We all know and understand that the drug laws are supposedly based on the harm drugs can cause, hence the ABC classification system. What is also becoming common knowledge is that the whole thing is in a mess. It now seems that the government has been aware of this for some time and tried to get out of the mess by adopting some other measure to justify prohibition.

Re-wind to the start of the war on (some) drugs; The UN Single Convention had high ideals:

Recognizing that addiction to narcotic drugs constitutes a serious evil for the individual and is fraught with social and economic danger to mankind

“Narcotic” drugs of course came to mean all manner of substances quite unconnected with the sleep inducing properties of true “narcotics”. But it was to comply with the aims of the Single Convention that the UK introduced the mess that is the “Misuse of drugs act” – the MoD act. Right from the start the UK accepted that not all “drugs” were equal and that some were more dangerous than others. Cannabis in particular was and still is the big problem. Hence we have the ABC system which is supposed to rank drugs according to their harmfulness and thus guide the penalties to be applied for possession and trading.

The real story starts back in 2005 when Charles Clarke as Home Secretary asked the ACMD to have another look at their earlier advice to place cannabis in class C of the MoD act.  Clarke’s stated reason at the time was because of concerns about the effect of cannabis on mental health. This of course was at the height of the reefer madness V2 campaign, as reports at the time make clear; the BBC for example chose to quote Paul Corry, an activist in the RETHINK charity who claimed

At last the government has woken up to the risk they have been running of a drug induced mental health crisis,” he said. “There is mounting evidence that cannabis dramatically increases the risk of developing schizophrenia in people where there is a family history of the illness, and significantly increases the risk even where there is no family history.

Actually there isn’t but that was how the issue was being reported in the quality media at the time, the tabloids of course were far worse. So even mild cynics would suspect Clarke  referred cannabis back to the ACMD  to take the issue off the political agenda in what was after all an election year, when the Tories had been playing the drug warrior card.

Also quoted in that BBC report was Martin Barnes of Drugscope who gave a more measured comment:

It is right that the classification of cannabis, as with all drugs, is closely monitored on an ongoing basis. But we must ensure that such monitoring takes place on a rigorously scientific basis and is not motivated by political factors.

So anyway, we all know the history; the election happened, the Tories blew it, Labour got back in and Charles Clarke remained Home Secretary. Clarke was quite happy to play the drug warrior throughout all this, talking about deterrence and the need to “send out the right messages” and so on. In due course the ACMD  did it’s review and came back with the answer that cannabis should remain a class C drug and so Clarke had to stand up before Parliament and announce there would be no change.

However, Mr Clarke is nothing if not an astute  politician. He must have thought long and hard about the situation he found himself in; wanting to increase the penalties for cannabis to look tough and yet unable to on grounds of the scientific assessment of the health risks it posed. A real dilemma for a politician of his ilk.

He was also no doubt aware of the glaring twin problems of alcohol and tobacco – two psycho active substances both at least as dangerous as any illegal drugs if not far more so yet not included in the Mod act for highly dubious “cultural” reasons. He was also aware of Prof Nutt’s approach of designing a “measure of harm” index by which the ranking of drugs would be decided, He was worried that the whole MoD act stood the risk of being blown out of the water by an ABC scale which was so obviously flawed. He could see problems were coming and decided to do something about it.

So it was that on 20th January 2006 The Guardian reported

A complete overhaul of the 30-year-old system for classifying illegal drugs is to follow the decision yesterday by Charles Clarke, the home secretary, to confirm the lower class C status of cannabis. He said he was ordering the review to ensure that decisions were based on their wider harm to society and not just a health assessment of the clinical evidence.

Most people in the drug law reform camp welcomed this review, however shortly after the announcement Mr Clarke was out of government and the new Home Secretary John Reid buried the whole idea and it was never heard of again, until now that is.

The “Drug Equality Alliance” (DEA) is a group we’ve mentioned before who have been making waves of late. They have an interesting approach to challenging the workings of the UK’s drug laws, essentially their claim is that the MoD act is being applied in an arbitrary way and is unfit for purpose because of the failure to include alcohol and tobacco within the overall drugs policy. See their website for a far better explanation of what is a very complex and interesting argument. Just last week they secured an order forcing the release of the consultation paper Charles Clarke was going to publish on drug classification and which John Reid buried.

For pretty obvious reasons this could be dynamite, showing the application of the MoD act to be arbitrary and thus discriminatory, based as it clearly is on the  “cultural” acceptance of some drugs as opposed to others which is central to the DEA argument. Darryl Bickler wrote to UKCIA expressing the view that

this will reveal that many years ago govt know that the classification system was unfit for purpose, that Alcohol and tobacco were drugs that needed controlling.

Dynamite indeed. It might show something else as well; shortly after  Clarke made his ill-fated announcement of a review of policy, on 18th July 2006 the Select Committee on Science and Technology issued its 5th report, Section 7 of which was called “A scientifically based scale of harm?” and addressed the ABC ranking system. It makes this rather interesting recommendation:

We recommend that the Government … decouple the ranking of drugs on the basis of harm from the penalties for possession and trafficking.

This is probably what was in Clarke’s mind when he ordered the review. It’s a simple way out of a very real problem; the declared aim of the ABC ranking within the MoD act is to give guidance for the police and prosecutors for the relative dangers of drugs.  That is central to the MoD act and yet is so obviously not being undertaken properly. As the report states:

It is perhaps not surprising that Professor Colin Blakemore’s view of the classification system was that “It is antiquated and reflects the prejudice and misconceptions of an era in which drugs were placed in arbitrary categories with notable, often illogical, consequences”

It’s hard to think what the penalties could be based on if not relative harm though, but when a law is in this much mess the easy way out is to scrap it and start again. If you want to keep the law what would be required is the thinking up a whole new set of reasons underpinning and justifying it,  “moving the goal posts” is putting it mildly. It would be unthinkable in any other context to scrap the whole basis for the existence of a law in order to keep that law in place, but perhaps prohibition is exempt from such logic.

About alcohol and tobacco the report recommends:

In our view, it would be unfeasible to expect a penalty-linked classification system to include tobacco and alcohol but there would be merit in including them in a more scientific scale, decoupled from penalties, to give the public a better sense of the relative harms involved.

This would be laughable if not so serious. The whole thing is in such a mess it needs a total re-working but is (or was) the idea to invent some new index of drug harm that didn’t relate to the harm caused to the user by the drug? Would this new harm try to base itself on the disruption to society caused by the trade in that drug? If so the worms are virtually bursting out of the tin without it even being opened because of course the idea of a drugs index “based on their wider harm to society” as Clarke put it are clearly entwined with the  criminality caused by the prohibition laws.  A huge chasm of a hole was opening up and John Reid rammed the lid back on before it engulfed him. It was far simpler to bury the whole messy idea and hope it would go away, which it pretty well had done before the DEA came along and dug it all up again.

If they can prove their point that the government has been aware that the MoD act is not fit for purpose quite what it would mean for the future of prohibition is uncertain, but something would have to be sorted out and it’s hard to see how prosecutions under the act could continue.

The original aims of the Single convention seemed so simple, but in truth it’s a minefield. Drugs policy is slowly being revealed as  being based on little more than arbitrary decisions with little or no basis in hard fact. It’s not news to us of course and we’ve always suspected others knew it as well. On the other hand perhaps if they hadn’t included cannabis in all this drugs policy might never have become the huge social problem it is today…