Call to scrap drugs' link with penalty

MARK NICHOLLS The system for classifying controlled drugs is based on "ad hockery and conservatism" and must be scrapped, an influential group of MPs said last night.

MARK NICHOLLS

The system for classifying controlled drugs is based on "ad hockery and conservatism" and must be scrapped, an influential group of MPs said last night.

A new scale should be introduced which rates substances purely on the basis of health and social risks and is not linked to potential punishments, according to the Science and Technology Committee.

Alcohol and tobacco should also be included in the ratings to give the public a "better sense of the relative harms involved".

The MPs - including Norwich North MP Dr Ian Gibson - reached their conclusions in an in-depth report on the classification of drugs.

Currently controlled drugs are put into alphabetical categories which reflect the level of penalties offences such as possession and dealing can attract.

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The highest class, A, contains substances such as heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and magic mushrooms, while class B includes speed and barbiturates, and class C cannabis and some tranquilisers.

The committee said police saw the classification system as of "little importance" at present, and urged a "decoupling" of penalties and the harm ranking of drugs.

Dr Gibson told the EDP last night: "I think a lot of drugs are over-classified and as a result over-penalised."

The report criticised the Government's approach to classifications and said the system needed to be more "responsive" when new evidence concerning the risks of particular substances was brought to light, the report added.

And MPs denounced the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs - which provides scientific guidance to the government - for "dereliction of duty" in failing to alert ministers of "serious flaws" in the rating system.

The chairman of the committee, Phil Willis, said the current classifications were "riddled with anomalies" and "clearly not fit for purpose".

He added that there was an urgent need for a root and branch review of the classification system, as promised by the previous home secretary and Norwich South MP Charles Clarke.

Mr Willis said other recent issues within the Home Office should not mean the issue was "kicked into the long grass."

"The only way to get an accurate and up-to-date classification system is to remove the link with penalties and just focus on harm.

"That must be harm not only to the user but harm defined by the social consequences as well. It's time to bring in a more systematic and scientific approach to drug classification. How can we get the message across to young people if what we are saying is not based on evidence?"