of ordinary people did not insist on putting poisonous substances into
their bodies. From that choice flows all the other ill-effects of the
drug abuse world - family breakdown, social corrosion, crime and the
rest. And people do this not only at considerable expense, but despite
the danger of prosecution and even imprisonment. Perfectly legal poisons
are available in the form of alcohol and tobacco but no, these are not
The point is not merely facetious. In tackling the drug problem,
ministers are wrestling with the irrational. They are also wrestling
with something that constantly changes: new drugs come along; old drugs
take on new characteristics and medical science occasionally changes its
mind about the threats that are posed. Yet ministers know that every
time they change a classification in the ABC grid there are consequences
which bear no relation to objective scientific or social judgements-
moving cannabis from the B to the C class, for example, caused hysteria
in some quarters, confusion in others, and may since have proved a
mistake on the scientific merits. No wonder they hesitate.
Both the public and the media need to grow up when it comes to
controlled drugs. This is at least as much a matter of individual
responsibility as it is of public policy, so we must educate ourselves
and our children and we must exercise cool and informed judgement.
Hysteria will not do: greeting an alteration to the classification
system as a "tacit endorsement" of this or that drug, for example,
paralyses efforts to prevent abuse and promote understanding.
This presupposes that the system itself is credible, and here the select
committee is right: the government needs to start again. More important
than the report's findings on the flawed character of the ABC system is
what it reveals of the flawed character of the entire process by which
the government is advised on these matters. No one seems to have given
this any thought, in fact, since Callaghan, and the result has been
muddle, weakness and a collapse of credibility. Ministers must create a
system that has authority and delivers information the public can trust.
If they treat us as adults, there is a better chance we will behave as

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