Deborah Orr: The crazy world of categorising drugs

It isn't more illegal to steal gold than to steal silver. So why is it more illegal to take one substance than another?
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How illegal should ecstasy be? Extremely illegal? Quite illegal? A bit illegal? The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs says it should be Quite Illegal. The Government is poised to ignore the recommendation of its own group of specialists, and insist that it should remain Extremely Illegal. Any debate on whether the drug should be illegal at all is quite out of bounds.

The chairman of the Advisory Council, Professor David Nutt, did make a modest attempt to launch a debate of that kind, by suggesting in the Journal of Psychopharmacology that in terms of the number of deaths and serious injuries it causes, taking ecstasy is considerably less dangerous than riding a horse.

He was, surely, making a simple point about the risks that private citizens take with their own well-being, and attempting to create a bit of space in which a discussion about danger and freedom could be had. That, apparently, is not allowed.

Professor Nutt has been given a good scolding for his temerity by no less than the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, who says she is very disappointed in him. She has apologised to the families of ecstasy victims for the comparison. Professor Nutt has been obliged to say sorry to them as well.

Isn't that a bit weird? If apologies are in order – which they are not – shouldn't the families of both clubbers and equestrians be addressed? If anything, shouldn't it be the families of equestrians alone? Their children died doing something they had every right to do, something that they enjoyed. The families of ecstasy victims are bereaved because their relatives broke the law in order to do something that they enjoyed.

If anything, Smith should be apologising because her precious laws don't protect ecstasy users. Her laws simply ensure that there is no reasonably safe supplier to buy ecstasy from, and no reasonably safe environment in which to take it. Why she feels so strongly that retaining ecstasy's class A status, instead of downgrading it to class B, will have any impact on that fact, is anybody's guess.

I can't think of any other thing that is classified in the way that illegal drugs are. It isn't more illegal to steal gold than it is to steal silver. Clearly, it is stealing that is wrong, not what is stolen. So why is it more illegal to take one illegal substance than it is to take another? Surely it is the taking of illegal substances that is wrong, rather that what is taken?

Classification is supposed to be important, because it is linked to the criminal penalties one can expect for possessing certain drugs. So, the more dangerous illegal substances are, or are supposed to be, the greater the criminal penalties for taking them are.

Yet that still doesn't quite explain classification. Why do drugs have to be grouped at all? Why can't each illegal drug be considered illegal because of its own particular risky qualities, which can be clearly explained on its own terms? Ecstasy isn't as harmful as heroin because it isn't as addictive. If people are out on the streets turning tricks because their need for a pill on a Saturday night has overtaken their entire being, then this is a phenomenon that is greatly under-reported.

The truth is that it suits the Government, this obsession with classification. It gives the appearance that Something Is Being Done, when nothing is being done. Its own obfuscations, after all, have done more to undermine any real reason there may be for classification, than any argument anyone else could make. When the Government decided to reverse its own decision in 2004 to downgrade cannabis to class C, and bumped it back up to Class B (this came into force last month). It did so under the proviso that while possession of a class B drug carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, possession of cannabis as a first offence, for a young person, would still merit no more than a reprimand at the police station. Adults can expect a warning for a first offence, or a penalty notice for disorder, with an on-the-spot fine of £80.

The reason for the reversal on cannabis was this: "Classing cannabis in Class B reflects the fact that skunk, a much stronger version of the drug, now dominates in the UK. Skunk has swept many less potent forms of cannabis off the market, and now accounts for more than 80 per cent of cannabis available on our streets, compared to just 30 per cent in 2002." Except that, legally, there is no difference between skunk and less concentrated cannabis. If you go out of your way to find a supplier that can sell you nice giggly grass, like you used to get as a matter of course, then your penalty is no different. There's no incentive to buy, or more pertinently, to sell, more benign forms of the drug. What real good does this do? It only appeases those who are against the taking of any drugs at all.

Should they be appeased by this? No, they shouldn't actually. The prohibitionists are even more guilty of failing to see the reality of the situation than the Government is. What they should be doing is explaining why it is morally wrong to take mind-altering substances of any sort.

So why are they so willing to be sidetracked? I think it is because making the moral case against individual indulgence in mind-altering substances is so very difficult. This is not illegal, per se, and those in favour of the liberalisation of the drug laws are fond of pointing out that the use of alcohol is socially and legally sanctioned, despite all the havoc it can wreak.

Again and again experts argue that it would be more sensible to classify drugs according to the harm they do. In 2006, the Science Select Committee classified 20 mind-altering substances in this manner, and suggested that alcohol was the fifth most damaging drug, after heroin, cocaine, barbiturates and street methadone, while ecstasy was the third least harmful, trailed only by alkyl nitrites and khat.

Looking at things this way, while also applying the prevailing logic, alcohol would be Extremely Illegal and ecstasy would be only A Bit Illegal. And that implacable moral case, which says that only bad or terribly misguided people ever take substances that damage them and their society in order to have fun, would be sorely tried. Arguing about classification is as easy as ABC. The implacable moral case is rather more elusive.