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MPs: Scrap Useless Drug Classification

Sophie Goodchild and Angela Foster, The Independent on Sunday, 30th July 2006

The current harm-rating system for drugs, including ecstasy and cannabis, is outdated, confused and should be scrapped, according to an influential committee of MPs.

A hard-hitting report from the Science and Technology Committee, published tomorrow, is expected to say that classifying drugs within a hierarchy of harm, with A the most serious and C the least, has done nothing to deter drug use or supply since being introduced more than 30 years ago.

It is understood that MPs will highlight an alternative system suggested by scientific experts based on a "harm spectrum", where issues such as the age of the user, their medical history and how the drug is consumed are all taken into account when assessing risk.

The committee's recommendations, which will be presented to the Government, are based on evidence taken from police, scientists and experts from drugs charities. This is the first review of the current drugs classification system to be carried out since it was introduced in 1971.

Drugs are classified as A, B or C, with different penalties according to the harm caused and whether the drug is likely to be misused. The Home Secretary decides what harm rating individual drugs should be given based on evidence provided by advisers, who assess the drugs according to the problems they cause to society and users.

For example, class A drugs such as heroin and cocaine carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison for possession and a life sentence for supply or intent to supply. Class B drugs carry a five-year sentence for possession or 14 years for supply. Class C drugs, which include anabolic steroids and cannabis, carry a two-year sentence with 14 years for supply.

The classification of individual drugs can change over time if new evidence shows that they pose a greater or lesser risk to society. David Blunkett, the former home secretary, reclassified cannabis from a class B to a class C drug in January 2004 in response to advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

But his successor, Charles Clarke, came under huge pressure to move the drug back to class B status earlier this year when he was Home Secretary, following new medical evidence linking cannabis use to mental health problems.

Experts have long argued that some drugs have been placed in "arbitrary" categories that do not reflect the truth about their harmful effects. For example, some anti-drug campaigners have said that the club drug ecstasy and magic mushrooms should not be in category A alongside heroin and crack cocaine because they are less addictive.

Mr Clarke commissioned a consultation paper earlier this year on drugs classification, but this is understood to have been put on hold since he resigned from the Cabinet.

The MPs' report, called Making a Hash of It?, is understood to highlight concerns that the current system is irrelevant to modern society, where recreational drug use is widespread; it warns that the system may even be used as a quality guide by teenagers.

The drugs education charity Transform told MPs during an evidence hearing that the grading system had "failed in quite spectacular fashion", with drug use increasing over the past 45 years and illegal substances becoming more widely available.

The committee was told the grading system influenced public opinion, the media and politicians, so it was important to get it right, and that drugs were too complex to be assessed under a rigid classification system.

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