A blurred vision

Why the UK government has trouble drawing the line on drugs.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

Britain is having real trouble classifying its drugs. In the week that cannabis is downgraded from a Class B to a Class C drug, government adverts blast out the message that cannabis is ‘still illegal, still harmful, and you can still get a criminal record’ (1).

Indeed, the law itself is a combination of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ signals. So while the maximum sentence for possession will fall from five years to two, penalties for adults supplying cannabis will remain at a maximum of 14 years (compared to the five years for other Class Cs). There are also special efforts to protect children from cannabis, sending the message that dope is far worse than Class C drugs such as valium, steroids and slimming pills (2).

These changes have sparked a chorus of complaint about the government’s ‘mixed messages’. One survey found that different police forces planned to implement the law in very different ways (3). However, expert opinion has been as split as the government’s laws. Home secretary David Blunkett said that the decision to reclassify cannabis was taken on the advice of scientific and medical experts from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, ‘who advised that cannabis was harmful, but less harmful than other class B drugs, such as amphetamines’ (4).

Yet former drugs czar Keith Hellawell slammed reclassification, saying that the dangers of cannabis were ‘far in excess’ of the synthetic drugs (5). The British Medical Association was ‘very worried about the negative health effects of smoking cannabis’ (6), and psychiatrists warned that pot use is associated with schizophrenia. Professor Robin Murray from the Institute of Psychiatry even said that cannabis was now the ‘number one problem facing the mental health services in the inner cities’ (7).

The battle over drugs classification has only just begun. According to a recent report, government advisers are planning to review all the substances governed by the 1971 Misuse of Drugs act, which placed drugs in their A, B and C lists (8). (Heroin, cocaine and ecstasy come in Class A; speed and barbiturates are Class B.) This will open up a real can of worms. Already some are pitching for ecstasy to be downgraded to Class B, claiming that it is several thousand times less dangerous than heroin and not as addictive as other Class As.

Why has classification become such a chore? The main reason is the A, B and C classifications of drugs, which were laid down in 1971, only made sense as an arbitrary proscription. As one pharmacology professor explained, the then advisory council’s division of drugs into three categories was far from being a transparent and rational process. ‘The basis on which it did it nobody knows…. The basis on which any of the things were classified is obscure from reading the [committee’s] minutes.’ (9).

The drugs classes were lines in the sand, probably informed by factors such as the moral opprobrium or social and medical ill-effects attached to each drug. Perhaps the committee just had some common assumptions about the relative ‘badness’ of different drugs. Once these distinctions were fixed in law, they became self-reinforcing. Cannabis was henceforth seen as worse than valium partly because it was Class B rather than Class C.

Drugs law today can no longer base itself on common assumptions about the social acceptability or unacceptability of particular drugs. Nor can people be expected simply to accept the law as a moral guide.

Instead, the rights and wrongs of drug use tend to be posed in purely personal terms – as a kind of trade-off between personal harm and satisfaction. Those in favour of liberalisation of cannabis law praise its therapeutic benefits, or its enhancement of sociability and pleasure. Those opposed to liberalisation dredge up a litany of harmful effects. Even arch-moralist Melanie Phillips, arguing in the Daily Mail, based her argument against reclassification on the link between cannabis and individual distress. Phillips quoted one woman’s claim that cannabis reduced her to a paranoid, homeless wreck, unable to communicate. She quoted studies finding that cannabis causes mental illness, and even cases where suicides and murders were blamed on the drug.

Of course, Phillips’ argument falls flat. Anybody who has ever tried cannabis – and that includes about 40 per cent of under-30s – will know that it didn’t ruin their life or make them murder their wife. These kinds of horror stories might scare kids, but they’re unlikely to scare worldly adults. You get the sense that Phillips really wants to say ‘Smoking cannabis is wrong’, but is obliged to say ‘Cannabis will ruin your life’. Even the threat of a criminal conviction, it seems, has to be justified in personal terms. The government’s warning that smoking cannabis could give you a criminal record, explained that this ‘may affect your future career or holiday plans’ (10).

Once you deal only in individual pleasure and harm, drugs classification doesn’t work. The effects of a drug will always vary between individuals – depending on their character, lifestyle and willpower. Some highly successful and responsible people have a heroin habit; others may have problems with valium. This lays the basis for endless debates about the risks of heroin versus ecstasy, or cannabis versus steroids.

It is no bad thing that the lines of Class A, B and C can no longer be held. These classes were based on little reasoning and a large dose of moralism. They shouldn’t be blindly accepted just because they are the law. Unfortunately however, the confusion with drug categorisation is not leading to liberalisation. It’s not the case that the government is trusting individuals to decide how much of which drugs they want to take. Instead, there is an ever-present obsession about protecting individuals from their weaknesses and follies.

Take the change in the cannabis legislation. On the one hand, the change was a pragmatic recognition that cannabis use has become much more widespread and socially acceptable. In practise, police forces have been turning a blind eye to personal use for a while. Yet the government doesn’t want to let go – to say, ‘go ahead, smoke it if you want’. Hence all the special laws protecting children from cannabis and cracking down on cannabis dealers, and the constant insistence that the drug is ‘still illegal, still harmful’.

Britain’s ‘war on drugs’ began as a political attempt to discipline wayward individuals and lay down some social standards. This has always caused difficulties. Now, the government has ended up focusing on drugs’ harmful effects on users. Because a classification system cannot be founded on this basis, dispute will reign. Over the ongoing months and years we’re likely to see an endless debate about the relative harm of different drugs, with experts and users marshalled by both sides of each debate. Blunkett may soon regret firing the first shot in Britain’s drugs classification war.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Drink and drugs

(1) Tripping up, Guardian, 27 January 2004

(2) Ads warn cannabis ‘still illegal’, Guardian, 22 January 2004

(3) Discrepancies in treatment of offenders, Guardian, 23 January 2004

(4) Quoted in Police Drug Strategy on Source UK

(5) Blunkett ‘encouraging drug use’, IC Wales, 24 January 2004

(6) Doctors’ fears at cannabis change, BBC News, 21 January

(7) ‘Cannabis catastrophe’, Daily Mail, 26 January

(8) Penalties for all illegal drugs under review, Guardian, 27 January 2004

(9) Penalties for all illegal drugs under review, Guardian, 27 January 2004

(10) Tripping up, Guardian, 27 January 2004

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Topics Politics


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